Story by James Knight/Photos by Alex Chiu
No great surprise that the first-ever Jensie Gran Fondo of Marin was a big success. Held on October 10, the biking event had a lot going for it: A charismatic host, incredible West Marin roads and a perfect early October day.
But I sure was surprised to find I’d made it 70 miles to the finish line before they rolled it all up. Me, just a bike commuter—who works from home.
The ride kicked off at Stafford Lake Park, in a quiet little valley east of Novato. Headliner Jens Voigt, a legend in pro cycling who retired from racing in 2014, pumped up the crowd for the 8am start.
“If it weren’t for the Tour of California he may have retired from cycling many years ago,” Scott Penzarella, owner of Studio Velo in Mill Valley, told me earlier this year. “He has stated that he loves California many a time.” Penzarella, on the board of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC), helped to connect with Voigt and get the Gran Fondo rolling. The ride was a benefit for MCBC’s bike safety and advocacy programs.
Although the inaugural Jensie was just the junior of Levi’s Gran Fondo, with some 1,200 riders compared to 7,500, they seemed to form an uber-peloton indeed.
But when would it start moving? Minutes had passed, and we were still standing in the staging area. The peloton was arranged with Jensie and the Founder’s Club, the ride’s $749 elite level, in the lead, followed by those who had signed up for the 100-mile Shut Up Legs route and the 70-mile Presidential. I’d ended up in the middle of the 40-mile Breakaway group, which was just as well. A friend, who I’ll call “Mr. Century” because he recently tackled the 100-mile Best Buddies ride in San Simeon, had condescended to hang back and help me out on this one.
Then I saw the flow of riders snaking east through the park, then, farther out, west, climbing Novato
Boulevard. They’d started out all right—seems it just takes a while to get 1,200 riders moving.
“Thank you for making us feel like we’re in the Tour de France!” one woman shouted out to the volunteers, waving flags at the starting line.
It was a postcard-perfect Marin County morning as the fog clung to clefts in the hills, and we rode past cow pastures up a gentle slope, traffic-free thanks to CHP controlling the roll-out until Point Reyes-Petaluma Road.
Far ahead of us, the competitive types were racing to establish their time rank, recorded digitally from chips embedded in seat post tags that entrants were given at check-in. But I would have continued blissfully pedaling along with the yellow-tagged Breakaway bunch if my friend, having had enough of the lollygagging, hadn’t pulled out way ahead.
But later, as I paused in the middle of a long, steep climb through the redwood forested hills, a group of fellow riders asked if everything’s OK. “I’m just waiting for ‘Mr. Century,’” I said.
I’d trained for this ride, if you could call it that, on my commuter bicycle with a leaky tire. But when I brought it in to the Trek Store of Santa Rosa for a new tube, they set me up with a Domane 4.5 store demo bike just for this ride: A carbon frame endurance bike with dual hydraulic disc brakes, 700×25 tires, and Shimano 105, 11-32, 11-speed cassette. What some of that means, I’m not sure, but it means the bike ate up the inclines like foie gras, leaving “Century” in the dust.
There was no stopping in bike-friendly Fairfax, site of this weekend’s Biketoberfest event on Oct. 17. “They’re going to make us work for that first rest stop!” A woman says to me as we climb south out of town. It’s a well-chosen route: Car traffic is minimal after a few miles, until it’s mostly the Gran Fondo support vehicles. There are a number of flat tire changers on the side of the road, but the event sees no major emergencies.
Hoping to avoid one, I reluctantly passed on 21st Amendment Brewery’s offer of beer at the first service stop. Where were they on the last one? Two service stop provided water only, three offered tasty hummus and falafel bites, cookies, fruit and fig bars. Possibly oversold was a promise of the “best food Marin County has to offer” at the gourmet service stop at Point Reyes Station—I’m thinking grilled oysters and Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir, right? But Equator Coffee’s cold-pressed brew helped me to make it back to Stafford Lake Park for a hearty German-style lunch of brats and sauerkraut catered by Farm Shop, and a pint of Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’.
I was feeling fairly fleet on the descent to Alpine Lake Dam, when a small group cheering on riders at the end of the dam said, “So, are you the last ones?”
At the top of the next ascent, through steep, fern-shrouded slopes in the redwoods, a message written in chalk on the road, Jens Voigt’s signature phrase: “Shut Up Legs!”
Breaking out into the sunshine for the Seven Sisters leg, the views just got wider: The fog rolled back over the Pacific to reveal Stinson Beach and Bolinas Bay far, far below. Then, the white-knuckled zoom down to sea level, the disc brakes chattering.
A cadre of cow bell ringers greeted riders at the finish line, assisted, after he returned, by Voigt himself with a shout out: “Welcome back home!”
Voigt’s time was seven hours, 30 seconds, but his actual time on the bike was five and a half. Where’d the extra hour and a half go? The gregarious pro cyclist was meeting and greeting and taking selfies with some of the faster folks, like Bohemian ad director Lisa Santos, who tamed the ride in five hours (4.44 hours she says, according to the activity app Strava).
Rolling in almost two hours later, I place as finisher 301 out of 321 men riding the Presidential 70-mile route. So is this a younger person’s game? Not exactly. The top two finishers were separated by two minutes—and two decades of age category. And from the top 10 finishers on the female Breakaway route, seven are over 40.
But the legs were not shutting up, even for Voigt, the retired pro admitted to the crowd at the finish line. “I’m good for two hours, I’m good for three hours, I’m good for four. But when it gets to five hours—my legs are tired!”