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Leipheimer leads 7,000 cyclists on annual GranFondo ride

Levi Leipheimer prepares to lead more than 7,000 riders across Sonoma County on Saturday during his annual GranFondo charity ride.

KENT PORTER/Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 9:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 4:51 p.m.

Levi Leipheimer took a leisurely bicycle ride across Sonoma County on a sun-splashed fall day Saturday, joined by more than 7,000 cyclists who converged on Santa Rosa for the fourth annual Levi's GranFondo charity fundraiser.

Riding in a pack with Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, fellow pro racer Tom Danielson and others, Leipheimer breezed across the finish line at Santa Rosa's Finley Center six hours and 43 minutes after setting out on the course.

That's about a 15 mph average, which is dogging it for a three-time Tour of California winner who's also posted four top-10 finishes in the Tour de France.

But Leipheimer, 38, created the event, officially called the Levi Leipheimer King Ridge GranFondo, to raise money for Santa Rosa's stage in the Tour of California — and to celebrate the joy of cycling through scenic Sonoma County.

“It was absolutely a beautiful ride,” said Todd Wesslen of Visalia after completing the full fondo, a 103-mile loop out to the coast and back that includes 8,500 feet of climbing.

“It was long and hot and hard,” fondo first-timer Wesslen said.

Alvin Poblacion of New York City, who joined Wesslen in the ride, said the fondo route “may well be the most beautiful 100 miles in the United States.”

Poblacion, an amateur racer who has competed in about 30 events this year, admitted he is not in Leipheimer's league.

At one point, Poblacion said, he was right behind Leipheimer and Danielson. “It was a casual ride for them,” he said. “I was hanging on.”

Leipheimer, who arrived at the starting line with Danielson in a shiny new Nissan 370 coupe, donned a multi-colored beanie with a gold propeller over his cycling helmet to lead the annual event that draws participants from around the world.

“We continue to be blown away by your support,” Leipheimer said, addressing the crowd of cyclists just before the ride started at 8 a.m. under cool, gray skies.

“It felt great riding down from the hotel taking up a whole lane,” Armstrong told the crowd. “It felt like we owned the road.”

TV star Patrick Dempsey turned out for his fourth straight fondo. The fondo is not a race and Dempsey said he was not trying to prove anything.

“It's a great thing to do,” he said. “It just clears your mind.”

Also in the celebrity pack was former San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, considerably slimmed down from his playing days.

From Santa Rosa, the riders headed west to Occidental, where they broke three ways for the 35, 65 and 103-mile rides, the latter including the notorious King Ridge segment of tortuous climbs, thrilling descents and stunning coastal scenery.

It took 35 minutes for the field of riders to cross the starting line under a large black inflated archway.

As they passed by announcer Dave Towle, some called out their home towns, underscoring the event's international appeal.

Switzerland, France, England, Brazil, Turkey and Rwanda were among the foreign nations. Cities ranged from Macon, Ga., New York and Washington, D.C., to Weed, Mill Valley, Oakland, Sacramento and Santa Rosa.

Cyndi Yoxall and Michele Habeeb pedaled their bicycles in from Sebastopol to take on the 65-mile medio route.

“It's got Coleman Valley — awesome,” Yoxall said, referring to the steep climb up Coleman Valley Road from the coast toward Occidental.

Habeeb said she didn't know the length of that uphill challenge. “Feels like 100 (miles),” she said.

But Yoxall said they felt good enough to pedal more in 2013.

“We're thinking of doing the gran next year,” she said.

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