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Adventure : Events

CrossFit, Your Insecurity Is Showing

You do not cross CrossFit. As many in the media have learned, the company behind the fitness craze is not afraid to retaliate—through its enforcers in "informational weaponry," Russell Greene and Russell Berger; its massive social-media following; or, if all else fails, the courts. I knew because I'd read about it and had seen their work on Outside's Facebook wall. But it wasn't real to me. It is now.

Outside has been a focus of CrossFit's wrath since we began reporting on the injured-participant-led backlash in 2013. But I first became Greene's target when I reported on a story about CrossFit's new rival, the NPFL (now known as the NPGL). In the story, NPGL founder Tony Budding said he wanted to create an event that was more spectator-friendly than CrossFit's flagship competition, the CrossFit Games.

Greene took offense to that line. "Tony's statement that the CrossFit Games aren't a spectator-friendly sport is completely false, and deserves critical analysis," Greene wrote. Fair enough. We'd pointed out that "some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok." The story wasn't about taking sides, but about informing readers of the NPGL's existence and what it planned to do.

I suppose I should've remembered that encounter when I applied for a press pass to this year's CrossFit Games. Held annually since 2007, the Games are what makes CrossFit a sport rather than a training regimen. To get to the finals at the StubHub arena in Carson, California, individual CrossFit athletes and teams must make it past open and regional competitions. About 100 men and 100 women face off in a three-day strongman-style competition (think: overhead squats, burpees, and rowing), where CrossFit dubs the winners "Fittest on Earth" and hands them a check for $275,000.

I'd spent the past two-and-a-half years reporting on obstacle racing, a sport whose meteoric growth was greatly fueled by CrossFitters looking for a place to test their strength. I wanted to see what a straight-up CrossFit competition was like. Instead, my press pass was denied.

"Outside Online has published headlines and articles about CrossFit and the CrossFit Games that lead us to question Outside Magazine and Outside Online's editorial intentions," said the email from CrossFit Press, which arrived after we reached out to Greene. The email listed four Outside articles to which CrossFit had taken offense: a report on a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study that suggested CrossFit has a 16 percent injury rate, a report on the subsequent lawsuit between CrossFit and the journal (published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association), the NPFL story, and another story digging deeper into injury statistics.

No mention was made, however, of the stories we've published trumpeting CrossFit's stars like four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning, pointing readers to the regimen's best boxes, or even promoting CrossFit-inspired training plans. Outside has covered all aspects of the fitness trend since it began.

With that in mind, we asked CrossFit to reevaluate its decision. CrossFit is important to us and to many of our readers. We were eager to cover the games. Again, we were rejected. This time, our email didn't even elicit a response.

Denying our press pass is like the NFL writing, "Dear ESPN, We can't let you cover the Super Bowl, because you covered the traumatic-brain-injury concerns of NFL players." By CrossFit's logic, every major media outlet in the United States should be blackballed, from the New York Times to USA Today, because we've all covered CrossFit injuries. Deadspin must certainly be on CrossFit's s*** list after publishing this gem about the NSCA debacle:

It exposes the fitness company far more effectively than the NSCA study ever did. In the lawsuit, all of CrossFit's neuroses emerge, as does its inner asshole.

The press-pass rejection not only made CrossFit look thin-skinned, it also made it look like the company has something to hide. And barring journalists from something is about the best way to ensure they'll pursue a story. On Thursday evening, I bought a $50 pass to Friday's CrossFit Games and went to see the competition for myself.

StubHub Center, where the event is held, is composed of several venues. There are soccer, tennis, and track stadiums, as well as a tent village where vendors like Badass WOD Wear and nonprofits like Barbells for Boobs hawk their goods.

When spectators walked into the soccer stadium on Friday morning, their eyes lit up. They actually said, "Wow!" The place had been transformed into the world's biggest box, with THE 2014 REEBOK CROSSFIT GAMES printed across end zones and 15 metal trusses cutting the field in half.

