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
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. 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.