By Neal Rogers
It wasn’t a race. There was no prize money or podium ceremony. But crossing the finish line first Saturday at Levi Leipheimer’s inaugural King’s Ridge Gran Fondo, presented by Road ID, was a victory of sorts for Scott Nydam.
On a sunny, if breezy, October day in Santa Rosa, California, the Team BMC rider who lives in the area was the first to finish the 103-mile Gran Fondo, one of three distances covered by more than 3,500 participants.
The performance was the closest thing resembling professional racing since May for Nydam, a friend and training partner of Leipheimer’s, who suffered a head injury in a nasty spill at the SRAM Tour of the Gila. The crash was the second head injury for Nydam in 2009, following a crash at the Amgen Tour of California in February, and he was been kept from racing on doctor’s orders since.
Nydam rode the entire distance at the front, which eventually whittled down to a group of four men — two professional road racers, Nydam and Bissell’s Paul Mach, and two professional mountain bike racers, Max Plaxton (Sho-Air-Specialized) and Kris Sneddon (Kona).
Sneddon was first to drop off the group, and after Plaxton suffered a slow-leaking tire, only Mach and Nydam remained.
Nydam said he and Mach, who is preparing for the October 11-17 Herald Sun Tour in Australia, had different agendas. While the Bissell rider was content to put in a hard training day by taking long pulls in the wind, Nydam was happy to be in a simulated race situation, and to feel close to his former self.
With all riders forbidden to sprint in the final meters due to speedbumps on the road, the separation between the front two riders came in the final kilometer when Nydam got the jump out of an officer-controlled traffic light. He cruised across the finish line alone, with a time of four hours and 48 minutes, a time, Leipheimer said was 25 minutes faster than his Astana team had ridden it at a pre-season training camp in late-January.
Other notable names from the professional racing circuit who participated included Garmin-Slipstream’s Lucas Euser, Bissell’s Burke Swindlehurst and retired pro-turned-director Eric Wohlberg, Webcor’s Kathryn Curi Mattis and husband James Mattis of the amateur Cal Giant Berry Farms team, former U.S. Postal Service rider Dylan Casey, retired pro-turned-LiveStrong team director Axel Merckx and off-road stars Mark Weir and Brian Lopes.
Asked if it “winning” a non-competitive event peppered with current and retired pro riders was an objective of his, Nydam laughed, “It wasn’t an objective of mine, but it was an objective of Levi’s. I think he wanted to keep it in the family, so to speak.”
At Gila, Nydam hit the deck and suffered a right frontal lobe contusion. He’s since been focused on recovering combined with light training, though he has been forbidden from racing due to the consequences of another blow to the skull. And though he shows no outward affects of the injury, a recent seven-hour neurological evaluation revealed Nydam still suffers symptoms of slight cognitive damage.
Asked if he feels that he’s back to 100 percent following his head trauma, Nydam answered, “physiologically, yes, but there are still some symptoms. But in some ways I feel better than 100 percent. I don’t take anything for granted now, and I’m paying a lot more attention than I used to.”
Nydam is engaged to marry his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer McKenzie, on October 17, exactly two weeks from the Gran Fondo date.
Leipheimer rode with the front group to the top of the day’s first of two major climbs before dropping back to socialize and thank volunteers at the several rest stops along the route.
“To see my friend Scott Nydam, who I train with on these roads, as the first unofficial winner of the first King’s Ridge Gran Fondo, to me, it just fits,” Leipheimer said. “He’s a local guy, and a good friend. He’s had a tough year, but he’s kept his chin up, and I’m happy to see him as the first guy to finish, with a very fast time. The gauntlet has been thrown down.”
With brilliant sunshine, a well-organized staff and enthusiastic participants, the success of the sold-out first-year event was impossible to deny.
At an impromptu press conference, a beaming Leipheimer said, “In some ways this event was 13 years in the making, from my first rides here. I have to tell you, I’ve ridden these roads in 100-degree heat and sideways rain, alone and with friends. These roads have broken me down and built me back up, and made me into a better cyclist. But I have never had as much fun as I have today.”
Leipheimer attributed much of the event’s success to Carlos Perez of BikeMonkey, which organizes several local mountain bike and cyclocross events and publishes a quarterly magazine, but had never pulled off an event of this scale.
Perez said the Gran Fondo’s “small army” of 600 volunteers “exceeded the number of participants at our largest event.”
He added that the hardest part of organizing the event was the limited timeframe. Discussions didn’t truly begin until late February, giving him just six months to prepare. Though the City of Santa Rosa was on board from the beginning, facilitating the process, and although the event seemingly went off without incident, Perez said he planned on using all 12 months to prepare for 2010, adding that dates and routes would be announced in “the coming weeks.”
Also participating in Santa Rosa was Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the Amgen Tour of California. Messick rode the 65-mile route alongside Merckx, former USA Cycling president Jim Ochowicz and 1984 Olympic medalist Steve Hegg.
Messick quickly left the event after finishing to fly to New England to participate in the Patrick Dempsey Challenge in Maine Sunday. Though Messick wasn’t on hand to confirm it, when asked about the likelihood of Santa Rosa returning as a finishing town at the 2010 Amgen Tour of California, a smiling Leipheimer said, “I think it’s out there now. But just in case, let’s say it looks very good for Santa Rosa.”
With the possibility of Leipheimer’s RadioShack team returning for its training camp in January to ride on the same roads — “We’re gonna try,” he said — Leipheimer’s pseudo-announcements of the ATOC route status and possible return of Lance Armstrong was the icing on the cake of a day that, for cyclists and Santa Rosa alike, looked very good.
“This exceeded my expectations and hopes,” Leipheimer said. “I can’t believe it. The support I received. It’s overwhelming.”