I took photos of at least 10 people against that backdrop. They came from all over—Pittsburgh, Florida, Atlanta, Minnesota, Mexico. Most of them seemed to follow a dress code. Booty shorts for the ladies, nylon board shorts for the men, T-shirts repping their respective boxes, and minimalist Reebok CrossFit shoes. The stadium floor was empty, although the Jumbotrons showed a competition taking place: a relay run with competitors tethered together.

Perhaps Greene feared we'd find the games weren’t spectator-friendly. That's because they aren't. Not even to avid CrossFitters. Friday's first two events—the relay run and an erg-jump rope-run combo—were held in the driveway outside the soccer stadium, where few people could tell what was going on.

Some spectators even considered climbing the palm trees lining the road to improve their vantage point over the thousands of others trying to get a glimpse of their friends and favorite athletes. "I'm a huge Rich Froning fan," a 28-year-old CrossFitter from San Diego told me when I asked why he came to the games. "He said this might be his last year as an individual" competitor. It was tough to catch a glimpse of his hero, though, behind two solid rows of standing people.  

"Why didn't they do it in the stadium where people can actually see? I paid $200 to see nothing!" said an athlete from Utah as she stood on an empty Pelican case used to house the camera filming the event. She wasn't mad about it, though; she came for the experience and to support friends who were competing. In that way, she was like everybody else there.

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{%{"quote":"The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself."}%}

The CrossFit Games are like a religious gathering cum high-school track meet, where everyone in the stands (or on the street) is either a zealot or knows a competitor. "This is like a Mecca for CrossFitters," a Canadian CrossFitter told me.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with being at a religious gathering/high-school track meet. In fact, that's what makes the CrossFit Games—and CrossFit itself—special. It brings people of diverse backgrounds together to celebrate health and fitness. I met three generations of people at the games who might as well have been wearing kettlebell halos; they were the nicest sports spectators I've ever encountered, happy to talk about the event and the people close to them who were competing. Just like my mom at my high-uschool swim meets.

CrossFit should embrace its special community. The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself. New competition like the NPGL should energize CrossFit rather than scare the organization into harassing reporters who introduce its rivals. As for that NSCA lawsuit, CrossFit should take a page out of its own book and relearn the art of the spin.

Back in 2005, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman knew how to handle a press that questioned his methods. Just before Christmas, the New York Times published an article about CrossFit's propensity to induce injuries, including rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that can lead to kidney damage. Glassman’s response: Embrace the danger.

CrossFit had already rolled out a mascot named Uncle Rhabdo, a clown "whose kidneys have spilled onto the floor presumably due to rhabdomyolysis," the Times reported. Glassman also wrote an article titled "CrossFit-Induced Rhabdo," in which he "soberly explained the circumstances of the six CrossFit-related cases he knew about, outlined ways affiliates could lower the likelihood of injury, and announced he would add a rhabdomyolysis discussion to his weekend seminars and to the website," Inc. reported. PR crisis met head-on. Crisis averted.

Sometime over the past nine years, CrossFit, the sport of strength, got weak.

The tiniest amount of criticism sets its enforcers off on a rampage, and it's affecting CrossFit's most devout adherents. You've got a great thing going, CrossFit, with amazing people in your ranks. Bring back the old CrossFit that faced controversy with honesty and humor. Even better: Heed one of your own favorite sayings and HTFU.

Outside's CrossFit Coverage (The Good and Bad)

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The Last of the True Cowboys?

It took six pairs of boots, 240 horseshoes, and 24 months for Filipe Leite to ride on horseback from Canada to Brazil. The cowboy traveled 10,000 miles through 10 countries to reach his home in South America, an epic journey that has earned him a spot in the historic Long Rider's Guild, an international association of equestrian explorers that requires its members to ride at least 1,000 continuous miles. 

