Gran fondos, or, "great rides," as they're known in Italy, where they originated, are gaining serious steam in the United States in cycling circles and beyond--and with good reason. These epic rides combine the best aspects of getting on a bike: spectacular scenery, camaraderie (and a touch of competition) with fellow riders, and--most importantly--a kick-ass spread and free-flowing booze afterward. Most use timing chips, but the focus isn't so much on the finish line as it is the journey to get there.
Another appealing factor about these rolling parties: the chance to rub elbows with current and former pros, many of whom have started fondos of their own, like Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer. Plus, most gran fondos offer a variety of distances and elevations, usually from 30 miles all the way up to 100, making them ideal for any skill levels. And, good news for San Franciscans: Because Northern California is such a hub for pro and amateur riders, there are plenty to pick from, right in our backyard. Here, in no particular order, the best gran fondos in the Bay Area and beyond.
Levi's Gran Fondo, Santa Rosa
Former pro and Santa Rosa resident Levi Leipheimer helped pioneer the growth of gran fondos in the United States when he founded his eponymous ride in 2009. Since then, Levi's Gran Fondo (October 3 this year) has exploded in popularity, with several new routes added as its numbers have grown. Riders can choose from the 30-mile Piccolo, ideal for beginning cyclists with 1,500 feet of elevation gain, all the way up to the monster Gran, a 102-mile beast with 9,000 feet of elevation gain that tests even the most seasoned riders (the fastest time is just under five hours).
No matter which route you choose, though, you'll be treated to the best of Northern California cycling: quad-busting climbs, descents through redwoods, maybe even a glimpse of the Pacific. Keep an eye out for celebrities, too: In addition to big names in cycling, bike-loving Hollywood types like actor Patrick Dempsey are regulars.
Bottega Gran Fondo, Napa Valley
When it comes to the man behind a gran fondo, it's hard to think of a better candidate than Michael Chiarello: a world-renowned chef and avid cyclist who hails from Southern Italy. (The event, which takes place April 24-27, is just in its second year, but it's already sold out, so do yourself a solid and sign up now for 2016.) Everything about the Bottega Gran Fondo , named for Chiarello's award-winning Napa Valley restaurant, is world-class, from the cycling itself (choose from 40-, 55-, or 75-mile routes through gorgeous Northern California countryside), to the wine to the cuisine, with the post-ride "live fire" meal put on by Chiarello and Co.
The weekend is chock-full of events that offer the chance to rub elbows with big names in both the cycling and culinary worlds, including George Hincapie, Cadel Evans, Robin Farina, Bob Roll, and a slew of restaurateurs and winemakers.
Women's Gran Fondo, Calistoga
Billing itself as the first-ever gran fondo exclusively targeting women , this aptly named event, set for May 2, aims to "connect the top of the world of women's pro cycling to the bigger community of women cyclists," says Janaé Noble, founder of the California Girl series, which produces the event. Choose from 30-, 50-, or 70-mile routes that wind through the rolling vineyards near Calistoga. All routes follow the same initial 16 miles to the first rest stop at Lake Hennessy, with fresh fruit and catered snacks like organic bruschetta from Velo Vino and Clif Family Farms (one of the series' signatures is an eco-friendly philosophy, hence no Gu packs or the like). And there's room for guys, too, thanks to the Gran Friendo option (basically, the same route offerings, plus a special shout-out before the race for supporting the ladies in their lives).
Mammoth Gran Fondo, Mammoth Lakes
Though it's a bit farther afield for Bay Area folks, the Mammoth Gran Fondo , scheduled for September 12, is well worth the six-hour drive from San Francisco. With a route that cruises through 13,000-foot peaks, volcanic craters, and Mono Lake, known for its intriguing rock formations, this gran fondo boasts one of the most remote but spectacular routes on the fondo circuit ( Bicycling magazine named it among the top ten in the country). This year, event organizers shifted the former High Sierra Century into the gran fondo format, and about 1,500 cyclists are expected to attend. Starting and finishing at 8,074 feet all but guarantees sensational views, with a whopping 6,463 total feet of climbing.
Less challenging options include the Piccolo and Medio routes (of 42 and 70 miles, respectively); there's also a time trial race the Friday before the fondo. Fully stocked rest stops, each featuring a specially themed snack, keep the vibe festive, and the party continues at a post-ride shindig at the Village at Mammoth Lakes that includes a full buffet and DJ. And, starting at just $70, this is one of the most wallet-friendly fondos on the circuit.
Sea Otter Classic Gran Fondo, Monterey
As part of the Sea Otter Classic , billed as the world's biggest bike festival with more than 10,000 amateur and pro athletes, two excellent gran fondos offer a nice option for participants looking for a competitive, yet not too hardcore, way to join the action in Monterey during the four-day extravaganza (this year, the event ran from April 16-19). Choose from a road bike or mountain bike option; the road route follows a well-marked bike path south along the coast, though spots through downtown Monterey can become crowded (be sure to save some gas in the tank for the long, gradual ascent at the finish). Fuel up afterward with a hearty pasta meal (and complimentary beer) before checking out the hundreds of vendors.