Nearly 5,000 cyclists from 14 countries and most of the United States, embarked on the 11th annual Levi’s GranFondo event early on a sunny but still chilly Saturday morning from A Place to Play park, heading out on 11 different optional routes for rides of up 117 miles.

The scene was festive, with pipe-in music and a coffee van, as colorfully garbed riders of all ages gathered near the starting gate.

“This is one of the hardest rides in the country,” said the event’s founder and namesake, Levi Leipheimer, former professional cyclist and three-time Amgen Tour winner. “It’s about testing your limits and going beyond those limits.”

A trio of Santa Rosa cyclists, two of them riding the GranFondo for the first time, and hoping to go the full distance, weren’t sure what those limits might turn out to be.

“If I make it to Cazadero before the cutoff, I’ll consider today a total success,” said Peter Kuykendall, 37, a Santa Rosa attorney. “That’s the 30-mile point.”

While the GranFondo is an endurance ride, the point of the day is not necessarily about going the farthest, or crossing the finish line first.

“Honestly, it’s the best way to see Sonoma County,” said Kuyendall’s friend Darin Brunson, 53, an anesthesiologist in Santa Rosa. “The real beauty is outside the city limits.”

One of the younger competitors, Mark Dean Williams, 27, Santa Rosa, has ridden the Gran Fondo twice before, and had simple goal in mind.

“I just keep going. I just think something I want to focus on, and go for it,” he said. “I focus the on the food at the finish line.”

In addition the ride, the day included a free public festival at Juilliard Park, where some of the earlier finishers stopped to enjoy a cold drink and some shade. By noon, the temperature had edged into the 80s.

Relaxing on a park bench. Justin Hutchinson, 45, of Seattle confessed. ‘I’m sweaty,” but he looked satisfied after completing the 35-mile Piccolo Plus route during his fourth GranFondo ride. Traveling with his wife, her sister and his broth-in-law, he rented a place in Glen Ellen, and planned to follow his day of biking with dinner at a restaurant and some winery visits.

“I come every year. I think it’s a beautiful place. You’re riding through vineyards,” Hutchinson said. “ I like the GranFondo because of all the kids. There are whole familes out there riding and it’s so cool. Only a few of the kids were crying.”

For Tami Bhaumik, 54, of San Mateo, who rode the 30-mile Piccolo route, it’s the professionalism of the event and its senstivity to the cycling community that brought her back for her third GranFondo.

“I love weather and the exercise and fresh air, and I love the community,” she said. “It’s an event that brings out the best of friends. What really impresses are the services and support from the volunteers to emergency services. I feel very supported and very safe.”

The GranFondo, produced by Carlos Perez and his Bike Monkey event management company, started in collaboration with Leipheimer in 2009, borrowing the title from the Italian words for “big ride.” Heralded as the first large-scale such event in North America, peaking with 7,000 participants a few years ago. Now there 150 GranFondos in North America.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or On Twitter @dannart.