Everything associated with Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge GranFondo is big – from the 7,500 riders to the post-ride feast, and the grand climbs in between.
Take, for example, the Coleman Valley Wall, a 1,000 foot climb, 15 miles from the day’s finish. This “beautiful monolithic challenge” is categorized as a Cat 3 climb. Here’s how the climb is described in the 2013 Rider Manual:
The Coleman Wall. The scourge of the Fondo. This is the gauntlet through which so many riders creep, leaving the Pacific fog behind to scale a pitch that would flatten the Cliffs of Insanity. Front wheels bob up and down in lockstep with pumping torsos and heaving breaths. Time slows. Some people walk, their shoes a clicky cadence. They seem lucky.
So yeah, it’s a little steep.
So, what’s a petite girl from the Midwest supposed to do to prepare for a ride with climbs like that? That’s what had Gina Rice a little concerned as she was preparing with her husband, Chuck, to head to California for Levi’s GranFondo earlier this fall.
Gina’s been riding endurance events for years now, beginning with her first MS 150 ride in Houston 20 years ago. “It’s more like the MS 190 Ride! That one is a lot of fun. It’s a big party that goes from Houston to Austin, Texas.”
Living in Houston, with its warm temperatures year-round, Gina did a lot of cycling. She added triathlons into the mix about 15 years ago. When she and Chuck moved to Chicago, they joined Chad Smith’s Wheeler Dealer team for the MS 150 Chicago. Since then, Chuck started his own team, keeping close ties with the Wheeler Dealers, and has gotten even more into cycling in the last five or so years, according to Gina.
When a guy from Chuck’s work recommended Levi’s GranFondo to the couple, and then offered them his VIP tickets for the weekend’s events, they decided to treat themselves to a trip to celebrate their anniversary.
Gina laughs when she thinks about the reactions she got from people about her trip, a “romantic” trip to celebrate her and Chuck’s anniversary and his Birthday. Her babysitter asked, “What are you doing? Riding sixty miles up and down a hill and you actually call that fun?”
In preparation for the GranFondo, Gina rode several times a week all summer, covering 50-60 miles per week most weeks. She rode maybe a half dozen 60-100-mile rides, beginning with the MS 150 in June. On our Tuesday morning Womens Rides, we threw in a few hill repeats to get Gina in the habit of dropping her gear and cranking her pedals. But would all that be enough?
The GranFondo offers riders three routes – the Piccolo covers 35 miles, the Medio, 65 miles and the Gran, 105 miles. When it was suggested to Gina that she avoid the major climbs on the ride and take the Piccolo, she scoffed. What was the point of doing a ride in California and missing the opportunity to ride along scenic Highway 1, with its sweeping vistas over the Pacific?
Instead, she and Chuck opted for the Medio, the 65-mile route. This option would challenge them with the Coleman Valley Wall, but it would not destroy them – or so Gina hoped.
Gina and Chuck had hoped to rent bikes for the ride. It turns out that NorCal, one of the events major sponsors, sells out quickly. Gina’s advice, if you’re preparing for the GranFondo, is to “really plan ahead or take your own bike.” Thankfully, our friends at Uber Bike came through, not with bikes, but with a referral. Spoke Folk in Healdsburg happened to have two bikes available, in Gina and Chuck’s sizes. Perfect!
When Gina and Chuck arrived in California, they headed straight to Healdsburg to pick up their bikes. Gina says, “If I did it again, I would take an earlier flight to spend time in Healdsburg. I wish I had had time to walk around the town.” Then sheepishly adds, “Some kind of food was being smoked there in town that smelled amazing.”
The Friday morning before Saturday’s GranFondo was a smaller ride for the event’s biggest fundraisers. The ride would take about 20 cyclists – half of whom, according to Gina were associated with Levi Leipheimer or NorCal or were professional riders – on a 20-mile ride. Among them were Andrew Talansky of Team Garmin-Sharp and Rebecca Rusch, 3x World Champion Endurance Mountain Biker and 4x Leadville100 winner, and, of course, Levi Leipheimer, 2x US Champion, Olympic bronze medalist in the TT at the Beijing Olympics and 3x winner of the Tour of California.
“You know you’re in trouble when you show up and people have kits with twelve different sponsors on them. I thought, ‘There are just way too many sponsors on that jersey.’ I need my nice little ride up to Highland Park or Ft Sheridan.” Gina laughs, “It was supposed to be an easy ride. My husband said it wasn’t a hard ride. It was a hard ride for me. They were hauling.”
Friday’s ride took them to Forget Me Not Farm, one of the GranFondo’s charities. The working farm not only cares for abandoned animals, but it also acts as a therapeutic refuge for at-risk children, including those who have been victims of abuse. Located on the grounds of the Sonoma Humane Society, the Farm offers animal-assisted and horticultural therapeutic activities that provide a haven for children, plants and animals to bond, learn and heal with one another.
Gina, Chuck and a handful of others joined Levi and friends for a ride to the Farm where they had a tour of the animals and enjoyed food that had been grown on the Farm.
