It wasn't a crowd Saturday, those 6,059 people on bicycles. It was a jam session. It was a town the size of St. Helena (5,960) passing under a 40-foot wide inflatable arch. It was Stony Point Road turning into a Manhattan sidewalk during a lunch break. It was Levi's GranFondo, which carried the same idea behind it as stuffing 20 college kids into a Volkswagen. Could everyone fit?
They did. The rumor, however, was that they were pedaling. Not true. Not at the start. They were on a half-mile conveyor belt, everyone traveling the exact same speed. After all, one doesn't jockey for position with 6,058 people around you. The participants were quiet, respectful, non-combative, like they were holding a candlelight vigil without the candles.
"Boulder would never be able to pull off something like this," said Dave Towle, the event's public address announcer and a resident of that Colorado city. That is no small statement since Boulder likes to think of itself as the hub of American cycling, as well as the testing ground for anything with human-powered wheels.
That fact was never more obvious than when I asked Adam Asnes which of the three rides he was taking Saturday.
"I'm taking the long route," said the software company executive. "I'm from Boulder, you know."
I happened to mention that the Santa Rosa area likes to think of itself as the center of U.S. cycling. I just tossed up a softball for Asnes to hit.
"A lot of places think that way," Asnes said, "but Boulder really is it."
Asnes' opinion notwithstanding, Towle commands a load of respect. He has been public address announcer for all five Tours of California. He's been the voice for the last seven U.S. Nationals, the last seven Tours of Ireland. He is well-recognized and respected in the cycling community for his knowledge as well as enthusiasm for the sport. The enthusiasm shone through when Towle yelled to the crowd Saturday: "Welcome to Space Station Santa Rosa!"
Flowery verbiage aside, Towle feels that what sets Santa Rosa apart from Boulder is the sense of community behind the event.
"The level of the commitment from the community is off the charts," Towle said. "I mean, the skill set of the people running this belongs in a Fortune 500 company. Instead, they are holding a bike ride."
Other cities hold charity functions and that's all to the good. But Levi's GranFondo feels personal, like asking 6,059 people over for a barbecue. Only a big, small town could do that, achieve that level of intimacy while having the resources to manage 6,059 riders. Add another thousand to that number, said Carlos Perez of Bike Monkey, one of the event organizers. It takes another thousand of support personnel to pull this off, be they volunteers, medical, fire, police or logistical workers.
"We have no outside support," Perez said. "We didn't go somewhere else to hire someone to run this. We don't have a company working for is. We are it."
"It" being 15 paid workers. Fifteen people who are on salary. That's it. Fifteen people who took one idea from one man, and now look what's happened. It was 3,500 riders last year. It's 6,059 now. Mister Leipheimer would like to see 10,000 riders one day.