We last caught up with Leite back in 2012, when he was only three states into his journey and about to cross the infamous and treacherous Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. Since then, the cowboy has snuck through jungles full of drug traffickers, ridden bulls, encountered endless bureaucratic obstacles, and experienced unending generosity on the trail. As he nears the final stretch of his journey, we asked him for an update.

OUTSIDE: Aside from countless miserable border crossings, what has been the most difficult part of the ride?
LEITE: Keeping my horses healthy. I have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with these animals for the past two years. As we made our way south, we created a bond only comparable to that of father and son. When I didn't have the basics to offer them, like water or a pasture to graze, it broke my heart. We crossed many countries where vets were extremely hard to find and medication for horses even more so. Keeping my animals healthy required me to work extremely hard and become a bit of a vet myself.

This Long Ride has also been full of dangers. We crossed paths with a grizzly in Montana. One of the horses (Bruiser) fell in a deep ditch in New Mexico. The other (Frenchie) was hit by a truck in Southern Mexico, and the third (Dude) walked into a cattle guard in Nicaragua—nearly breaking his leg. I remember having Dude's head on my lap after finally calming him down while he lay there with his front right hoof stuck in that cattle guard thinking I was going to lose him. These were by far the worst moments of the trip. These horses are an extension of my soul; they are my children, my heroes, my everything.

What type of schedule do you maintain to give the horses, and yourself, much-needed rest?
On a Long Ride like mine, there can be no set schedule. You must always listen to your horses and let them rest as they need it. I always try to ride no more than 30 kilometers [nearly 19 miles] daily and allow my ponies to rest for a day or two every four to five days of riding. This has been a good system for us. I have also stopped for a month at times in order to give them ample time to rest or recover from an injury.

Scariest moment of the ride?
Hearing a husband trying to kill his wife with five gunshots just outside my window in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I will never forget her yells of desperation as the gunfire silenced her pleas.

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What about the loneliest moment of the trip?
The loneliest moment of the trip was crossing a mountain in southern Wyoming. I spent several days riding without seeing another human being. It was only the horses and I, and I had an extremely hard time finding water for them. I remember coming down that mountain into a town of 25 people, swallowing my tears. I ended up staying with an elderly gentleman who lives by himself in a ranch home. It's funny how life works out. It was one of the deepest connections I made on the journey.

You've traveled through jungles infested with drug traffickers and passed through dangerous cities. Was there ever a time you've been afraid for your life or the life of your horses?
My entrance into Honduras from Guatemala was with the protection of a major Honduran drug lord. He not only rode with me but also hosted me in his fortress for two days. His house was in a little village in the mountains and sat behind high walls and a thick metal gate. His house was a mansion with plasma TVs, a home gym, and even a small petting zoo. While trying to sleep the first night, I kept imagining the shootouts and killings happening at the hands of the drug cartels in town nearby. Needless to say, it made it hard to get some shut-eye.

You've been posting video segments throughout your journey. Tell us how you film while riding alone, edit footage, and post updates while on the trail?
Filming my Long Ride has been extremely difficult! I have to get off my horse, set up the tripod and turn on the camera, get back on, ride by the camera, then go back to stop filming and fold up the tripod—all while making sure all three horses are watched after. My girlfriend, Emma Brazier, has helped me a lot in this aspect. The moments she has traveled with me, we have been able to capture moments I couldn't otherwise. The dispatches are edited in Nashville by OutWildTV. I'm very thankful for having such an amazing group of professionals behind me. It makes all the difference.

Most of your nights are spent camping in a tent. What key items have made this possible for two years?
My Leatherman is always on my belt. Other items include a one-burner stove for preparing dinner, my MEC Tarn 3 tent, MEC Mirage sleeping bag, and peanut butter. I've also been carrying Naomi's ashes. In Colorado, a gentleman who hosted me asked if I would carry his sister's ashes to Brazil with me. He told me how she loved horses and adventure and had recently passed away. He felt as if faith brought me to his home and that Naomi had to go on one last ride. I have carried Naomi's ashes all the way to Brazil and will spread them in the field where the horses will be retired.

