Last  weekend when my friend Harold and I rode from Stinson Beach to Marshall and back we encountered a group of people riding with California Bicycling Adventures.   I looked at this one guy’s pannier bedecked bike and noticed he had a giant cog on his otherwise normal  12-28 rear cassette.  I asked him about it and he said it was a 39.  He had a triple on the front and I asked him about that and he said  his small chain ring was a 34.  I thought about that bike more than once during the inaugural  Levi Leipheimer Gran Fondo on Saturday.


I signed up for the full ride – 103 challenging miles through Sonoma County and out to the sea and back.  The race directors were brutally honest about the difficulty of this ride but I figured ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ and I’m training for  an Iron distance race so what the hell – I was all in.

The splendor of this ride is literally indescribable.  It takes you through fields and farms and vineyards, on to the redwood forests, back out to pastures where  the cattle roam free from one side of the road to the other and then out to some of the most magnificent winding ocean side highway in the world.  I’m sure the  stretch of Rt 1 we were on has been used in  more than one car commercial.   The terrain is very tough with hills on Kings Ridge Road that my Garmin measured at 21% grade (I think the official is 18%), cattle guards aplenty and the wind out at the coast was strong enough to blow me sideways. Keeping the rubber side down was a challenge.  

I’d like to say I was 100% triumphant across all 103 of those miles but that isn’t quite how it went.

This ride is the cyclists version of the Myth of Sisyphus.  That’s the one where Sysiphus was condemned by the Gods to push a rock up to the top of a hill but  just when he  got close the rock would roll back to the bottom and he’d have to go back down and start again.  In this case, the ride involved climbing until you  were sure you were ‘at the top’ only to find that shortly after starting your descent you had to head up again.  It happened over and over and over.  You would get through the worst of it only to be greeted with another, less steep but longer climb.   The descents were ferociously steep  and took place in what felt like milliseconds.  The climbs just kept coming.   It was madness but the scenery kept it from being awful.  The scenery was amazing.

The first really ugly climb is on Kings Ridge Road.  It was preceeded by a not insignificant but not terrible climb  that made me think “maybe this ride isn’t such  a big deal after all”.  Then we encountered a sign that said ‘steep climb ahead’.    I knew that the first climb was not notable relative to the real climb and that I was likely in trouble but I dug in and gave that hill what I had.  It was really, really hard and as soon as I saw people off the bikes and walking I thought – oh no  you don’t!  You keep pedaling.  However, at some point the combination of my very labored breathing and the intensity with which my heart was beating (not all  that fast but really, really hard) I bailed and started the walk of shame.  And started in with the self-loathing.

I got to a corner where there was a little bit of flat space and where my friend Sharley was waiting to take a picture of me climbing.  No such luck.  I caught my breath and got back on the bike and started in again but soon found that my willingness to suffer was pretty low so I got off again.  Crap.  This time I just walked to the next available place to re-mount and started up again and managed to do what I thought was crest the hill.  And it was a crest  – for about a few hundred yards and then the climbing started again.  I stayed on the bike this time, though and did not give up the rest of the day.  On balance I probably walked 10% of the whole Kings Ridge Rd. climb and I’m trying to just let it  go.   At least part of my rational was that I didn’t want to be the one to mar Levi’s inaugural effort by having a heart attack.  Big of me, non?

And on the ride went – it went up and it went down at ferocious and terrifying pitches.  There were signs telling you to slow down and people flagging you and calling out to you to slow down and my hands just about cramped up gripping the breaks and it was really fun and quite thrilling. And then the climbing started again.  Lather, rinse repeat.

I could try to describe the scenery. I could give you the blow by blow on the flat tire that ended my day at mile 75.  I could tell you about every rest stop and about the wind  that threatened to blow me across the road, right in front of an on-coming car. All of those things happened and my ride ended at mile 75 with the bead of my  rear tire partially separated from the rest – game over. I could tell you how both elated and sad I felt about taking a car ride over the next ugly climb on Coleman Valley Rd (I would have walked part of it but  would have finished the ride and was really sad not to be able to) but mostly what I will tell you is what I learned on this ride.

