My wife gave me a spot in Levi Leipheimer’s 2010 King Ridge Gran Fondo for my birthday this year after I didn’t take the opportunity to join the inaugural event last year . Actually, it was the Medio Fondo — only 63 miles — instead of the 105 grueling miles of the big ride with the man himself, which was a smart move considering that about 99% of my bike time is completely flat commuting or running errands  around town.  I got up early on Saturday morning and biked the 6 miles over to Finley Park in Santa Rosa as a warmup and was met by an amazing sea of slick bikes, spandex and helmets glinting in the early morning sun.  I didn’t know exactly where I should join the crowd, so I went along the line until the rider’s average age seemed to be at least as high as mine and the bikes were a bit less fancy.  I later confirmed that I had found the right spot for the “Intermediate Expert” riders.

At 8am, the professional riders were lined up at the front. The announcer cued the Star Spangled Banner (“as you’ve never heard it before” — unless you were old enough to know the very similar Hendrix redition) and then led the crowd in a countdown. A few minutes later, we started moving forward — inching at first, then reaching a ridable speed shortly after passing under the start/finish arch.  Once we were out on the open road, I had six very humbling miles with hundreds and hundreds of strong, young cyclists whizzing by me. Fortunately the average speed dropped way down once we hit our first hill just west of the Laguna de Santa Rosa and I was going the speed of my nearby fellow riders for the rest of the ride, except the uphills, where my gearing gave me a boost.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The fogless morning was just the right temperature — chilly enough to make my jacket feel good in the redwoods and warm  (and windless) enough at the coast to let us thoroughly enjoy the splendid view of the Pacific. Even we had some traffic on Hwy 1, there were relatively few vehicles and I, like a lot of the riders, reveled in swooping in and out of the turns without worrying about worrying about having to compete with a lot of motor homes taking up the whole lane.

Nearly all the riders took a breather at the rest stop a mile before the dreaded Coleman Valley Road hill. This stop, like the others, was chock full of energy boosters ranging from PB&J sandwiches to bananas to various Clif products, as well as water, all served by a legion of cheerful, red-shirted volunteers. I saw surprisingly few people I knew over the course of the entire ride, but I ran into an acquaintance of mine who was riding as a course marshal and he was pleased at how well everything seemed to be going.  I, too, was impressed by the level of organization; his only suggestion for next year’s event — after hitting a pothole — was to have scouts cover the routes just before the ride to mark dangerous holes and other hazards.

We were now at the 35 mile mark. The pace slowed to a crawl as the riders turned up Coleman Valley Road and hit the hill. For the first time, some riders were pushing their bikes. My gearing once more gave me an advantage and I gave into to my competitive impulses (I later noted that I’d paid for it with knees as I hobbled up and down our stairs). Familiarity with the hill probably helped too as I rode to the top where a crowd had gathered. While they were probably resting from the climb, I learned that I had passed Patrick Dempsey, the Grey’s Anatomy actor and one of the Fondo’s celebrity riders.

With the big hill behind us, we cruised through the twists and turns of Coleman Valley towards Occidental. Fearless, young riders screamed past us more cautious cyclists as we descended the steep grade into town; they somehow avoided cracking up at the bottom. From there, only a couple of smaller climbs before descending to the Laguna and the Santa Rosa Plain for a a final push back to Finley. As I rode the last mile along the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, my knees were complaining and I was pretty saddle sore, but everything felt pretty good again once I crossed the finish line, parked my bike and exchanged my meal ticket for a heaping plate of paella.

The King Ridge riders started arriving in bigger numbers while I ate, as well as more riders from the shorter rides, including a spandex-bedecked six year old that I saw at the very start. A ten year old allegedly rode King Ridge, but I was long gone by the time he would have come in. The party at Finley carried on long after I left, but I was ready to get home even though it meant another six miles to ride.

I look forward to riding next year — hopefully with the whole family. Most of the riders seemed to be in groups and ironically, my ride was rather lonely. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful ride, my bike and body both held up very well, and everyone was in a great mood. Thanks, Levi! (and Carlos, Cheryl and the rest of the BikeMonkey crew!) See you next time.