To win a time trial in the Tour de France, an athlete must train hard — and pedal fast.
2007, Cognac, France
18 grinding stages of punishing climbs, feverish sprints, and harrowing descents completed, riders confront Stage 19 — the “Race of Truth.” Levi Leipheimer fights for a podium position, alongside future Tour winners Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans. There are no team tactics; what remains is the rush of adrenaline and the intense competitive pressure. After an hour of full blown hammering, it isn’t the young Spaniard or the Aussie ex-mountain biker who crosses the Stage 19 line first. It is instead a rather determined Californian — a resident of Sonoma County.
That performance not only won Levi Leipheimer Stage 19, but guaranteed his third place in the Tour de France. Leipheimer cherishes the moment, “it was above and beyond anything I thought it could be,” he recalls, “it’s kind of hard to describe.”
Amateur to Professional
Leipheimer developed a raw passion for the two-wheeled sport while growing up in a Montana mining town — by the age of 13, he was pedaling past seasoned cyclists.
Standing at 5’7” with a race weight of only 135 pounds, his power-to-weight ratio was especially beneficial when ascending steep terrain and his compact frame allowed him to achieve a hyper aerodynamic position when riding. Wind tunnel tests routinely displayed his extremely low drag numbers. Leipheimer augmented these cycling gifts by adopting a grueling and strictly no-nonsense approach to training.
As seasons passed, Leipheimer’s passion for racing intensified and eventually he considered pursuing the sport full time. His decision, to trade a college trajectory for a career in cycling, was complicated. But Leipheimer was determined, “I told myself that if I couldn’t make it work in five years, I could always go back to school, but this was the time to try to make it, as a professional.”
And make it he did. After a few years in the amateur circuit, riding in the States and Europe, Leipheimer signed with his first pro team in 1997. But back on U.S. soil, he realized that Montana’s weather was an impediment to optimum training. He was ready to relocate.
Sonoma County Resident
Leipheimer discovered his training nirvana some 1000 miles away from Montana when two of his teammates, living in Santa Rosa, invited the young cyclist to Sonoma County to check out the area. At that time, cyclists were beginning to take notice of Sonoma County’s mild weather and challenging climbs.
Leipheimer recalls, “I drove from Montana to Sonoma County in a little two-wheel drive pickup with all my stuff. I pretty much decided from the first ride that I was going to stay; that I was committed.”
Thousands of road miles later, and with a mountain of cycling accomplishments including Tour de France podium finisher and three-time Amgen Tour of California winner, Leipheimer was still just getting started. Despite hard-won battles abroad, his proudest achievement would turn out to be at home — in Sonoma County.
Gran Fondo Country
“I thought there would be maybe 500 people that first year,” Leipheimer remembers.
This was the message he pitched to the city of Santa Rosa about his plans for a local GranFondo. Despite Levi’s modest goals for an inaugural event, he felt a deep confidence in the draw of Sonoma County’s beauty and in the talent of his team at Bike Monkey.
On the morning of October 3rd, 2009, a cycling spectacle dawned in the streets of Santa Rosa. At King Ridge GranFondo’s inaugural Finley Center starting line stood not 500 but 3,500 cyclists — ready to ride with Levi. Each year, the ridership grew: 6,000 in year two, 7,000 in year three.
A Turn in the Road
Then, in an October, 2012 statement regarding USADA’s investigation of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling team doping conspiracy, CEO Travis T. Tygart announced that Levi Leipheimer, along with 10 other teammates of Lance Armstrong, had come forward to testify regarding doping in cycling.
About the 11 cyclists, Tygart said, “It took tremendous courage for the riders on the USPS Team and others to come forward and speak truthfully. It is not easy to admit your mistakes and accept punishment.”
Following a 6 month suspension from cycling, in May 2013, Levi said he “unceremoniously retired” and began “transitioning into the rest of my life.”
Commenting on this period in his professional cycling career, Leipheimer says “I’m sorry for letting so many people down who believed in fair and clean sport, and in me. During that period in cycling I and many others felt like we had no choice because nearly everyone was doing it, they were open about it and the testing was far behind…I believe that cycling is in a far better state now, in part thanks to the revelations of mine and past generations.”
In retirement from professional cycling, Leipheimer has been candid regarding mistakes made in his cycling career and encourages and mentors young athletes in the importance of making wise decisions in life and in sport.
And GranFondo continues to flourish under Leipheimer’s guidance. About the road race, he commented, “It’s not about professional cycling, it’s about sharing the love of the bike. That’s what it’s always been about.”
Now in its ninth year, Levi’s King Ridge GranFondo ridership is expanding every year and the Fondo’s King Ridge Foundation donates significant funds from registration fees to organizations focusing on at-risk youth.
The race’s economic impact on Sonoma County is substantial — 27 million dollars spent on lodgings, food, beverage, and retail; many local establishments experience their highest sales of the year during GranFondo weekend.
“Levi’s GranFondo is a challenging course that showcases some of the most beautiful locations in Sonoma County and to share that with thousands of cyclists is simply amazing,” said Joe Hughes, Sebastopol resident and GranFondo rider.
Two decades after Levi Leipheimer rode into Sonoma County with a bicycle and high hopes, the cyclist continues to deepen his roots here by actively promoting the area via GranFondo and Tour of California to the benefit of his charitable endeavors. While life may move a little slower these days, Levi’s enthusiasm for cycling remains full throttle as he rides the roads of his beloved Sonoma County.
Levi’s GranFondo 9th edition begins September 30th. See you at the starting line.