The Sea Otter Classic kicked off its 21st year on Thursday, April 14. The four-day mountain bike festival includes racing, rides and an expo at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. 8,500 racers are expected with another 1,500 likely to take part in organized participatory rides.
The mountain bike action will kick off on Friday with the short track. Cross country and dual slalom racing will follow on Saturday before downhillers wrap up the competition on Sunday.
Short track and cross country
Both the pro short track and cross country courses will be similar to those used last year. In 2010, organizers made drastic changes to the traditional 19-mile pro cross country course when the race was upgraded to a UCI-inscripted event. The UCI rules set strict limits on cross country course length, which means racers now complete many laps.
"The short track course is the same as always," said Sea Otter's Jeff Frost. "The cross country course is like last year, but the big difference is we moved the pro race to Saturday. It's a 4.3-mile loop, a distance on the upper edge of what's allowed by the UCI." The Saturday time slot should let the cross country race feature more prominently among festival attendees. In previous years, the cross country would not finish until many had already gone home on Sunday.
Both courses are very open to the elements, in particular the sun and wind. With temperatures for the weekend looking likely to remain comfortable in the upper 50s and lower 60s (degrees Fahrenheit) under sunny skies, the wind will likely present the toughest environmental condition.
Frost said he expects to see a lot of tactics deployed. In 2010, Specialized played Christoph Sauser, Todd Wells and Burry Stander off each other to get wins in the men's races. With Sauser and Stander absent this year, Wells will have less assistance, but he'll still benefit from teamwork with Max Plaxton, who has been riding strong in the first two US Pro XCTs this year.
Bonelli Park US Pro XCT winner Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) has already proven his early season top form while Adam Craig (Rabobank/Giant) has taken a slower start to the season thus far. Don't count out Subaru-Trek teammates Jeremy Horgan Kobelksi, Sam Schultz or Russell Finsterwald. Sid Taberlay (Kenda H2O Overdrive) and Colin Cares and Andy Schultz (Kenda/Felt) are some other top riders in attendance.
Team tactics will also play a role in the women's race. Luna is probably the best positioned team with a three-person strong line-up including Catharine Pendrel, Georgia Gould and Katerina Nash. It will be tough for anyone to beat them, but watch out for riders like Lea Davison (Specialized), who's been on fire this year, and Kelli Emmett (Giant), who is traditionally a strong performer at Sea Otter. All of them will face the speed and power of both Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant) and Willow Koerber (Trek World Racing) in their first major domestic cross country race of the season. And last but not least, Subaru-Trek is a perennial contender with Heather Irmiger and Emily Batty.
"There is a lot of road on the race track and grass, too, but the grass rides like singletrack," said Compton to Cyclingnews at the pre-race press conference. "It's going to be a tactical battle with the three Luna women and it's all about who gets to the downhill first. I'm hoping there is a headwind." It's been awhile since we've seen Compton at Sea Otter - she last raced here in 2007.
The Sea Otter is drawing a strong field of North American racers, but what is missing this year is an international contingent. Nearly all of the top Europeans are skipping the extra travel to Sea Otter and instead are heading directly to the first UCI World Cup in South Africa next weekend.
Amateurs, who are racing cross country at various times throughout the weekend, will compete on a different course than pros. A long and short course have been re-routed from previous years to address land manager concerns. The long course is just over 20 miles and includes more road sections than previous years.
"We have to change the amateur course every three to four years. People come here and train on the course year round so our impact extends beyond this weekend," said Frost.
No Super D or marathon
The super D was conspicuously absent from this year's schedule of events.
"We cancelled it because of significant construction affecting the bottom of the course," said Frost. "They were replacing a bridge from 1949. We use every acre of land here possible and it's a logistical challenge otherwise to fit in the super D."
"But I suspect the super D will be back in 2012," said Frost.
It's been a few years, but Sea Otter also previously used to include a marathon. It's also absent again from the schedule, but given the popularity of longer races, it may make a comeback in the future.
"The endurance side of the sport is growing," said Frost. "We're getting more and more land access, too. The Department of Defense is working to turn the Army's old Fort Ord over to the Bureau of Land Management over time. Battleships used to sit out in the ocean and shoot 16" ordinance ontot he land. The Army is clearing the land for unexploded ordinance acre by acre and they're about four years through a seven-year plan.
Downhill and Dual slalom
The downhill course has undergone an overhaul from previous years. Matt Thompson of Momentum Trail Concepts has been leading the charge on the renovations.
"We had three goals," Thompson said to Cyclingnews, "to make it more fun, more sustainable and safer."
"The course had been exposed to wet weather riding and there were a lot of rain ruts. The improved track will roll faster. We basically followed the existing track alignment and embellished the stuff that was good. We took out the unsustainable sections."
The course length remains similar, with only the finishing straight changing. Organizers are adding a beer garden at the finish and free shuttles from the expo area in an attempt to draw more spectators.
"I think times will be five to 10 seconds faster," said Thompson.
What is tricky about the Sea Otter downhill course for organizers is that amateurs and pros run the same course and it's difficult to balance the needs and skills of both sets of riders on a single course.
Sea Otter's dual slalom course is a popular one among riders. It is completely made by hand and not a machine touches it during construction. This year, work began on the course in February.
The field of dual slalom favorites is a crowded one with riders like Brian Lopes, who will also be racing the short track, Jared Graves and others signed up.
"The slalom course is the most physically demanding slalom courses," said Eric Carter, who will sit out the dual slalom this year and race the downhill instead.
Lopes, who's showed his fitness in some non-downhill events already this season, will be out to get revenge for getting knocked out of the dual slalom early last year.
Rumor has it that former downhill world champion Nico Vouillez will also be racing. In both disciplines the top team may be the Giant Team, fresh of it's sweep of the US Pro GRT opener last weekend with Danny Hart, Andrew Neethling and Duncan Riffle.
In both the women's downhill and dual slalom, Jill Kintner and Melissa Buhl are the two top favorites. Both have plenty of experience in each discipline.
Speed and Style
Cam McCaul has been spearheading a new speed and style dual format type event for 2011. "It's like a race with two jumps in it," he said.
The crowd-pleasing event is scheduled for immediately after the dual slalom on Saturday evening, so spectators can stick around from some extra action. The competition is scored based on time to complete the course and style points for jumps executed.
About 50 percent of the racers at Sea Otter are roadies. New for 2011 is the return of the stage race format for pros. Ben Jacques Maynes (Bissell) spoke to the media just after finishing the stage 1 crit on the podium. The pros will also race a road race on Friday, a time trial on Saturday and a circuit race on Sunday. In that circuit race, they'll climb an impressive 10,000 feet in two hours on the bike.
Women will be honored at Sea Otter on Sunday with a full slate of activities. The Ladies Day, which was to be free to ladies only, recently stirred up a controversy when the National Coalition of Men pointed out it was illegal to charge different fees for men and women, but organizers have since adjusted Sunday's entry fees to be equal for both sexes and thereby in compliance with California state law.
"I've been coming here for more than 10 years. The bike industry is male dominated and it's not always welcoming to women," said Lori Lown, the coordinator of the ladies' day activities.
"Little did we know we were proposing to do something illegal, but the Sea Otter PR folks turned it into something positive."
200 women are pre-registered for the women's promotional activities. Men are welcome to attend and are encouraged to bring their wives and daughters for a friendly cycling industry experience.