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.
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.
"Last year, I did it on a whim," Washington, D.C., resident Chris Kawolics said. He figured it would be fun, but that the cost and hassle of shipping his bike would mean it was a one-time trip.
"This year, as soon as the website opened up, I was on it," he said.
Fashioned after an Italian cycling tradition, the GranFondo — Italian for "great ride" — is a noncompetitive, group ride that combines fun, camaraderie, scenery and some killer hills.
The three courses ranged in difficulty from the grueling, 103-mile "gran" ride with quad-busting grades like King Ridge Road and 8,500 feet of vertical climb, to the 65-mile "medio" ride from the coast and back over Coleman Valley Road, to the "piccolo," a more leisurely 35-mile tour of pastoral Sonoma County.
Event Director Carlos Perez, publisher and editor of Bike Monkey Magazine, said it was stunning to look out on the sea of humanity gathered "because Levi Leipheimer just had a morsel of an idea in his head."
Cycling resonates with the outdoorsy, Wine Country, green lifestyle of Sonoma County, she said. The fondo's fundraising purpose also appeals to a populace known for volunteerism and supporting nonprofits. "I don't know another event that hits on all the metrics like that," Towle said.
Last year, the fondo contributed $175,000 to local cycling initiatives and stake money for Santa Rosa's role in the Amgen race. Other charities include community public service agencies and school programs, Forget Me Not Farm, where abused kids find comfort in working with animals, and Livestrong, founded by famed cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.