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Thousands gear up for pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer's fundraising ride

September 9, 2009 |  2:16 pm

Levi_california

For a look at the man behind the wheels, check out Part 2 of our interview with Levi Leipheimer, in which he discusses his healing wrist, his future with Team RadioShack and the impact of doping on professional cycling.

[Part 1 of 2] Imagine you’re a professional athlete looking for a way to raise some money for a cause you believe in.  The options are often as numerous as your Twitter followers.  You can start a foundation, host a golf tournament, maybe throw in a silent auction for good measure.

Or if you’re a pro cyclist, you could have some real fun with it and call some of your riding buddies, a couple of sponsors and 3,500 total strangers and go for a ride.

That’s what Levi Leipheimer* decided to do as a way to raise money to allow his hometown of Santa Rosa to continue hosting a stage of the Tour of California, something the city has been fortunate enough to do every year since the race’s inception in 2006.

The event is called a gran fondo; roughly translated from Italian it means big ride. It’s not a race, but rather a group ride in which the participants, often numbering into the thousands, are fully supported: a closed route on public roads; regular rest stops with food and drink; mechanics available to fix any bike malady and a medical team to fix any body malady.

Leipheimer’s iteration is called the King Ridge Gran Fondo, and it takes place in Santa Rosa on Oct. 3rd.  Leipheimer says local businesses and the city had been so gracious in their investment in hosting a Tour of California stage for the past four years that when the current economic climate threatened the possibility of a fifth year, he wanted to help out.

“It was really because of the amount of support we’ve had,” Leipheimer said from the Santa Rosa home he shares with his wife, Odessa. “We’ve had the [Santa Rosa] city government and the local businesses foot the bill for the past four years.”

Hosting the start or finish of a stage of the Tour of California is an expensive proposition, costing a municipality around $175,000.  Santa Rosa city manager Jeff Kolin, a cyclist himself, said that without outside help, allocating that much money was going to pose a much greater challenge this year. 

“We were projecting we were going to have a very difficult time raising those funds,” Kolin said. 

Which is exactly what Leipheimer wanted to avoid.  Earlier this year, when the city was submitting a bid to Tour of California organizers, Kolin said Leipheimer contacted him directly.

“He said 'I want to make sure you can meet those financial commitments,' ” Kolin said.

Levi_TdF Thus, when Leipheimer began thinking about how he could help Santa Rosa continue to play an integral role in a race that means as much to him as it does the city, a gran fondo seemed like a natural fit.

“The idea just popped in my head one day,” Leipheimer said.  “A good friend of mine, he’s done a number in Italy, and he was telling me some (cycling) pros out there have their own.  I had the idea that if there’s one place in the U.S. to have one, it’s Sonoma.  We’ve got great roads here and a lot of history with cycling.”

That history is reflected in the event’s popularity.  The 3,500 spots filled up within months and attracted people from 39 states and even England. Participants have the choice of three routes of varying lengths; the Gran Fondo, which is 103 miles; the Medio Fondo, at 65 miles and the Piccolo Fondo, at 36 miles.  Fees ranged from $75 to $115, depending on the route.

It’s not all amateur riders either.  Leipheimer has used his considerable cycling Rolodex to pull in pros from teams like Bissel and BMC.  Individuals like pro rider Axel Merckx; John Burke, president and CEO of Trek Bicycles; and Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports and Amgen Tour of California race director will don their spandex to tour the Sonoma countryside.

And before you ask, no, Lance will not be there, though he will be in spirit.  On Oct. 2nd, the night before the ride, Leipheimer will host a VIP dinner to benefit the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Tour of California.  It’s a fitting date.  Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 2nd, 1996.  Leipheimer says while the two of them were competing in this year’s Giro d’Italia, they agreed that this was the best way to tie their respective philanthropic interests together.

In addition to raising money for Santa Rosa and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a portion of the proceeds from the King Ridge Gran Fondo will go to another cause close to Leipheimer’s heart: Forget Me Not Farm of Sonoma County. 

“It’s a therapy farm for at-risk kids who had troubled upbringings,” says Leipheimer, who has long been a champion of animal protection. “All the animals are rescues.  There’s equine therapy, which helps the kids to open up, learn responsibility.” 

In fact the night before we spoke, Leipheimer attended a benefit concert put on by friend Sheryl Crow for Forget Me Not.

For those riders jonesing for a fix of Leipheimer and/or the cycling Sonoma has to offer, fear not, the King Ridge Gran Fondo is not a one-time event.  Leipheimer says he’s already planning to have an even bigger event next year, depending on the availability of resources such as parking and volunteers.  

After all, how often do you ride with pros?

*(If you’re not sure who Levi Leipheimer is, or you are and you’re curious about his thoughts on his mended wrist, his future with Team RadioShack and a possible mountain bike showdown with teammate and friend Lance Armstrong, tune in in a few days for Part 2 of this post.)

-- David Undercoffler

Photos: (Top): Leipheimer waves to the crowd after winning the 2009 Tour of California.  Credit: Denis Poroy / Associated Press

(Bottom): Leipheimer before the 2009 Tour de France.  Credit: Ian Langsdon / EPA

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