“The whole event is a fundraiser,” Gina explains. From the welcome party to at Coppola Vineyards to the GranFondo itself, the event raises money for Forget Me Not Farm, Velostreet’s Community Giving Programs, The Norcal High School Mountain Bike League, Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing, Pablove Foundation and Livestrong.
The following morning, Gina and Chuck joined 7,500 other riders for the start of the GranFondo. A little nervous for the ride, Gina had sought advice from Levi’s wife, Odessa Gunn, the day before. Odessa warned her that the ride started on a narrow path and that the first 1,000 people out of the start “are just crazy and out to ride it as fast as they can.”
So, Gina and Chuck decided that if it got bad, they would pull over and wait for the first 1,000 riders to come through. But they found that wasn’t necessary. “We took off. The road narrowed and there were a couple of sharp turns. But it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t any worse than the mass start at the MS Ride.”
When they approached the first hill of the day, Gina is proud to report that “it was fine.” While she gleams with pride when she says, “I didn’t get off my bike,” it doesn’t compare to the obvious joy when she describes what follows. “You’re immediately going downhill. It was awesome!”
Hills are the one thing that Gina and Chuck planned out in advance. Chuck told Gina that he wanted to see how quickly he could get up the hills, so they made a plan. They decided to meet at the top of each climb. Gina joked, “Don’t worry about me. Unless you hear an ambulance, then you can worry.”
Then there were the downhills that followed the climbs, the parts of that ride that make Gina grin ear to ear when she recalls them. “That first downhill was so fun. I was white knuckled. I rode the brakes all the way down.”
She also speaks wistfully of 10-15 miles spent riding along the ocean on Highway 1. “It was just gorgeous.” One thing that surprised Gina was the color. “I was shocked at how brown everything was. It’s California; you’re expecting palm trees. Instead it was dry and very rocky.”
“We rode down towards the ocean. We stopped to take pictures. We stopped at every rest stop. Everybody’s very nice, of course, in a laid back, California way. And the rest stops had the most amazing food.”
Then there was the wall: The Coleman Valley Wall.
“At about mile forty [of the 65-mile route], we had a four-mile climb into the woods. You’d get to where you think you’re going to plane, where you think you’re going to stop, and you see the road go into switchbacks all the way to the top. You could see how steep it was.”
Gina’s legs, not used to climbing, and already tired from riding the day before, were burning. “I would pop off my bike and would walk maybe a quarter mile – in bike shoes, uphill, until my calves were burning – and then ride for another half mile. I think I hopped off to walk twice. “Each time you would think you’re going to get to the top, you turn a corner & there’s more.”
“For Chuck, though, well, I got to see his well-rested smile waiting for me at the top of the hill! He never stopped once all the way up.” Gina adds, “Next year, I am doing the hill-climbing tapes he used on the trainer!”
Once they regrouped at the top of the Coleman Valley Wall, it was pretty much downhill. “We rolled in. The VIP tent was right there. I was wiped.” After recovering and refueling, Gina and Chuck had a two-mile ride back to their hotel in the sunshine.
“The nice thing about ride is that it was in the shade. It’s beautiful, through shaded trees on the mountainside.”
So, the petite Midwestern girl survived her first GranFondo through the hills of Sonoma County, California. “For me, sixty miles is not a challenge flat. But sixty in the mountains is a challenge.”
Gina credits part of her cycling strength to staying consistent with her riding all summer. “Riding with [Higher Gear’s Womens ride] this summer was the best thing for me.”
And part of the success of the trip was due to “coming up with a plan ahead of time to bike with my spouse who is faster and stronger.” Gina adds, “I may have been biking longer, but he’s into it more than me. And he’s faster. A lot faster.”
“We joked about it being our anniversary trip and that our goal for the ride was to stay married.” Gina admits, “We had it all planned out so we could stay married.” She jokes that, if she ever thought she might be getting frustrated, she told herself: “Keep repeating in your head, ‘Stay married. Stay married. He means well. Stay married. It’s coming from a good place. Stay married. And don’t unintentially hit his back tire.’”
Fortunately, the couple returned safely, and, we’re delighted to report, they are indeed still happily married, stronger both individually and as a couple for the ride up The Coleman Valley Wall.
If you’re heading out to Santa Rosa or considering registering for the GranFondo, here are some useful links:
- Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge GranFondo.
- Uber Bike in Santa Rosa, CA,
- Spoke Folks in Healdsburg, CA.
- Check out the work of Forget Me Not Farms.
Gina and Chuck asked us to share this: if you’re in the Santa Rosa area, they recommend dining at The Sweet Spot, “a restaurant with best fish tacos and fried pickles,” according to Gina. “It felt like a really small Chicago bar. There are probably ten IPA’s on tap. The owner prides himself on his IPA selection. I could have eaten everything on the menu.” And if you can catch it before it’s gone –and it goes fast – try the chili. “It takes 24 hours to cook.”
And, Chuck, Happy Birthday from the gang at Higher Gear!