I learned, once again, that the state of California is gorgeous and has some of the best riding in the world.  I learned that there is lots of open space and there  are places where people live simple lives, nestled in the redwoods or where they work tirelessly raising cattle in fiercely beautiful places.  I saw the ocean from a new perspective and marveled at the sparkling, churning azure waters and the craggy rocks pushing up from the bottom at a pace where I could really feel  them instead of whizzing by in a car at 50 miles an hour.  I learned that I have some limits  and that if I want to transcend them I need to do some more work  but that  even with the limits I’m remarkably fit.  I learned that good friends are not so much the people you’ve known forever as they are the people who encourage you and look out for you and push you to keep going.   They are the ones who tolerate you when you are cranky and lift you up Sharley_start

I learned that there are people who really like to have fun and will ride 103 very difficult miles dressed as bees .


I learned once again to make sure that you can’t see the tube between the tire and the rim before you fully inflate the tire.  I learned that Sonoma County is a fantastic place where the  CHP, fire departments and 600 volunteers will all work tirelessly to give 3500 cyclists a fabulous day – I’d like to thank them for that.

Before the Fondo I had endless fantasies of the ride – fantasies that involved the man himself coaching me up the steepist grades and getting me there.  Hey, if  you’re going to dream, dream BIG!  The hilarity of that fantasy came into  sharp focus when we got to the aid station in Ft. Ross   We spoke to  some adorable girls who had everyone who passed through sign their volunteer shirts.     girls at reststop1 We asked if they had Levis’ signature and they said yes so we asked when he came through and they said 11:30.  It was 3:30 when we asked that question.  We only missed him by 4 hours!

Dreams and fantasies are good. They push us to do things we might not otherwise attempt.  If I had fantasized a ride in which I was unsuccessful at getting up  a hill and then had to toss it in  28 miles prematurely due to a blown tire (thereby garnering my first ever DNF)  I would probably have canceled the whole thing and just stayed home so I say dream  on.  Dream big and then do what you can to live the dream.   Without big dreams there would have been no Gran Fondo at all so thank you Levi for living large, dreaming big and making your dreams come true.  It was a great day.

This entry was posted in Accolades, Cycling, Events, Inspiration, Pain and Suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Fondolicious

  1. I’m in awe, Ms. 21.

    There were stories this weekend of a similar hill outside of Austin where just as you thought you’d crested, you’d turn and go up again…and again… but it sounds like Kings Ridge Road has it beat.

    Nice work, even if it didn’t all go according to plan.

    Now I just need to get my bike cleaned up from this weekend!

  2. M says:

    Dumb flat! *shakes fist in air*

    But seriously that report was awesome – I can only imagine how grueling yet beautiful it was. Your experience shows that sometimes the best races don’t always mean finishing. Just even having the courage to take on such a massive challenge is really fantastic!

  3. Wendy says:

    A wonderful report, and an equally fine effort.

  4. jeanne says:

    man, that sounds brutal!! 75 hard uphill miles = 103 easier ones, easily. Good for you for hanging in there for so long. And so what you had to walk a little. Focus on the 95% you did well!

    Levi is HOT!

  5. Curt says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, it was a great ride and I can’t wait for us to all get a chance to do it again next year.

  6. swtrigal says:

    oh girl, I would have been walking that mountain with you! I always figure if I can walk faster than I can ride, then I walk..Sounds like a mixed emotion day. That tire thing-damn! Beautiful pics!!

  7. Linz says:

    It was great to hear your account. Thanks so much for sharing. It is very cool to be able to enjoy the event through the eyes of another rider.

  8. Juls says:

    Love your point about those who encourage you vs those you have known for a long time. Love the pics. Love your recap. I love YOU.

  9. Donald says:

    Very cool, and very challenging- this reminds me of the Best Buddies ride I did a few times. It’s always great to see people having that much fun.

  10. Rene says:

    That’s awesome! Nothing ventured – nothing gained so dream big. Windy steep descents are scary fun!

  11. Wow – that’s a big day!

  12. fe-lady says:

    I would have been scared to death of those decents (and cramping up my hands right there with you!)
    Thanks for report and photos…it looks like a beautiful but very difficult venue!

  13. Black Knight says:

    A big day and a very interesting report. I love the pics. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Runner Susan says:

    I need to move to California. Need to.

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