I had the pleasure of participating in the King Ridge Gran Fondo a couple weeks ago. Being a Nor Cal girl living in the SoCal world, as much as I adore where I live, there is nowhere more beautiful in my mind than the bay area and north along the coast. I have been training to complete the Death Valley Century at the end of October. Unfortunately I had to abandon that training. My health problems reared their ugly head again this summer and after demands from doctors and much pleading from my husband I have decided to withdraw. I am not the kind of girl to DNF. I know that I would push my body beyond my limits to reach that finish line, and that would just not be wise.But I didn’t want to waste 8 months of training. I was regularly riding 50+ miles on the weekend and knew I could easily complete a metric. I happened upon the Levi Leipheimer King Ridge Gran Fondo. But this King Ridge Gran Fondo wasn’t just any metric for me. It was climby. Very climby. And I am not a climber. I knew I could do the mileage but those hills might be the death of me.
I remember driving the Bohemian Highway and the 101 in the back of a station wagon as a kid. Dad was a BIG Sunday drive kind of guy. I can still remember my mom screaming “SLOW DOWN KEN!” as Dad took those hilly hairpin curves. Would I dare attempt those on skinny tires? You bet.
I cheated a little installing a new SRAM Rival WiFli 11-32 cassette and rear derailleur on my Cervelo to help with the climbing. And climbed every hill around here I could in the three weeks left before the ride. But nothing prepared me for what was ahead.
After driving up from SoCal and checking into a fleabag hotel in Rohnert Park (I like to think of it as part of the experience, but I may have contracted scurvy), packet pickup was ahead. Seeing the signage for the race and all my fellow riders was amazing. The race organization was impeccable and I had my packet, had wandered around and was out of there in 20 mins. It was time to hit the Russian River Brewery for some carbs and food. If there is one thing cyclists love its beer and that place was packed full of racers.
The race started at 8am the next morning. You stage yourself on the honor system and by the time my group wound our way out amongst the 7500 riders it was almost 840. The sense of excitement and joy to do this race was in no way dampened for anyone and we took off into rural Sonoma county.
Winding thru the beautiful farmland and wineries was exquisite. I realized at the end of the race I had never turned my music on, between the comaraderie of fellow riders and SO MANY local residents that turned out with cowbells and signs to cheer on riders, there was no need for distraction.
Just a couple pics above I snapped from that stage of the race....
And then the climbing hills began. 6% for 2 miles, 8% for a mile, rolling hills, steep downhills with hairpin turns. It was challenging and exhilarating, but so worth the effort. I can’t tell you how many times stronger riders passed me cheering me on -and sometimes offering a push - My avg speed there was 5-8 mph. I was losing some of the time I had made on the flats but I just kept plugging away.
After the Bohemian Highway we came out of the hills on the gradual downhill towards the coast. It got misty and foggy and was everything I hoped it would be. Winding along the 101 on a 2ft shoulder with the sea cliff next to me and a crosswind blowing sounds bad, but it was SO GOOD. It was a little scary at points on the curves and I almost lost it once but I made it to the rest stop before what would be my nemesis: Coleman Valley Road.
Pulling into the last rest top, there were busses and trucks. Lots of them. People encouraging that if you weren’t able to make it up Coleman to drop out. That this would be your last chance. THIS was not a good sign. I figured it was time to get some food and get back on my bike before I lost my nerve. As I left, Levi and crew pulled into the SAG stop. He had ridden about 40 more miles than me at that point, but whatever!
After a pleasant, CHP aided left turn across the 101 Coleman Valley Road rose in front of me. A one lane country path covered in gravel, cattle grates and potholes. This was a ROAD? And it just kept going and getting steeper and steeper. I slowed to 3.4mph. Who knew you could ride that slow and stay upright? But I plugged away. Rode with the Team in training folks and gladly accepted the push from one of their mentors. I could finally see the top and was ecstatic. That was horrible, but doable. Where were the 22% grades? Where was the road? And then I looked left. The hill looked like a wall to me. Literally. About that time, some of the first century riders started to pass me. I took a break at the bottom of that hill and wanted to cry. This was like nothing I had ever done before. I had missed my bus. I had to get out of this mess on my own two feet. I got back on my bike, got a running start up the hill courtesy of a turn out and pushed with all my might, only to stop dead in my tracks. I could not cycle up this hill. Physically could not do it.
I gathered my ego and got off and started to walk. It took me 74 mins at 2.4 MPH to push my bike up that hill, but I did it and have no problem with it. Of course there were many of us walking. Even still some of those century riders still said “Nice job! Don’t give up!” I guess even the strongest athletes can relate to facing your greatest challenge.
Finally I reached the top and hit the water station. My plastic cleats were trashed and I could barely clip in, but I made quick adjustments and started riding. I had time to make up. I started riding all out thru inland Coleman Valley, rolling hill after rolling hill. Trying to stay above 16mph. Along the way, I heard horns behind me and moved to the right. All of a sudden a group of riders in Red and black were next to me and the lead rider looked over and said “Good Job!”. It was Levi! That made my whole day.
I finished the ride in just over 7 hours total time. My goal was 6.5 hours. I am in no way disappointed with my efforts. I enjoyed the race so much I plan on going back next year, hopefully to hit the full 100 miles.
My observations about the race....
- Organization was impeccable. I cant say that enough. Plenty of people and marshalls along the way to help if you needed it not to mention local firefighters and law enforcement helping to keep riders safe.
- The course was fantastic. Thought I did find the final miles along the river trail a little mind numbing.
- Nutrition along the course was great with plenty of food options, water and porta potties. Even with sinks!
- The festival at the race finish was great with great complimentary food (paella!) and enough booths to occupy friends and families. Once of the most amazing thing was access to a hot shower. It was fantastic to clean up and enjoy the festival out of spandex. The awards presentations was even fun. Professional cyclists out to support Levi. Not to mention Patrick Dempsey. He’s easy on the eyes.
- There were LOTS of women participating. This may be a nor cal thing, but I was tickled pink. I hardly ever see the ladies riding here.
- The town of Santa Rosa was a great host!
In closing, I can’t say when I have enjoyed riding my bike so much. Everything about the experience - even my failure on Coleman Valley Road - was monumental.
All Hail King Levi! See you in 2012!