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‘Favorite place to live and ride a bike’: Levi’s GranFondo draw thousands of cyclists to Sonoma County

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It’s been 10 years since Levi’s GranFondo, a popular series of group bike rides for avid and aspirant cyclists alike, first began in Sonoma County.

“Can you believe it?” Levi Leipheimer, a former professional cyclist who founded the ride, asked the cheerful crowd of more than 4,000 cyclists gathered early Saturday morning at the start line at A Place To Play Park in northwest Santa Rosa.

The milestone anniversary came with several changes, transforming the one-day bike ride into a bustling weekend of activity with the addition of Sonoma Vita, a beer, wine and music festival in downtown Santa Rosa with a paella competition and 1-mile footrace.

Leipheimer honored Carlos Perez, founder of Bike Monkey, an event management company that runs the GranFondo, for taking his idea for an event and making “this a reality for the last 10 years.” Perez, for the first time, led the ride in the first few miles on an electric bike.

The event reached its 10-year mark with a successful turnout and celebration not because “we’re decent organizers,” Perez told the crowd, but because of the community and the beauty of the area.

“We have beautiful roads, we have an amazing community, we have the support of organizations that have been able to create this amazing ride,” Perez said.

Some of the changes made with the 10th anniversary pay homage to the Sonoma County community that allowed the event to thrive, he said.

“That is the food, and the wine and the beer, and the artisans, and the creators and the people who have made Sonoma County our favorite place to live and ride a bike,” he said.

Rep. Mike Thompson presented Leipheimer and Perez with a Congressional honor for their fundraising work. All GranFondo registration fees are donated to charities. Cyclists who raise $1,000 for the King Ridge Foundation, an organization that supports at-risk youth, receive free registration.

“Over the course of the last couple years, and with the natural disasters that we’ve been having — the fires — they really stepped it up,” said Thompson. “And they’ve really made a difference in our rebuilding effort, and they’ve really made a difference in the lives of everyone in our community.”

Cyclists showed up this year from near and far. James Harris, 53, came from San Jose after his doctor recommended Levi’s GranFondo. A cyclist for several years, Harris had his hips replaced three years ago and began training for the ride last spring.

Asked what he was most looking forward to during the ride, he said, “When you come over the crest and you’re coming down, looking over Highway 1. That looks just absolutely beautiful.”

Steve Desio, 54, traveled in from Massachusetts for the bike ride, and was drawn to the new Sonoma Vita festival as well.

“It’s a bucket list race,” said Desio, who usually completes about six rides a year. “The weather is perfect, great day for riding.”

Distances for the event ranged from the 9-mile family-focused route to the 117-mile “Growler.” The long courses took riders out through west county and along the coast before turning back for Santa Rosa.

Plenty of locals donned cycling gear to ride through Sonoma County and gain a better appreciation for home. Dyanna Stetina, 28, of Santa Rosa was in her fifth year riding in Levi’s GranFondo and managed to convince her friend, Kari Bunting, 27, to join for the 60-miler.

“I just started cycling this year so I’m kind of freaking out. It’s the longest ride I’ve ever done,” Bunting said.

By the afternoon, as more riders finished their routes, bikes were strewn across the Old Courthouse Square’s small lawn as cyclists basked in the sun, enjoyed plates of paella and watched the John Courage Trio on the concert stage. Courage, the band’s singer and guitarist, strutted the stage with curly brown locks and shredded his classic black Gibson, entertaining more than just ride participants.

The Santa Rosa band was the draw for Alice Ugarte, 61, and Jonathan Pool, 56, of Santa Rosa, who didn’t take part in the GranFondo, but brought camping chairs from home and set up in the brick courtyard to the left of the stage. They held hands while tapping their feet to the tunes.

“We’ve seen him before,” said Ugarte. “We come here pretty much whenever there’s live music. We bring our picnic and our drinks.”

Ryan Nestle, 33, and Jenny Dashner, 31, of Santa Rosa, rode their commuter bikes from near Annadel to Old Courthouse Square after hearing there was a weekend festival that included a concert. Nestle kicked off his shoes as the two enjoyed cups of beer and sat on the lawn taking in the sun-splashed day.

“It’s an easy, short bike ride into town,” said Nestle. “We just wanted to come down and hang out. We come down to the Wednesday Night Market occasionally and just like the Courthouse Square atmosphere.”

At least four cyclists were injured during the day’s ride in separate accidents that didn’t involve cars, according to CHP and the Monte Rio Fire Protection District. Two of those crashes occurred on Meyers Grade Road, which is known for its fast descent.

The most severe happened around 12:36 p.m., when Mark Maccombe, 52, of Orinda, was seriously injured after hitting a patch of gravel and going over his handlebars as he headed down a hill at about 35 mph, according to the CHP and Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman. He was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital about 15 minutes later with what looked to be multiple spinal fractures and a possible dislocated shoulder, said Baxman.

The other happened at the 14000 block of Meyers Grade Road about 10 minutes earlier, said Baxman. An unidentified man blew a tire in a flat area of the roadway and ended up over his handlebars, resulting in minor road rash but no hospital transport.

Monte Rio Fire responded to the Bohemian Highway at about 9:15 a.m. as well, when an unidentified woman crashed when she hit something in the road and went down, Baxman said. She suffered a cut to her forehead and road rash and was transported to Sutter Hospital.

Also, around 12:15 p.m., Suzanne Guytondavirro, 50, of Lincoln, suffered moderate injuries on Hauser Bridge Road, another steep descent that CHP Sgt. Allan Capurro said is a challenge for many riders.

An update on Maccombe’s condition wasn’t available Saturday night. A message left with a Memorial Hospital spokeswoman went unreturned.

The Sonoma Vita festival continues Sunday with the Santa Rosa Downtown Mile footrace that starts at 9:30 a.m., as well as the paella competition, musical acts and beer and wine offerings. Related road closures will be in effect.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.