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Thousands of cyclists take to Sonoma County roads during GranFondo

Pumping their fists and shouting out hometowns, home states and individual nations as they rolled across the start line — Estonia! Chile! Norway! El Salvador! — 7,500 cyclists pedaled off on Levi Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo with palpable joy and enthusiasm Saturday.

Like a Pied Piper on two wheels in a red, black and white Team RadioShack jersey, pro racer and hometown hero Leipheimer exhorted the crowd to stay safe and enjoy.

"This is the best day of the year for all of us," he said, a grin on his face.

2011 Levi Leipheimer King Ridge GranFondo

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The inaugural year in 2009 sold out at 3,500 riders. Last year, 6,000 participants signed up. This year, the number jumped to 7,500, and every spot was snapped up.

The day was marred by several crashes, with helicopters taking one rider from Hillsborough and a couple from Canada to the hospital after they spilled on the steep and demanding King Ridge Road.

But for the vast assemblage of cyclists, the GranFondo has become a celebration not only of cycling, but of a community that turns out to embrace the sport, support the event's charitable causes and celebrate one of the nation's most beautiful cycling destinations.

Along with the Amgen Tour of California, which starts next year in Santa Rosa, Levi's ride tells the cycling world it is welcome here, organizers said.

"It's so much more than a bike ride," said master of ceremonies David Towle, a nationally known cycling announcer in his second year at the GranFondo microphone.

The start was smooth, if prolonged, once Towle launched the third annual ride with a booming "Andiamo!"

It took a little more than 30 minutes for the last bicycle to reach the starting gate behind a sea of riders spread across both northbound lanes of Stony Point Road. Many had taken up positions more than a hour earlier to make sure they set off with the faster riders.


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