By Steve Medcroft
The famous Laguna-Seca raceway hosted the sixteenth edition of the Sea Otter Classic this past weekend. After ten weeks of on-again off-again rain, the skies were clear for almost all four days of the event but the damage had been done; the soil on the muddy hillside MTB time trial, short-track, dual slalom and mountain-cross courses turned to mucasy feces under the wheels of the several-thousand pairs of mountain-bike tires. Only the cross country (held on long stretches of fire road and singletrack through the hills surrounding Monterey) and road (held on the raceway itself) races were spared the mud baths.
By far, the short-track race left the most lasting impression. Layered from start to finish in a liberal frosting of the afore-mentioned mud, the course was populated by hub-deep holes by the time the pros took to the start. It's not often you see riders of the caliber of those at Sea Otter (former and current Olympic, world, continental and national champions) reduced to what looked more like the under-five kids race at a NORBA. It's also not often that a group of hecklers forms at a mountain bike race but the carnage at one particularly nasty short-track corner was too much for even the kindest of fan to avoid letting the laughs rip when a rider held a yard sale in front of them or boo when someone cut the course tape to avoid the worst of the terrain.
There were three pro short track races. The 106-rider men's was cut in half (based on omnium points standing). In the 'B' category event, Walker Ferguson (Scott USA) rode alone at the front for much of the twenty-minute-plus-three-laps race. His only real challenge came from Ryan Trebon (Kona Les Gets), who dangled ten seconds back until the last lap when he managed to catch Ferguson's wheel. In an unbelievable final 100 meters, Trebon had the momentum at first and was about to pass Ferguson but bobbled, then Ferguson crashed and Trebon, running his bike part of the way, came around, then Trebon crashed again and Ferguson was able to hold on for the win. It was simultaneously the most thrilling and heartbreaking thirty seconds of mountain biking I've ever seen.
Because no-one wanted to get their bikes and uniforms completely covered in mud before the race, almost all of the women skipped a pre-ride of the short-track course. Which meant that during the first lap, the course was littered with more bodies than a Civil War battlefield before sensible heads found lines that gave them a least a 75% chance of staying upright. And as she does in most of the mountain-bike races she enters, Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa moved to the front and stayed on her bike (only after one spectacular endo of her own) long enough to win her second race of the weekend.
Then came the men's 'A' group. Frenchman Jean-Christoph Peraud (Team Orbea) led the omnium overall after winning Thursday's Super XC and finishing second in Friday's time trial. Again, heckler's corner proved entertaining. The crowd saw more than a dozen riders either flip completely over their bars or lose control in such a dramatic fashion that if it were you or I, we'd be talking with our buddies about for years to come.
But the strongest riders will usually make it to the front (as Todd Wells said after the race) and sure enough, Peraud took the lead. But the stars-and-stripes in short track (team Giant's Adam Craig) was chasing. Although Craig says he's been slow to find form this early in the season, he kept working and working and, eventually, bridged to Peraud with one lap to go. Whether by skillfull bike handling, luck, or sheer willpower, Craig managed to pull off the upset. He laughed as he crossed the line and said "I can't believe I just won that. That's ridiculous," to the trio of reporters surrounding him.
Besides what has to be the most epic short-track race ever (I have no idea why the Euros haven't taken up this form of mountain-biking - it's ridiculously good for spectators), there were a few other competitions to follow at Sea Otter.
Race 1, Thursday, April 6, MTB stage race #1, Super XC - Norway 's Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesja (Multivan-Merida) and France's Jean-Christoph Peraud (Team Orbea) won the Sea Otter MTB stage race opener on Thursday morning on a windy and muddy half-road, half-mountain 2.3-mile course.
Race 2, Friday, April 7, MTB stage race #2, Time Trial - Clean starts, bike handling and momentum were the keys to winning both the men and women's MTB time trial at Sea Otter on Friday morning. Mary McConneloug (Kenda/Seven) managed to finish the muddy, technical sub two-mile course 1.6 six seconds faster than world cross-country mountain-bike champion Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan/Merida). In the men's race, Dahle-Flesjaa's team-mate Ralph Naef nipped yesterday's stage winner, Jean-Christoph Peraud (Team Orbea) by exactly the same margin.
Race 3, Saturday, April 8, NRC road race - Road racing took centre stage on Day 3 of the 2006 Sea Otter Classic. In the men's race, a trio of Tasmanians thwarted the ambitions of Tour de France favourite Levi Leipheimer and the powerful Health Net squad, while top rated Tina Pic of the Colavita team easily outkicked the rest of the women's field in a sprint finish.
Race 4, Saturday, April 8, MTB stage race #3, Short Track - “I can't believe I just won that,” American Adam Craig said (Team Giant) after he fought his way across a gap and passed Sea Otter omnium leader Jean-Christoph Peraud (Team Orbea) to win the first race in which he wore his U.S. short-track national championship jersey. And only Katerina Nash (formerly Katerina Hunosova, of the Luna Chix Racing Team) was able to stay on Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa's (Merida Multivan) wheel in the women's short track race. But not to the end; Dahle-Flesjaa found clean lines when no-one else could and managed to build enough momentum to win her second race of the weekend.
Race 5, Saturday, April 8, Gravity Omnium event #1, Dual Slalom - On a day when the course seemed to jump out and grab tires all day, snarfing up dreams in one bite, luck, both good and bad, played a major role in the outcome of Saturday's SRAM Gravity Omnium Pro Dual Slalom. Brian Lopes (GT-Oakley) and Sabrina Jonnier (Iron Horse-Monster) won the Pro Men's and Women's titles, respectively, each taking advantage of slips by their competitors in the two-up, best of two format.
Race 6, Sunday, April 9, Gravity Omnium event #2, Downhill - Slipping a high rolling Maxxis TT tire on the rear of his 4-inch mountain cross bike was a key element to Graves' win today on this muddy, rutted, "power pedaling" DH course. At the bottom of his time 2:43 run, Graves's squirmed quite a while as Fabien Barel (Kona), John Kirkaldie (Maxxis), Cedric Gracia (Commencal) and Steve Peat (Santa Cruz) pedaled down. But none of them could better his time.
Race 7, Sunday, April 9, MTB stage race #4, Cross Country - With company headquarters only fifty miles away in Morgan Hill, California, Specialized spared no expense in spreading the word about itself, its history and its riders at what could be considered their home race; the Monterey-based Sea Otter Classic. Celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the world's first mass-produced mountain bike, Specialized had a museum of Stumpjumper models at Sea Otter, one-off pink-framed S-Works Epics (the original team-issue Stumpjumper was painted pink) for their riders, logo banners all around the venue and hosted VIP bike rides throughout the weekend. So it was fitting that Specialized's athletes should reward the company with strong performances in Sunday's epic UCI E1-rated cross-country race. At world-cup marathon distance (38 miles, 61 kilometers), Specialized factory teammates Liam Killeen and Alban Lakata worked together to go one-two on the day. Although Sabine Spitz finished more than four minutes behind Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan Merida), her second place was an impressive third Specialized factory team podium spot of the race.
Race 8, Sunday, April 9, Gravity Omnium event #3, Mountain Cross - World Four-Cross Champions Jill Kintner (GT) and Brian Lopes (GT) lead from qualifying all the way to the finishing rounds to claim the top spots for the Sea Otter Classic Mountain Cross.