If you know professional road cycling, you know Levi Leipheimer. And you probably like him. It’s hard not to like Levi. If you don’t know professional cycling, you probably haven’t heard of him but that’s ok, we get it. Let me fill you in.
Levi Leipheimer grew up ski racing in Butte, MT, the son of sporting goods store owners. Remember Butte? Home of Evel Knievel, and the Berkley Pit Superfund site of course. Well, a ski racing accident turned Levi toward road biking which eventually led him out of Butte and onto the world stage as a premier athlete. After picking up 2 National Championships, the Tour de Suisse, 3 Tour of California's, The Pro Cycling Challenge, and a bronze medal in the Olympics, Levi retired to his adopted hometown of Santa Rosa, CA.
To cycling aficionados Levi’s kind of a big deal, and often seen as one of the ‘good guys’. No need to go into that part of the story, it’s been told… a lot.
After retirement, Levi opted out of just spending his days sipping cappuccino before another leisurely ride up and down the iconic Northern California roads. Instead, Levi set out to create something special in his own backyard with friend Carlos Perez. Perez is the owner of Bike Monkey the event organizer behind Levi’s Gran Fondo, Peter Sagan’s Fondo, and many other regional cycling events.
Levi’s GranFondo was born and since 2008 the event has been the preeminent granfondo in the US attracting upwards of 7000 riders in its heyday. Most are eager to climb the famous King Ridge, earn the descent down to the California coast, and will themselves back inland to the Santa Rosa finish line. The classic route is 102 miles with 9000’ of climbing!
But the event is much more than an elite sufferfest for the super fit. From the beginning, Levi and Carlos wanted the ride to be a gateway for cycling and an opportunity for the whole Sonoma community to set, achieve, and celebrate a realistic goal of their own on two wheels. And that’s what really makes this event special. You can line up with the big dogs who are looking to turn themselves inside out to stay with Levi at the front, or, pick one of the shorter distances to bite off a fondo that’s right for you. Options start with the 8 mile Family Fondo :)
Of course it’s exciting to see the pro riders twitching at the front of the pack before unleashing a blistering fast rip around the route. But it’s more inspiring to see throngs of ‘everyday’ cyclists nervously awaiting the opportunity to turn what they thought was impossible into the possible. No matter the distance, everyone lines up together and everyone starts together. It’s epic to be on the start line with that many cyclists and you need to put it on your punch list!
And you also need to know this… the event has raised over $2.5M for at risk youth through The King Ridge Foundation 501c3 sister organization! Wow!
The event organizers behind Levi’s GranFondo have always been leading the way with large scale cycling festivals and this year was no exception. Ready to take the event to the next level for the 10th anniversary, organizers rebranded the event as the Sonoma Vita Festival, moved the finish line party and adjoining expo to the Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa, and layered on a music festival, beer and wine tasting, and more vendors. It was a great move period, but this year’s community celebration had a very special feel to it considering the one year anniversary of the massive Tubbs wildfire, the most destructive in California history.
Only days after we left Levi’s Gran Fondo in 2017, we were watching stunning footage of the “firestorm” that claimed 22 lives and 2800 homes around Santa Rosa… including Levi’s home.
As we drove into Santa Rosa this year, the story came to life as we passed hundreds of construction sites, complete neighborhoods being rebuilt, each site with an RV parked adjoining it. Sonoma County passed an ordinance allowing people to live in RVs while they rebuild. What other choice did they really have?
Right, that’s where our story comes in. Bike Monkey organizers have always been forward thinking with their events and searching for ways to bring out more families and inspire the next generation to find all the benefits of a childhood, and adulthood, on two wheels. The bike has clearly had incredible positive impact on Levi as well as his partner Carlos who has two young kids of his own, both who can really shred on two wheels. No surprise they put effort into the kid scene at Sonoma Vita. But like so many other organizers, the length of their to-do-list rivals the GranFondo course and it’s hard to figure out exactly how to entertain families in attendance.
Enter Buddy Pegs. After attending Levi’s Gran Fondo for the past two years, we knew there was more to offer beyond selling our books and merchandise. So with the move to downtown SR, we pitched two big ideas to our long time friend Kris Lunning, Bike Monkey Director of Partnerships, former pro road rider himself, and ex-FItzgerald’s Bicycles ace mechanic. Kris rocks and has been incredibly supportive of our efforts to grow Buddy Pegs and inspire more families to ride.
