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They stand alone, unchallenged, the nationally recognized pillars of Sonoma County, rising up above all others, the three identifying symbols of the area, known far and wide: wine, motorsports and, the most recent construction, seemingly out of nowhere, cycling.

It?s been a remarkable emergence for cycling inasmuch as it has been done without a defining moment, without a celebrity showman out front, without the usual pomp and circumstance that announces the arrival of something undeniably transcendent. But it is here, both of its wheels firmly planted on terra firma as it were, with only one anecdote necessary to reveal that.

Two years ago Santa Rosa sports attorney Don Winkle was taking a phone call from a lawyer in Boulder, Colo.

Boulder fancies itself as the cycling center of the United States. And the reason for the call had nothing to do with the sport. Nonetheless ...

Remembered Winkle, ?The first words out of this guy?s mouth were: ?So I am calling some wannabe sports attorney from some town that wants to take over cycling.? I said to myself, ?Wow, we got Boulder sweating. We must be doing something right.?

Jealousy spawns cryptic introductions and two years later that same intro might find a few R-rated additions acknowledging that maybe Santa Rosa, not Boulder, is now the American center of cycling. It is not a reach to write that opinion or, for that matter, to claim it.

?Boulder has about nine great rides and you can only ride there about six months a year,? said Winkle, 50, an everyday cyclist. ?We (Sonoma County) have hundreds and you can ride year-round.?

How Santa Rosa and Sonoma County rose to such prominence might seem to the uninitiated as a meteorite arriving out of nowhere, and there?s some validity to that as the sport does not have the national cachet of football, basketball or baseball. Even so, the hills and forests and ocean vistas and sweeping panoramas weren?t discovered in the last year or two. Nor have bicycles arrived at about the same time as Twitter. For that matter, the urge to compete is hardly a recent phenomenon.

So what changed? And how did it change? The answer to both questions leads to a conclusion that appears as a destiny.

That cycling in Sonoma County, and this may appear outlandish, is just starting to gain traction. Yes, just starting, for even a brighter and more accomplished future is in the offing.

?It?s been so organic,? said Carlos Perez, organizer of the recently completed Levi?s King Ridge GranFondo and publisher of Bike Monkey magazine.

Organic is not just for vegetables. Organic is a naturally occurring experience that also can be applied to rubber and tubing and pedals and handlebars.

Organic, as in look at the hills, folks. Don?t you just want to go to them, climb them, descend them, stop and gawk from them, by foot or by seat? Organic is healthy, and how many tubby cyclists do you see? They get that trim pedaling in Sonoma County.

?I have my pro team and I could base it anywhere,? said Gavin Chilcott, a 1980 graduate of Santa Rosa High School and owner of the BMC team. ?I could live anywhere and have my team with me. I chose here because it is everything I want from my lifestyle.?

Yes, cycling has to start with a compelling landscape, otherwise the sport would never get out of the health club, as a stationary bike is hardly the inspiring training tool. So, the idea goes, if you are going to sweat for five hours, might as well have something to look at. Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton, among others, have thought so.

?A lot of the Who?s Who in American cycling made stops here,? Chilcott said. ?Maybe they weren?t visible (because the sport wasn?t), but they were here.?

And they spread the word on why they were here.

?For a serious cyclist,? said Winkle, a 1977 graduate of Montgomery High, ?this is like a surfer going to Oahu?s North Shore.?

But back in the day, well, there might have been scenery but it didn?t have a lot of bikes in it. Winkle and Chilcott both remember those days, in the early ?70s, when cycles on hills were as common as spider bites on the face of Beyonce.

?Cycling was viewed as this odd European sport that only odd people got involved in,? Winkle said.

Seven or eight people, Winkle guessed, were at the core of the first serious group of Sonoma County cyclists who set up residence at the now-legendary Pink Palace on Fourth Street. Seven or eight people, Winkle, Kevin and Gavin Chilcott and a few others, who rode every day. You might call them the seed money and it was small seeds indeed.

