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Nearly 5,000 cyclists take part in Levi’s GranFondo mass ride

Nearly 5,000 cyclists from 14 countries, and most of the United States, embarked on the 11th annual Levi’s GranFondo event early on a sunny but still chilly Saturday morning from A Place to Play park, heading out on 11 different optional routes for rides of up 117 miles.

The scene was festive, with piped-in music and a coffee van, as colorfully garbed riders of all ages gathered near the starting gate.

“This is one of the hardest rides in the country,” said the event’s founder and namesake, Levi Leipheimer, former professional cyclist and three-time Amgen Tour of California winner. “It’s about testing your limits and going beyond those limits.”

A trio of Santa Rosa cyclists, two of them riding the GranFondo for the first time and hoping to go the full distance, weren’t sure what those limits might turn out to be.

“If I make it to Cazadero before the cutoff, I’ll consider today a total success,” said Peter Kuykendall, 37, a Santa Rosa attorney. “That’s the 30-mile point.”

While the GranFondo is an endurance ride, the point of the day is not necessarily about going the farthest, or crossing the finish line first.

“Honestly, it’s the best way to see Sonoma County,” said Kuyendall’s friend Darin Brunson, 53, an anesthesiologist in Santa Rosa. “The real beauty is outside the city limits.”

One of the younger competitors, Mark Dean Williams, 27, of Santa Rosa, had ridden the GranFondo twice before and had a simple goal in mind.

“I just keep going. I just think of something I want to focus on, and go for it,” he said. “I focus on the food at the finish line.”

In addition to the ride, the day included a free public festival at Juilliard Park, where some of the earlier finishers stopped to enjoy a cold drink and some shade. By noon, the temperature had edged into the 80s.

“I’m sweaty,” said Justin Hutchinson, 45, of Seattle as he relaxed on a park bench. But he looked satisfied after completing the 35-mile Piccolo Plus route during his fourth GranFondo ride. Traveling with his wife, her sister and his brother-in-law, he rented a place in Glen Ellen and planned to follow his day of biking with dinner at a restaurant and some winery visits.

“I come every year. I think it’s a beautiful place. You’re riding through vineyards,” Hutchinson said. “I like the GranFondo because of all the kids. There are whole families out there riding, and it’s so cool. Only a few of the kids were crying.”

For Tami Bhaumik, 54, of San Mateo, who rode the 30-mile Piccolo route, it’s the professionalism of the event and its sensitivity to the cycling community that brought her back for her third GranFondo.

“I love weather and the exercise and fresh air, and I love the community,” she said. “It’s an event that brings out the best of friends. What really impresses are the services and support from the volunteers to emergency services. I feel very supported and very safe.”

One participant, a 36-year-old Santa Clara man, suffered a head injury when he crashed while approaching Occidental on a slight downhill grade on westbound Graton Road, the CHP said.

The man was about a half-mile east of Main Street around 9:10 a.m. and braked heavily, according to CHP Sgt. Allan Capurro. He was ejected and suffered at least moderate injuries to his head, though he was able to speak to officers who responded to the crash.

The man, whose name was not available, was flown by CHP helicopter to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for treatment, Capurro said.

Capurro said there were several other crashes reported, but officers who responded to the locations found no one there.

“This was the only one of significance that we’re aware of,” Capurro said, noting that the CHP had 49 officers working the event.

The GranFondo, produced by Carlos Perez and his Bike Monkey event management company, started in collaboration with Leipheimer in 2009, borrowing the title from the Italian words for “big ride.” Heralded as the first large-scale such event in North America, it peaked with 7,000 participants a few years ago. Now there are 150 GranFondos in North America.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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