The 38th annual Chico Wildflower Century, one of California’s top cycling events, saw 3,300 people in the saddle. They sign up for various reasons: tradition, camaraderie, or crossing one off the bucket list.
“I just ride so I can eat pizza for the rest of my life,” says Ben, a 33-year-old from San Francisco who’s made the trek to Chico for the past five years.
Ben’s taking a breather at the top of Table Mountain, a grueling climb on his 100-mile route. He’s wearing a Russian River Brewing Company cycling jersey, one of several brewing buddies we spot on gear throughout the day.
Bikes and beer, it’s a pairing we’ve celebrated for decades. Some riders even have the “life cycle” on their T-shirts: bike, beer, repeat.
“The Wildflower is just a party,” Ben says, “People are stoked.”
He’s here with a big group of friends, which is so common as you meet more folks along the way.
Brian is a 35-year-old Chico local riding with his fiancée, Mary, but a slew of visiting friends—some closer (Oakland), some farther (Denver)—make up their crew of nearly 40 riders. Their Saturday tradition before the ride is piling into their favorite Italian restaurant for a reunion bash.
And then you encounter riders like Charlie, a 61-year-old from Modesto, Calif., who over his 20 years of riding has seen plenty of the Wildflower’s evolution.
Yet you have to reach much farther back for the ride’s origins, which have a special tie to Sierra Nevada.
“The Wildflower has kind of grown up with the brewery,” says Mandi McKay, our Sustainability Manager and the board president of Chico Velo, the organization behind the ride.
In 1972, our founder Ken Grossman had just moved to Chico. He was on his bike, pedaling down Park Avenue. As he passed the old food co-op—or maybe it was the Mexican restaurant next door, Ken wonders—he saw a cyclist crowd in the parking lot and turned in.
That chance encounter launched a casual riding group, 10 or so folks who loosely called themselves Chico Velo. (An offshoot called Mellow Velo favored sipping beers over logging miles.) As they rolled through the ’70s, growing in popularity, rider Ed McLaughlin began thinking long term. Chico Velo could be more than a fun time; it could advance bicycling education and the city’s bicycling infrastructure.
In 1980, the same year Ken founded Sierra Nevada, Ed turned Chico Velo into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. (Ed still kept a day job: He was one of Ken’s first brewery employees.)
One year later—as Pale Ale started turning heads—Chico Velo hosted the first Wildflower Century. That rainy 1981 ride, with one route and only 150 participants, has grown into a worldwide attraction with 7 different routes ranging from 12 to 125 miles.
And Ken’s always shown his Wildflower support in one way or another. He’s done about 10 rides, including the 125-miler in 2018. Ken and his wife once even hosted a lunch stop at their house when the route was different.
Sierra Nevada has also been a Wildflower sponsor since the beginning. We believe in all the good that bicycling can foster: a personal sense of freedom, the fellowship of community, and reverence toward our planet.
This year nearly 20 Sierra Nevada riders are in the Wildflower mix, completing anywhere from 30-125 miles. We catch Jon Yunker, part of our Brewer Support team, at a rest stop about 45 miles in. He’s feeling strong so far, and he’s keeping things lighthearted.
“Do these shorts make my butt look big?” he jokes when the camera finds him.
Make no mistake, though, the Wildflower might be cheery and social, but it’s also a grind if you go the distance. Cycling is a testament to perseverance, a sport that’s about the long view. You battle your body, your mind, and the elements for hours upon hours. It can feel ugly, and it can feel endless.
This dedication is on display as riders slog up Honey Run Road into Paradise. The street is strikingly quiet. Camp Fire destruction is on both sides. But then you hear singing birds. And you see new, bright green grass. The heavy, hard-working breath of cyclists climbing 1,625 vertical feet fills the landscape with vitality.
It’s a scene of hope, yet another example of Butte County showing its resilience and resolve in the face of a long recovery. As part of the Wildflower weekend, Chico Velo raised $30,000 toward Camp Fire survivors through its charity, Butte Strong Bike Aid.
Late in the afternoon at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds finish line, riders trickle in and dismount their bikes—victory. They hug, they fist bump, and they fill plates with what’s probably the most heavenly food they’ve ever seen. Beers clink, too, and both the Wildflower and Sierra Nevada celebrate another year in tandem.