You're trying to pass through the largest rodeo in Latin America, the Festa do Peao de Barretos. Think you'll make it?
Definitely! Because I left from the largest rodeo in Canada, the Calgary Stampede, it has always been my goal to pass through Barretos. This past year, they began sponsoring my trip and are currently building a monument of the horses and I that will be forever in the rodeo grounds for people to visit. On August 23, I will ride into the rodeo's arena as more than 50,000 people watch from the stands. I imagine it will be a very emotional moment.

What are your plans for after you arrive?
I will retire my horses at my parents' farm in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo, and work on a documentary on my ride. I will also be writing a book on my two-year journey from Canada to Brazil.

Can we expect to see a Journey America documentary from your travel?
Absolutely.

Catch all of Leite's Journey America videos at OutWildTV and follow along as he finishes his journey at @FilipeMasetti on Twitter and Instagram.

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Smaller Runners Have the Advantage at Badwater

Until December 2013, California’s 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon, which started in Death Valley and ended at the Mount Whitney Portal, was considered the ultimate endurance test in an extreme heat environment.

That’s when a temporary moratorium was placed on all sporting events in Death Valley. Obviously, the announcement threw a wrench in this summer’s 37th edition of Badwater, scheduled to take place July 21 through 23. But you can’t just axe the world’s toughest footrace, so race organizers revised the route, which now incorporates more than 17,000 feet of elevation gain between Lone Pine and Whitney Portal. Although temperatures might not reach 125 degrees, the 97 brave souls who toe the line will likely still be treated to triple-digit temps.

And although some runners will incorporate special clothing and aid-station ice baths into ther races, other runners will have a more natural advantage: their body size.

While running in hot weather, an athlete’s primary goal—besides winning—should be to maintain a constant core temperature by balancing heat production and heat loss. Exercise itself creates internal heat. In fact, 80 percent of energy produced by exercising skeletal muscle becomes heat (the other 20 percent generates adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to power the muscle. Extremely hot environments can also cause athletes to take in heat, just as cold environments cause us to lose heat.  

Runners also battle heat externally via hot weather and humidity, both of which make running more difficult. Hot temperatures cause heat to transfer from the environment to the body, while humidity makes evaporative heat loss more difficult. In comfortable environments, to get rid of excess heat, blood is shunted to the skin, where warmed blood can lose heat through evaporation (sweating) or convection (if skin temperature is greater than the environmental temperature). Both evaporation and convection depend on the skin's surface area—the larger surface area, the better the heat loss.  

So, bigger runners should be better at cooling off, right?

Wrong.

Surface area and body mass (that is, muscle mass) are not at a one-to-one relationship—for every unit of body mass you increase, you don't get an equivalent relative increase in surface area. Smaller runners actually have more surface area relative to body mass, which gives them greater heat-loss ability for their relative mass.

According to a study in the European Journal of Physiology, this “distinct thermal advantage” corresponds with speed. Because lighter runners produce and store less heat than heavier runners at the same pace, they can run faster or farther. This difference was most striking in hot, humid conditions (95 degrees, greater than 60 percent humidity) and essentially absent in cool conditions (59 degrees).

Indeed, in 2004, exercise physiologist Tim Noakes published a related study in the Journal of Applied Physiology finding that African runners ran faster in the heat than their Caucasian peers. “Larger Caucasians reduce their running speed to ensure an optimal rate of heat storage without developing dangerous hyperthermia [heatstroke],” the study reports. “According to this model, the superior running performance in the heat of these African runners can be partly attributed to their smaller size and hence their capacity to run faster in the heat while storing heat at the same rate as heavier Caucasian runners.” 

In this study, the heavier Caucasian runners (169 pounds) ran approximately 10 percent slower during 30 minutes of exercise in hot conditions (95 degrees, 60 percent humidity) compared to the lighter Africans (131 pounds). The difference is dramatic when considering both groups ran the same time in the exercise test conducted in cool conditions (59 degrees).  

