For Jennifer Neeley, there are two times when the sweat, burning lungs and aching legs are worth the reward.
The first comes after toiling up and down and snaking through the folded hills along Kings Ridge Road, cresting the final rise and gazing out at the deep blue Pacific Ocean stretching out in front of her bicycle as she trains for the annual Levi’s GranFondo bike ride.
The second is modeling an active, healthy lifestyle and watching her three daughters pursue sports and fitness.
“I don’t know where else you can ride down to the Pacific and feel like you’re flying,” she said. “It’s all about giving more time to health and setting a good example for the kids.”
But Neeley, a Guerneville development specialist, hasn’t always been a lean, pedal-pumping specimen of fitness. For that, she can thank her Lucky Stars and the GranFondo, which is winning over hearts and minds to the cycling revolution that is sweeping Sonoma County.
Four years ago, Neeley founded a cycling team for west county women called the Lucky Stars. The GranFondo, a 100-mile charity bike ride started by Santa Rosa cycling legend Levi Leipheimer, was coming back to the west county hills for its second year. Though she hadn’t mounted a bike in two decades, Neeley wanted in.
“I said, ‘I want to set a goal and do this,’” said Neeley, 42. “I saw people, cyclists, who were really fit and I said, ‘I want to ride the GranFondo.’”
She knew the training would take hard work. And she knew she couldn’t do it alone. So she recruited some friends, and soon the Lucky Stars, as they started calling themselves, had a Facebook page and spreadsheets detailing their workouts.
The team, now 19 strong, rides in matching, star-covered Wonder Woman-esque jerseys.
“We’re so lucky to live here,” Neeley said, explaining the name. “And we’re stars.”
The team trains year-round and participates in other North Coast rides, but the big red circle on their calendar is always the Fondo, which this year takes place Oct. 4. The route heads west from Santa Rosa through Sebastopol, Graton and Occidental before making a grand loop up to Kings Ridge Road and back down the coast on Highway 1.
It takes in the tiny, secluded hamlet of Cazadero, where residents were not always thrilled with having 4,000 bespandexed cyclists whipping through town. But some of the Lucky Stars are from Cazadero, and they were able to convince their neighbors of the event’s benefits.
The Fondo brings tourists to town with money to spend on vacation rentals and restaurants. The organizers have also given nearly $100,000 to Cazadero’s schools and rural fire districts.
The Lucky Stars have been great ambassadors for the Fondo and for cycling in general, said Greg Fisher, an organizer of the event.
“The Lucky Stars live and work in the community,” he said. “What they’ve done is show that cyclists aren’t other people. They are neighbors. Yeah, they look a little funny with their clothes, but they’re not strangers.”
Christine Canelis of Cazadero was one of the Lucky Stars members who, early on, helped to spread the good will. She said Cazaderans have warmed up to the cyclists.
“They were concerned about traffic on King Ridge Road, but they realized it’s all going to be okay,” she said. “They’ve accepted it now.”