Why pro cyclists say Sonoma County is the place to ride
Most people around these parts refer to Sonoma and Napa counties (and maybe sometimes Mendocino if we’re feeling generous) as Wine Country.
In the cycling community, however, the region is starting to be known as something else: Ride Country.
The phrase, instituted by cyclist and professional athlete Laura King, is a nod to the rolling farmland, steep mountains, flat valleys and temperate weather that make this part of the U.S. perfect for cycling. It also reflects the increasing number of pro cyclists who feel Sonoma County has established itself as one of the world’s foremost destinations for riding bicycles on roads and gravel.
Head out on any given Saturday or Sunday and you’ll likely see several phalanxes of professional and semi-professional cyclists zipping around corners and treating the great outdoors like their personal Pelotons.
Many of these professionals also recently have started participating in programs that let them share their love for cycling with locals and visitors to the area.
“If you love cycling, I can’t imagine a better place to be than right here in Sonoma County,” said King, who is married to professional cyclist Ted King and splits time between Healdsburg and their home in Richmond, Vermont. “On any given day, I can get on my bike, ride in any direction, seek out something different and know that I’m going to have an epic ride. There aren’t many places on Earth where you can do that.”
Nirvana for bike nerds
To some extent, the truly hard-core bike nerds have always been around in Sonoma County.
Former U.S. National Champion and Olympic medalist Levi Leipheimer famously lived in Santa Rosa for years until he recently moved to the Sierras. Before Leipheimer hit it big, now-disgraced cycling hero Lance Armstrong used to train here with his team, the same team that helped him win the Tour de France seven times between 1999 and 2005.
The Kings, both 38, have been pedaling the roads of Sonoma County for years. Ted King trained here when he was competing on the Professional World Tour, and he fittingly met Laura during a ride on, you guessed it, King Ridge.
The duo now organizes scheduled private rides as ambassadors for Mill District, a Healdsburg mixed-use real estate development that is cultivating its own cycling group called Mill District Velo.
The Kings arrived in Healdsburg with their 1-year-old daughter, Hazel, last month and are in town to lead rides through the bulk of May. Most of these rides are private — only for Mill District partners and prospective buyers of homes in the Mill District development. Some of them, however, like one on May 14, are open to the public and are an opportunity for cycling fans to get some ride time with the pros.
“These events really are inclusive to everyone,” Ted King said. “The idea is to get out there and remind people what a great cycling destination this really is. Promoting local cycling culture doesn’t get more authentic than that.”
Cycling pros with connections to the local community are engaging with the public in other ways, too.
When Peter Stetina retired from the Grand Tour in 2019, the 33-year-old Santa Rosan became the first international pro cyclist to leave the tour to ride and race on gravel. He calls himself a “privateer,” a cyclist who races but without team support. He’s also a poster child for the burgeoning gravel biking movement in the cycling industry.
“Riding on a gravel bike instead of (a bike made for) paved roads allowed me to explore so many more nooks and crannies,” he said. “It’s a bit more a tale of following your passion and trusting yourself and going a little bit against the grain.”
Earlier this spring, Stetina partnered with a Healdsburg hotel group to offer guests one-of-a-kind cycling adventures and customized routes to explore the region’s natural beauty on wheels. One of the packages includes a private guided ride with Stetina for up to four people on a route tailored to guests’ skill levels and preferences, plus a two-night stay in Hotel Healdsburg, the Harmon Guest House, or h2hotel, for $1,765 and up for four people.
It’s an indulgence, but the chance to ride with a professional could be a draw for pro cycling fans. Guests at the hotel who don’t go for that option can instead bike routes based on Stetina’s suggestions, but without a guide.
“The idea of ‘cyclotourism’ is to give guests their best experience,” he said. “It’s nice to have local intel.”
For every cycling-hotel stay package booked at the hotel, a $400 donation will be made to provide a new bike, helmet, lock and cycling experience to a local child in need through the B-Rad Foundation, which creates kids’ leadership programs and community-based environmental stewardship projects on the Sonoma Coast and the Island of Kauai.
Just plain riding
Cycling phenom Tyler Williams, 26, moved to Santa Rosa to train when he was 19 and has been here ever since.
Currently, Williams rides for UCI Continental team L39ION of Los Angeles, a team run by two Black brothers and renowned for its commitment to advocating for inclusion and diversity across the sport.
When he’s not competing, Williams is pushing pedals all over Sonoma County.
He said his favorite ride is Fort Ross Road — specifically a five-hour, 100-mile loop from his place to Occidental, then Cazadero, taking Fort Ross Road to Jenner and returning along Coleman Valley Road. He’s ridden all over the world but said the variety of landscapes and temperate weather of Sonoma County make this region his favorite place to ride.
Williams also makes himself available to the public. In his free time, he volunteers with Team Swift Junior Development, a nonprofit community-based bicycling organization for kids age 10-18. He plans, once COVID-19 is behind us, to resume a tradition of Tuesday night “twilight” rides with amateurs and professionals, starting from the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and usually lasting three to four hours, or until riders have had enough.
“Anything to promote cycling to local people,” he said. “Anything to help people recognize how we lucky we are to live where we do.”