In other words, a slower but smaller runner has a substantially better shot at beating a faster but larger runner if the temperature is high enough.

Although many other factors can help regulate core temperature (clothing, heat adaptation, genetics, age, etc.), the bottom line is that the smaller you are, the better you should be able to handle the heat. So although the Badwater 135 might not reach 130 degrees this year, the soaring temps should be sufficient to give an advantage to the slight of frame.

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What It Takes to Finish the World's Toughest Ultra 20 Consecutive Times

On July 11, human anomaly Kilian Jornet smashed the six-year-old course record at the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. Despite Jornet’s unbelievable speed, Coloradan Kirk Apt, who finished in 39:38:51—nearly 17 hours behind Jornet—received the loudest applause at this year’s awards ceremony.

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That’s because the 52-year-old—who broke the course record in 2000 with a time of 29:35:00—kissed the Hardrock for the 20th consecutive year, a new record. The race was his 48th hundred-miler since 1991; that’s an average of 2.1 hundreds per year, and he’s managed to show up healthy and fit to all of them.

In an era when elite ultrarunners drop out as soon as the smallest thing goes awry, Apt is the exemplar of what determination and perseverance can accomplish: a level of lifetime fitness unknown even to the most famous and revered professional athletes.

We caught up with Apt at his home in Grand Junction to see how 20 years of Hardrock is even possible.

OUTSIDE: When did you start running ultramarathons?
APT
: I actually don't remember; it was probably a year or two before my first hundred, which was Leadville in 1991. In 1990, I paced my friend Greg Brunson at Leadville. The next year, we reversed roles, and since then I've lost count of how many times he has paced me in my 48 total hundreds. Probably close to 20, including Hardrock again this year.

What initially drew you to the sport?
The simple love of running in the mountains and the challenge of resetting the edge of the envelope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Who was instrumental in you getting hooked on the sport?
In addition to Greg, my early mentors include Steve Mahieu, Charlie Thorn, and John Cappis. 

You dropped from your first attempt at Hardrock in its 1992 inaugural running due to food poisoning. Was that a formative experience?
Maybe, in the sense that the experience solidified the feeling that I really don't like not making it to the finish line. That remains my only hundred-mile DNF.

You finished Leadville before you first ran Hardrock. Did that prepare you for the 100.5-mile loop through the San Juans?
Oh, it was so different than Leadville, and I was still quite low on the learning curve. There was so much uncertainty before the first Hardrock; we wondered whether it could be completed in 48 hours. I remember going into the run with a healthy dose of fear and respect. Certainly it was beneficial to have the 100-mile experience of one race, but Hardrock is a very different experience than other hundreds.

What memories do you have from your first Hardrock 100 finish, or have they all blurred together?
I do remember my first Hardrock. As for gear, I had the whole house with me, a huge backpack. I wasn’t even experienced enough to think I knew what to expect. My plan was to go out and see how it came to me. That first finish line was very special. I remember running super conservatively and feeling huge elation running into the finish, which was down by the gazebo and courthouse [in Silverton, Colorado] back then. It made up for the disappointment of the DNF the year before. 

What was winning the 2000 race like for you?
We were living in Boulder that year, and it was a low snow year. So, just great training in the Front Range. I certainly didn’t go into it with a “win or bust” attitude, but I knew I was super fit.

I did my thing through the race and found myself in the lead. We were going counterclockwise that year, and I got to Chapman aid station [mile 82] feeling pretty good and thought, “I've got a shot at winning this.” I’m really not competitive by nature, so I had to convince myself to go for it because it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was a big mental effort to keep myself pushing.

I had the best running day of my life on probably the best day to have it. That was the high-water mark of my lifetime fitness.

Being able to show up at Hardrock for 20 straight years and fit enough to finish such a tough course is a level of lifetime fitness most people can’t achieve. How do you do it?
Luck. Also, because I've made Hardrock the focus of my year, all my training and other prep has been all about getting to the start line in the best position to be successful. I try to have a healthy lifestyle, eat well, get regular bodywork, train smart. I also take time off when necessary. And I stay positive.

