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By almost any measure, Sonoma County should qualify as cycling heaven. Spanning more than a million acres from the Pacific coast to the Mayacamas Mountains, it has every kind of riding, from flat to steep to gently rolling, much of it on lightly traveled roads through quiet forests, farmland and vineyards-a pastoral landscape that, blessed by a balmy climate, amounts to a paradise for two-wheeled travel. That, no doubt, is why race organizers chose it for two stages of the 2007 Tour of California-the first one rolling up the coast and heading inland toward Santa Rosa on Occidental Road, the second passing through -Sonoma and Napa Valleys via Trinity Grade, an 8.2 percent slope of chaparral.
In the United States, however, cycling heaven is a qualified concept. Five years previous to the 2007 race, Ross Dillon set off on a June training ride that reversed the peloton's eventual route. A 25-year-old Cat 3 racer who had ridden with the 2007 TOC winner Levi Leipheimer on group outings from Santa Rosa, Dillon was spending the summer at his family's home on Trinity Road before starting his first year of law school at Boston College. Since graduating cum laude from Santa Clara University in 1999, he had moved to the East Coast with his girlfriend, Katie, also a B.C. law student, whom he was now planning to marry in August. In the meantime, having saved some money from a job as an investment clerk at Liberty Mutual, Dillon was taking the summer off to race and train, hoping to upgrade to Cat 2 with the Boston Bicycle Club in the fall.
"In races Ross would typically be third or fourth," says his father, Rusty, who is also a cyclist, as well as a psychotherapist and Anglican minister. "He once told me that he thought he had too wholesome a family background to be a really successful racer-he wasn't angry enough."
"He was afraid of being hurt," Rusty's wife, Betsy, elaborates. "He wouldn't go out and take risks." Among his friends, Ross was known for a funny and disarming, if stubborn, personality. When a low-intensity training ride turned into a hammerfest, Dillon would ride resolutely off the back. If somebody in the group was acting like a jerk-being overly critical of riders, or telling everyone else what to do-Ross would pedal up alongside the authoritarian and announce how honored he was to ride with him. That sort of thing made people laugh. Everybody would loosen up.
At about 12:30 p.m. on June 3, 2002, Betsy telephoned Ross from her job tutoring children with learning disabilities. He told her that he was going to ride his Land Shark into Santa Rosa, go to the bank and the bike shop, and be home for dinner by 6:30. In between, he'd do a long ride out toward the coast, heading west from Santa Rosa on Occidental Road.
Occidental, a fast, semi-rural two-lane road, marks the geographic transition from eastern to western Sonoma County. Although the wine industry has given this area a reputation for civilized gentility, Santa Rosa (the county seat) is becoming a congested urban grid, and the region's wooded western reaches are giving way grudgingly to different kinds of development. With the demise of dairies and orchards, wine grapes now compete for prominence with the county's other major cash crop, cannabis sativa. As California Highway Patrol officer Eric Nelson observes: "Those back roads that are so wonderful to ride and drive on were built for farmers in agrarian times, not for the [conditions] we have today. We're driving 2000-model vehicles on roads designed in the 1920s, '30s and '40s."
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