Left to Right: Scott Fitzgerald (me), photo bomber, Dave Bergart, King Ridge Foundation Program Manager, Kris Lunning, Bike Monkey Director of Partnerships
We thought it would be great to celebrate with the families who come out to ride the 8-mile Family Fondo. I mean, this is where a life long love of cycling begins! Let’s not casually let these moments pass, let’s celebrate them. Remember our buddy Plato, “What is celebrated in a community is cultivated there.” We’re trying to cultivate more people on bikes right? Plato was pretty smart right? It’s a simple playbook to follow so let’s follow it!
Whether a child pedals the course on their own, or gets towed across the finish line in a bike trailer, it’s an experience worth celebrating. Like our tagline says, Little Moments, Big Memories. And what better way to celebrate your first 5000 person group ride than a big ‘ol pancake feed!?
But not just any pancake is fit for a celebration. You need the best! Which is why we reached out to friends at Kodiak Cakes to help support the idea. And boy did they! With an avalanche of pancake mix and event support, the Family Fondo was officially renamed theKodiak Cakes Family Route and Pancake Bar andhundreds of kids and their parents enjoyed a whole grain re-fuel once they crossed the finish line.
Awesome! Plus, we just really love bringing good folks together and the opportunity to facilitate a new relationship between Kodiak and Bike Monkey was just that.
The team from Fork Catering knew just what to do!
Quality Control Check!
We wanted to use this event as a way to get #morekidsonbikes, so they say. And since we have been developing our Bicycle Playdates over the past year, we had just the answer! “Hey Kris, how about we offer Bicycle Playdates to a small group of families to kick off both Saturday and Sunday and then open the area up to all families with kids 6 and under to enjoy our Bicycle Playground?” Kris and his team thought it was a great idea, quickly carved out over 3000 sq ft for the Buddy Pegs family ride zone, and our first California Bicycle Playdate and Bicycle Playground was on like Donkey Kong (Dave Toll announces Levi’s Granfondo in case you get the reference).
The fact is, the littlest kids at events usually get left out of the fun. Adults are having fun drinking beer, listening to music, and wandering the expo. The older kids have some free reign to explore, romp around, and check out the scene (don’t ask what they get into - better to not know). But the little kids are shackled to Mom and Dad and bored out of their mind. At best there’s a bouncy house to ‘survive’ but that’s usually it.
Watching adults ride bikes, and then watching them talk about it for hours, is not exactly the best way to get kids fired up about biking. Booooooring. We knew we could do better than that and we did!
And how’d it go? Holy smokes…. It was incredible. Over 125 kids throughout the weekend enjoyed kicking and pedaling around the Bicycle Playground - most were on new demo bikes thanks to our partnership with woom bikes USA. These guys make the best kids bikes out there today and it really shows when you see a child go from there department store bike, aka ‘bicycle shaped object’, onto a woom. It’s like they get instantly transformed into a better, more confident rider.
Without sounding too braggadocious… I must say that our Buddy Pegs Bicycle Playground anchored the family fun at the Sonoma Vita Festival. When it was all over, our friend Kris said, “You guys were the busiest activity at the whole event! Where do you think all those little kids came from?” Ahhh, and there’s the big takeaway for all the event organizers out there. You have armies of little kids at your event already. You just don’tsee them unless you gather them together. And you know what… if you give them something to do you will not only drastically increase the likelihood those kids will become lifelong cyclists (aka your future customers) but you will also greatly increase the loyalty their parents have to your event (aka your current customers).
My Mom has always told me, “take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” I know Mom, I need to get better with my financial planning. But that expression is not only about cents, it’s about sense. And it just makes sense to take care of the little ones at every event. Because if you take care of these little pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.
We took so many amazing photos of the Buddy Pegs Bicycle Playground it’s hard to share them all. I hope you enjoy scrolling through some of the ‘best of’ below!
And lots of thumbs up of course!
The BEST part of my job!
This Dad said, "You know, maybe biking is his thing. And I've been thinking about getting into it too."
Biking is not always a formal affair... but sometimes it is!
J9 in her element.
Stuffed animals are our secret weapon.
It's not only about the ride. It's about connecting.
Monster goes here.
The last rider....
And then it was time to pack it up and...
Go ride the Santa Rosa Pump Track!