What has been the key to your training?
I now train at really low intensity. I don’t have any problem walking if a climb is working me. My [slowing] times kind of reflect that.

For me, it’s just been the long run. Time on my feet. I don’t care how much ground I cover or how fast I’m going. I do try to get as much terrain [vertical gain] in as possible. May and June are the key times, but you can’t always get up high with snow in Colorado. I just do what I can.

When I was more competitive, I was underemployed, so I had more time to train. My partner, who is also a runner, and I have been together for almost 20 years. We don’t have kids. She’s key to keeping me on track with my training. 

Have you had any injuries along the way?
About five to eight years ago, I realized that my adrenals were kind of shot. That really had a hand in increasing my finish times at Hardrock. I worked with a naturopath doctor, got regular acupuncture, and was on multiple herbal adrenal-health supplements. Eventually that fixed it. Three years back, in the spring, I started to roll my ankle a lot—worse than usual. I ended up having to wear an air cast every time I ran for a year.

What’s your diet like?
I eat mostly vegetarian, but certainly not completely vegetarian. Dinners are always centered around a gigantic pile of steamed vegetables. I also eat beans and quite a few eggs for protein. 

What keeps you motivated year after year?
Well, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend all day on my feet in the mountains. Motivation hasn’t been an issue.

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Levi Leipheimer's Life After Doping

On a spectacular day for a bike ride in Sonoma County, Levi Leipheimer is sitting on the side of the road adjusting his cleat position. We are in a group of five riders and less than an hour into a sixty-something mile route from the wine country town of Healdsburg to the Pacific Coast, but this is already the third time he has stopped to fine-tune some aspect of his setup. As a pro racer, Leipheimer was notorious for obsessively tinkering with his bike, so much so that he required a trusted personal mechanic in addition to the staff mechanics of his racing teams. He’s apparently unable to stop fiddling now, even in retirement, even on a casual ride with guys he could drop if he was pedaling a Big Wheel.

He’s also unable to stop riding. Though he’s been retired from professional cycling for more than a year, Leipheimer still spends 15 to 20 hours a week on a bike, split evenly between road biking and mountain biking. He weighs the same as he did at the peak of his career (135 pounds). Arguably the best American rider over the last 15 years not named Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer finished third in the 2007 Tour de France, won the Tour of California three consecutive times between 2007 and 2010, took a bronze medal in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics, and won the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, in 2011. He probably had two years of racing left when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) served him with a six-month suspension in October 2012 for admitting to using performance enhancing drugs during the investigation of Armstrong and the US Postal Service pro cycling team. Leipheimer, who rode for US Postal early in his career, confessed to doping from 2000 to 2007, when he claims he abruptly stopped due to fears that he’d be caught by improved testing methods.

Shortly after USADA announced the suspension, Leipheimer’s team at the time, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, fired him. Many cycling pundits were furious, arguing that Leipheimer and others shouldn’t be punished for telling the truth, while others complained that the riders who testified in the USADA probe got off too easy. Either way, the expectation was that Leipheimer would find a new team and resume racing in the spring. But while many cyclists caught up in the investigation did exactly that, no team signed him and he announced his retirement in May 2013, at age 39.

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Since then, Leipheimer has been unemployed and, like other American cyclists who have bee tainted as dopers, trying to move forward. Retirement is of course difficult for any professional athlete. Cyclists, who don’t typically earn the kind of money that can last a lifetime, need to find new sources of income and often aren’t very employable outside the biking industry. This puts Leipheimer and the other confessed cheaters of his generation—a list that includes Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie—in a particularly challenging position. The automatic move of a former pro is to capitalize on the image and associations he developed while racing. But how does that work if his career is marred by a giant asterisk?

