Pro cycling champ Levi Leipheimer said Tuesday that "cycling has really come alive" in Sonoma County, but "there is a lot more opportunity for all of us."

Speaking to a Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Leipheimer extolled the virtues of the county's scenic backroads, saying Sonoma County should be ranked number one in the country for bicycling.

"I really believe in Sonoma County. I think it's the best place on earth to ride a bike," he said, citing redwoods, the ocean and relatively traffic-free roads.

"I think we could be doing a lot more when it comes to promoting ourselves to the cycling industry and to the world in what we have here," he told the audience of about 75 people at the Villa Chanticleer.

"I don't want to see Boulder (Colo.) ranked above Sonoma County, because I've been there; it's not that great," he said to laughter from his audience of business people and cyclist enthusiasts.

Leipheimer said he wants to see "people scrambling to get here and check out what we have and I also want to see us lead the way when it comes to bike paths, events and hosting of events."

Leipheimer, a three-time winner of the Tour of California and a podium finisher in the Tour de France, has helped elevate the county's cycling profile, living in Santa Rosa and training throughout Sonoma County. He also has hosted Levi's Gran Fondo for the past three years, a recreational ride that has grown steadily and drew 7,500 cyclists on Oct. 1.

Modeled after popular recreational rides in Italy, the Fondo with its three different routes and degrees of difficulty begins and ends in Santa Rosa, wending through west Sonoma County.

Leipheimer said it was the first Gran Fondo in the United States and "none have come close to the success we had."

He sees it as a longterm event that could last "20, 30, or 50 years."

"I'm focused on keeping it high quality and safe for everyone," he said.

Asked about the occasional conflicts that flare up between bicyclist and motorists, and complaints that cyclists don't observe the rules of the road, Leipheimer replied, "of course there are cyclists out there who have done things wrong — blown through a stop sign or whatever it was. There are also drivers that have done the same thing, but we don't go and say &‘All drivers don't obey the law.'"Leipheimer said he has not been immune to the wrath of motorists. Those angry interactions, he said, occur all over the world and not just in Sonoma County.

"We're pretty vulnerable out there," he added. "We're just on a bike and someone is driving a 3,000 pound car. I think that sometimes they don't realize that. They're safe in their vehicle and they don't feel that vulnerability."

But most of the questions Tuesday came from amateur cyclists awed by Leipheimer's abilities and training regimen.

Leipheimer, who turned 38 on Monday, has four top-10 finishes in the Tour de France. He was asked about his mental attitude and how he endures the grueling three-week race.

He said the Tour de France was a lifelong ambition for him and he built up to it with a series of smaller races. He said a rider's nerves are frayed and adrenaline spent after the first couple days in the Tour, but "you hope for the best" and have the mentality that you will go as far as you can.

He said he has "a lot of slow twitch muscle fibers," conducive to endurance. "I'm not a sprinter. I do OK."

And despite the fatigue, at the end of the Tour, he said "as soon as it's over, you're sad it's over with."

Leipheimer praised the roads of Sonoma County for helping elevate him to the pinnacle of his sport and also prepare him for the Tour of California, which will be in May, with the first stage starting and ending in Santa Rosa.

He credited his first ride in Sonoma County in 1996 — from Healdsburg to Jimtown and Franz Valley — with convincing him to move here. "After that ride I was sold."

"The secret to my success is I could train as hard someone else could for the Tour de France, right here in Sonoma County," he said.