There are gran fondos and then there's Levi's Gran Fondo. The original and quite possibly the best? Well, read on and we'll find out...
Levi's - now in its ninth edition, sits as the pinnacle of gran fondos in North America and it's easy to see why. 5,000 riders, spectacular roads, and scenery, and an amazing level of organization has made Levi's one of the most famous rides in the world.
All too often, fondo organizers concentrate on the ride and not all of the accoutrements that go along with making a good ride into a great event. After all, a gran fondo, on the surface, seems like a strange value proposition. Why should I pay $100+ to go and ride public roads that I can ride anytime I want for free?
Levi's, more than any other open-road event I've even undertaken has the answer to this question.
Being a large American event, the startline bravado can come across as a little jarring to a Brit such as myself. The thumping music and pants-on-fire startline announcer cut a sharp contrast against the silence of the foggy early morning. Nevertheless, the throng of over 5,000 riders created an atmosphere reminiscent of the start of a Grand Tour stage start with nervous energy fizzing in the air.
Levi's offers 11 different route options, ranging from the eight-mile family ride all the way up to the 116-mile 'Il Regno'. I had opted for the Regno, which translates from Italian as the Kingdom.
I had opted for the route with some gravel climbing options. One such track was the Willow Creek climb, which didn't amount to much more than a footpath in places. Still, the variety and sense of adventure only enhanced the day's riding. It also meant I missed out on what is reported to be a real brute of a climb in Coleman Ranch, which the 'traditional' Gran route takes you up. Even on this rugged dirt section, support motor bikes and volunteer marshalls provided technical and motivational support where needed.
From the Willow Creek summit, it was a predominantly downhill ride back to Santa Rosa. At the finish line, riders enjoyed a wide array of food, drink, and entertainment as well as a much needed lie down in the grass for some.
This is a professional event through and through yet it manages to keep the spirit and feel of smaller grass-roots sportive. The route is world-class and the friendliness and support of all of the volunteers and staff helps to keep you motivated all the way through. You'll be hard-put to find a more rewarding and enjoyable day on the bike anywhere in the world. Mark your calendars for the 2018 edition.
Registration is open for the 2018 Levi's Gran Fondo with significant changes, including a three-day festival and lower prices, promised.