I was particularly interested in putting this question to Leipheimer given the ongoing success of Levi’s Gran Fondo, an annual fall event in Sonoma County that’s widely considered the best Gran Fondo in the United States and among the best in the world. Launched in 2009, it attracts 7,500 riders and a number of sponsors, including Specialized, Nissan, and Clif Bar, and has generated $1.2 million in donations to charities since its inception. Leipheimer’s confession and retirement has had essentially zero impact on its popularity.

Levi’s Grand Fondo also recently became the title sponsor of the NorCal High School Cycling League, an interesting arrangement when you consider that it connects teen athletes with a guy who has confessed to using drugs to compete. If so many people and organizations are happy to align themselves with Leipheimer’s namesake event, maybe they’re ready to forgive and forget more quickly than I expected. 

When I reached out to Leipheimer to talk about all this, he suggested we meet in Sonoma County and mix in a ride as well. If I could see the roads that inspired him to move there and then create the Gran Fondo, I’d understand everything so much better.

About an hour before we got on our bikes, I met Leipheimer at Flying Goat Coffee in downtown Healdsburg. He was wearing jeans, a black Gran Fondo hoodie, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap, which covered his baldhead. At 5’7” and cyclist skinny, he’s an inconspicuous guy. But if you sit directly across from him for a conversation, there’s a guarded intensity that comes out of his striking blue eyes and steadfast expression.

I asked him how he’s been spending his time since retiring. What does he do to fill his days? He gave a roundabout answer that can be simplified to: not much.

“For many years during my racing, I thought about this time, when I’d be done,” he said. “One thing I always knew is that I would need at least a year of decompression. Just do nothing.”

The constant pressures of professional cycling, he tells me, were exhausting, both on and off the bike. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I’ve needed time to transition out of that and try to live a normal life.”

A big part of normal is simply sticking around Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, where Leipheimer relocated in 1996, shortly after he turned pro. He’d grown up in Butte, Montana, with its long frigid winters, and instantly fell in love with Sonoma’s year-round cycling weather and diversity of terrain, from redwood forests to oak woodlands to oceanfront headlands. Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, now own a hillside property outside Santa Rosa where they care for some two dozen rescued animals—horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, cats, dogs. Leipheimer plays a supporting role in that operation and also handles a lot of the household management while Gunn works on her nascent clothing line, The Gunn Collection. As he sees it, she did so much work for him when he was racing, now it’s payback time.

Since his suspension, Leipheimer has had no income but has been able to live off the money he saved during his career. He gets zero dollars from the Gran Fondo and likes to call himself the event’s “number one volunteer.” When I asked him what he’d put on a resume, he thinks for a moment, then says, “Advocate.”

As for his next move, he doesn’t have clear answers. “It’s tough,” he said. “With biking, I found something that I completely loved and that I was really good at and had a lot of passion for. It’s not easy to replace that.” He paused for a moment, then added, “At some point, I either need to find something that I’m that excited about or—well, I guess that’s it. There is no ‘or.’”

He is very excited about the Gran Fondo, though his efforts on behalf of the ride, which is managed by Santa Rosa-based events organizing group Bike Monkey, don’t amount to a full time gig. Still, he said, “It’s fulfilling for me—I have a purpose.” 

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After admitting to doping, Leipheimer was worried that riders might abandon the Gran Fondo en masse. The fact that they didn’t was incredibly uplifting for him. “It meant more than I can describe that people were still willing to come back and try to understand the situation and the choices I made, and not just write me off,” he said. “That they were willing to forgive and give me a second chance and shows how great the cycling community is.”

A good number of participants might also be simply be attracted to the ride itself and not think too much about the former pro it’s named after. Leipheimer recognizes this. “What happened in the Tour de France and in the Tour of Spain those years is completely separate from my motivation for creating the Gran Fondo,” he added. “The event is about how much I love Sonoma County and how it forged me into a better rider.”

