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Thousands converge on Sonoma County for GranFondo

  • Alex Brookhouse trues a wheel on Tuesday at Echelon Cycle and Multisport in Santa Rosa as the company readies bicycles for Saturday's Levi's GranFondo. (KENT PORTER/Press Democrat)

Ranging from casual riders to the elite, 7,500 cyclists from around the world are converging on Sonoma County this week for Levi's GranFondo, a mass ride on Saturday morning that will take participants from Santa Rosa to the coast and back again.

"We still have a strong local following," said Greg Fisher of Bike Monkey, the event organizer. "But we have riders from Taiwan, Australia, several countries in Europe, Brazil, we always have a strong Canadian contingent and I feel pretty sure that we got 48 of the 50 states."

The ride, officially the Levi Leipheimer King Ridge GranFondo, is the creation of Santa Rosa professional racer Levi Leipheimer. The event was initially designed to raise money for the city of Santa Rosa's cost to host the Amgen Tour of California but has evolved into Sonoma County's signature cycling event.

"It is where we are, it is what this area offers," said Marc Hagenlocher of Santa Rosa, a former professional rider and friend of Leipheimer, describing the draw of the ride.

"There are some places you ride and it all looks the same. Here you are in grassland, dairy land, then alongside the vineyards and sweeping vistas that look down the coast," Hagenlocher said. "It is like you are doing a dozen different rides, and they are all spectacular."

Now in its fourth year, the event will draw a list of notable riders that includes Leipheimer, professional racer Tom Danielson, two-time Olympic gold medal winner Kristin Armstrong, TV stars Patrick Dempsey and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, hockey player Mike Richter and ex-Giants star Barry Bonds.

Given the egalitarian nature of an event that is patterned after rides in Europe, the GranFondo is mainly for the non-famous. Although riders are timed, the event is not a race, but rather a celebration of bicycling on a route noted for its intensity and beauty.

"I am riding a low-end specialized hybrid," said Maggie Miller of Santa Rosa, a 57-year-old mom who has ridden in every GranFondo. "That is what I like about the Fondo. You can be somebody like me, and you can also be a top-of-the-line rider. It is for everybody."

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