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Leipheimer leads 7,000 cyclists on annual GranFondo ride

  • Levi Leipheimer prepares to lead more than 7,000 riders across Sonoma County on Saturday during his annual GranFondo charity ride. (KENT PORTER/Press Democrat)

Levi Leipheimer took a leisurely bicycle ride across Sonoma County on a sun-splashed fall day Saturday, joined by more than 7,000 cyclists who converged on Santa Rosa for the fourth annual Levi's GranFondo charity fundraiser.

Riding in a pack with Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, fellow pro racer Tom Danielson and others, Leipheimer breezed across the finish line at Santa Rosa's Finley Center six hours and 43 minutes after setting out on the course.

That's about a 15 mph average, which is dogging it for a three-time Tour of California winner who's also posted four top-10 finishes in the Tour de France.

But Leipheimer, 38, created the event, officially called the Levi Leipheimer King Ridge GranFondo, to raise money for Santa Rosa's stage in the Tour of California — and to celebrate the joy of cycling through scenic Sonoma County.

“It was absolutely a beautiful ride,” said Todd Wesslen of Visalia after completing the full fondo, a 103-mile loop out to the coast and back that includes 8,500 feet of climbing.

“It was long and hot and hard,” fondo first-timer Wesslen said.

Alvin Poblacion of New York City, who joined Wesslen in the ride, said the fondo route “may well be the most beautiful 100 miles in the United States.”

Poblacion, an amateur racer who has competed in about 30 events this year, admitted he is not in Leipheimer's league.

At one point, Poblacion said, he was right behind Leipheimer and Danielson. “It was a casual ride for them,” he said. “I was hanging on.”

Leipheimer, who arrived at the starting line with Danielson in a shiny new Nissan 370 coupe, donned a multi-colored beanie with a gold propeller over his cycling helmet to lead the annual event that draws participants from around the world.

“We continue to be blown away by your support,” Leipheimer said, addressing the crowd of cyclists just before the ride started at 8 a.m. under cool, gray skies.

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