Indeed, the years Leipheimer spent getting better by grinding out miles on Sonoma roads are core to his self-identity and underlie his passion for the Gran Fondo, an event that draws cyclists willing to suffer through a grueling 103-mile route that includes 9,200 feet of climbing. He didn’t have the natural talent of other top cyclists when he was young, he told me, so he outworked them. “When I was on the USA national amateur team, the coaches were like, ‘You’re probably not going to be a pro,’” he said. “And I proved them wrong. I worked hard and incrementally, over the years, I got better and better. Despite the asterisks, that still holds true. And I think the 7,500 people on the start line of the Gran Fondo understand that.”

The NorCal High School Cycling League apparently understands it as well. In a scene from a new documentary about the Grand Fondo, Leipheimer stands in front of a room full of teen riders and candidly answers their questions about doping, recalling the last time he transfused his own blood, at the 2007 Tour de France. “Somewhere along the line, little by little, I got to that point,” he tells them. “That’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not fun to live through.” At another moment in the film, he says he was unprepared to face the choice to dope when he first became a pro. By telling younger rider what he went through, he hopes “that when the time comes to make a decision like that, even it’s outside the sport, they’re not blindsided. It’s giving them tools to go forward.”

Leipheimer has recently been advising a few NorCal riders advice on training and balancing cycling with life. He told me that when he ponders his future—“however long away that might be”—he thinks about mentoring younger riders and coaching master racers. “One thing I did well in my career was pay attention to detail—I was very organized,” he said. “I think I have a good philosophy about training, so that’s one thing I can pass along.”

For now, though, the decompression continues. Back in 2012, in the days after news of Leipheimer’s confession and suspension broke, he was in regular contact with some of the other pros who’d testified in the USADA investigation. “It’s so good to have those guys because we understand what each other is going through,” he’d told a newspaper reporter at the time. These days, the contact is less frequent, though he said he texts with some guys, including Tom Danielson and George Hincapie. This past April, he ended up on a culinary-themed group ride with Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. “There will always be a connection,” Leipheimer said. “It’s a brotherhood that comes from living the same experiences.”

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Whatever they share in history, each of the retired American riders who have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs is charting his own path into the future. Tyler Hamilton published his bestselling tell-all last year and now has a coaching business. Hincapie, the most successful of the group, has a sporstwear line, a development team, a cycling-centered hotel, and his own three-year old Gran Fondo in North Carolina. Others are more adrift. “It’s hard,” said Leipheimer. “They don’t know what to do.”

As for the enduring impact the doper stigma will have on all of them, Leipheimer wasn’t wiling to speculate. “I think the best answer is that only time will tell,” he said. “Only time is going to bring clarity and understanding about all of it. I think after a while it will make more sense.”

That sounded like a platitude, but Leipheimer was being sincere. “For myself, after what I’ve gone through, I’ve had no choice but to be a better person,” he added. “And I see that for cycling as a sport. It’s going to become stronger because of all this.”

Leipheimer dialed in his cleat, but now he’s staring at my rear cassette, which is making some unsettling creaking and popping noises. We pull over to add some chain lube, but there’s no improvement.

“You need to take the cassette apart and check out the freewheel,” Leipheimer says with authority, before pedaling ahead, I presume, to escape the squawks of an imperfect drivetrain.

We roll on westward for several hours through extraordinary landscapes on a road that gets more pot-holed but also more empty by the mile. There are long stretches where we don’t see a single car or structure. This is the kind of riding that seduced Leipheimer to move to Sonoma County almost 20 years ago and that molded him into one of the best cyclists of his generation. It’s the kind of riding he wanted to celebrate when he created the Gran Fondo.

Close to the coast, we reach a fork in the road. Three of us are headed to the right, for one more relatively easy climb followed by a blissful descent to Highway 1, where we’ll have dinner and then get a car ride home. Leipheimer and another rider are going left on a route to Santa Rosa that will have them climbing another 3,500 feet over 40 or so miles. Leipheimer seems ecstatic at this prospect. He’s smiling broadly as he departs, eager to embrace another three hours of blissful pain.

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