?When I was at Montgomery,? Winkle remembered, ?we had the option one year of doing something different during physical education class. I rode my bike. A coach at the school told me, ?What are you doing? Cycling really isn?t a sport.?

So putting faith in the invisible, Dave Walters opened the first serious bike shop in the area. And Walters ran the Twilight Racing Series every Tuesday night in the summer.

The word spread.

?And we began inching up the ladder,? Winkle said.

Santa Rosa?s Scot Nicol came along and started the IBIS mountain bike company. Nicol eventually would be named to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. And the word spread some more because cycling is cycling, whether on dirt or pavement.

?At one time,? Chilcott said, ?the premier mountain biking event was held at Annadel (State Park).?

Then the Coors Classic came to America in the ?80s and some of the races went through Santa Rosa. And the racers liked the view, the competition and the unique challenges. The Terrible Two is a one-day, 211-mile mountain bike race up the steepest hills in Sonoma and Napa counties. The Burnside Burn west of Sebastopol also entered into legend.

?And more logs were put on the fire,? Winkle said.

Pro teams had training camps here. Motorola, 7-Eleven and Coors Light worked out here. The Canadian National team trained here. Dave Wiens, who practically owns the Leadville Classic in Colorado, trained here. Chilcott?s BMC team is based here and trains, along with the Bissell team.

Cycling was a growing movement, however far under the radar.

Five years ago something called the Amgen Tour of California was being discussed. Cities were to be selected. Jim Birrell of Medalist Sports would do the selecting. Birrell is an avid cyclist. He also, however providentially, had cycled in Sonoma County and loved it. What a wonderful coincidence.

Oh, and some guy named Levi Leipheimer moved to Santa Rosa, set up permanent residence here and with little or no encouragement extolled the cycling virtues of his new homeland. Even enticed his Astana team and his Astana brother Armstrong to train here.

And when he wasn?t making a podium finish at the Tour de France, Leipheimer won the Tour of California three times.

?Levi has been very gracious with his time,? Chilcott said. ?He doesn?t have to do any of this and he doesn?t promote himself. He promotes Santa Rosa. He?s always plugging Santa Rosa. He could live anywhere he wants, but he has decided to live here.?

And then Leipheimer brought about the hugely successful GranFondo ride up King Ridge within just four months, with Perez riding point the whole way. Which would seem like the cherry on top.

Except, well, why not have another cherry on top of that cherry?

?Sure, we could host the U.S. National Cycling Championships,? Chilcott said. ?A Grand Prix race would be a great fit here as well. It?s very accessible, very exciting, very understandable to all types of fans. The gun goes off and the first one to cross the finish line wins. It?s a five-mile race and it keeps the spectators for five, six hours. It?s a huge economic incentive for downtown businesses.?

Chilcott, Perez, Leipheimer and Winkle are aware of a basic economic truth. Keep going forward, otherwise you find yourself headed backward. The dates and cities for the 2010 Tour of California will be announced officially on Thursday.

A hint to where Santa Rosa will land in the mix was provided last week. Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, the group that runs the event, participated in the GranFondo. Messick wouldn?t have flown up from Los Angeles to ride for three hours, in time to catch a red-eye Saturday night to Boston, if Santa Rosa was a bit player.

?I noticed a shift in the landscape after the second Tour of California,? Winkle said. ?There was a momentum shift.?

The Tour of California ? at least through Sonoma County ? no longer was a novelty. It wasn?t just for those serious cyclists who spray themselves into their form-fitting, multi-hued riding togs. It was an event, a destination, a tourist trap in the best possible way.

And cycling lends itself to the inescapable conclusion that it?s here for the long haul, because there has been no single defining moment or single prominent charismatic personality that made this happen.

A quirky novelty, after all, doesn?t travel all those miles over all those years with all those people providing sweat equity on and off the bike. A quirky novelty is a flare, bright one minute, gone the next.

That won?t happen here unless all the trees and hills and shoreline disappear. That will happen the same day Levi Leipheimer announces he is moving to Iowa to train.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky?s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com

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