The venerable Sea Otter Classic kicks off this weekend at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. Nearly every format of bicycle racing will be featured including road racing, mountain biking, and cyclo-cross. The top professional North American mountain bike racers have been making their way back across the Atlantic after round 2 of the World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium, last weekend.
Elite men cross country
With less than 100 days remaining until the Olympics, the chase is full on for coveted UCI points. This weekend, however, will provide a respite for some, as the Sea Otter races are not sanctioned by the UCI this year. Due to this non-UCI status, organizers have returned to the traditional, longer cross country courses of years past. Professionals will ride one lap of 20 miles. While this format tends not to be as spectator-friendly, it is welcomed by the majority of riders. The race starts with one brief start loop on the paved speedway, but the rest of the race will be on dirt.
The hilly, wide-open Southern California terrain provides some big challenges. Total climbing is 7,500 feet in 39.6 miles, and each lap ends with a significant 800-foot climb. Descents are extremely fast and riders must pay attention for ruts caused by erosion. Drafting should be far less of a factor in the race than on last year's UCI course, much of which was on the race track's pavement. However, the difficulty of the new climbs is likely to blow the race into pieces.
With UCI sanctioned races happening this weekend in Europe, there will be fewer foreigners racing than in the past. However, Burry Stander (Specialized), ranked sixth in the world will be making the trip. Along with teammate Christoph Sauser, he won the Cape Epic in Africa a few weeks ago and finished a strong fourth in the Houfallize World Cup last weekend.
Stander's Specialized teammates are likely to provide his most serious competition this weekend. US cross country national champion Todd Wells has been hampered for weeks by an injury sustained before the Pietermaritzburg World Cup, but may returning to form. While he managed a win at the Pan Am Continental Games two weeks ago in Mexico, his ankle was still not 100 percent. His 45th place finish in Houffalize was disappointing by his standards but he is happy to be back racing. As the defending Sea Otter champion, Wells will certainly give this race his best shot.
Max Plaxton (Specialized) has been nearly unbeatable in North America for over a year. After living for a time in California while with his previous team, it would seem that the Canadian has a sort of home court advantage. He may benefit from team tactics as well since Wells and Stander are likely to be at the front of the race. If Plaxton is in the lead group towards the end of the second lap, he may actually be the favorite at that point considering his unusually strong finishes.
Other racers to watch on Saturday include Sam Schultz (Subaru-Trek) who has been consistently strong so far and is a likely candidate for the USA Olympic Team. Twenty-three-year-old Stephen Ettinger (BMC) was the top American male finisher in Houffalize. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Trek), while not excelling at the World Cups so far, can be quite deadly on American soil.
Geoff Kabush (3 Rox Racing) seems to have found his legs in Houffalize as he notched an 11th place finish. He is quite familiar with having to battle Specialized's superior numbers. Perhaps his new teammate, Derek Zanstra, will be up to the task of working with Kabush.
Other World Cup racers have decided to sit this race out. Adam Craig (Rabobank-Giant) has remained in Europe to train. Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) will be training at his home in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Elite women cross country
The number one ranked Luna Pro Team will have its whole squad present for the Sea Otter Classic. They are even entered in the cyclo-cross race on Saturday night. World champion Catherine Pendrel is coming off a decisive victory in the Houfallize World Cup and is currently ranked second in UCI points. Pendrel has to be considered the favorite in any race she enters these days. Her strongest suit is climbing, so the long climbing grade back to the venue at the end of each lap is likely to suit her.
Young Emily Batty (Subaru Trek) won the 2011 Sea Otter Classic in a sprint finish against Pendrel. Her early season form has been excellent, as she has posted impressive World Cup results. She seems destined to join Pendrel at the Olympic Games this summer in London. This weekend Batty is likely to find herself in a Luna sandwich again with Georgia Gould, Katerina Nash and Pendrel. If Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Trek) is on form, perhaps she could add some balance to that group for Batty?
"My goal is to continue preparation for the rest of the World Cups," said Batty, who is the defending champion at the race. "There is going to be plenty of competition here at Sea Otter."
Some of that competition will include Colnago Sudtirol teammates Eva Lechner and Nathalie Schneitter. Both are taking a week away from the European circuit to make the trip across the Atlantic.
Gould has been struggling for the past few months. First she pulled the plug on a disappointing cyclo-cross season, then had a poor result in the Mellow Johnny's US Pro XCT, and followed by a miserable World Cup in South Africa. However, this past week she finished 12th at Houffalize, signaling that she may be back. That result is even more impressive when you consider the steepness of that course. Gould is far better on power courses.
Lea Davison (Specialized) has moved solidly into the role of America's second best female racer. She had some spectacular results last season including US Pro XCT wins at Bonelli Park and Missoula. This season she only follows Gould in the chase for an Olympic Team position.
Meredith Miller, former road national champion and US cyclo-cross star, has decided to try her hand at mountain biking this weekend. "I am trying to keep it interesting this year. I really enjoy being on my mountain bike and don't want to wait until August to ride on the dirt. And, I want to keep my skills "fresh" for 'cross," said Miller to Cyclingnews. "My goal is to keep it safe, learn something and have fun. It's too hard to have a specific performance goal when I have NO idea where I'm at, but hopefully I'm not DFL!"
Teal Stetson-Lee will be making her debut with the Luna squad. For the past couple years, she has been moving up the ranks of USA cyclo-cross racers. Luna Team Manager Waldek Stepnioski has a track record of picking winners (Alison Dunlap, Shonny Vanlandingham, Nash, Gould, Pendrel) so it will be interesting to see how the Stetson-Lee signing plays out.
Krista Park (Cannondale-NoTubes), a member of the USA Olympic Long Team, is training at her villa in Verona, Italy, while she continues to rehab a severe shoulder separation suffered in South Africa.
On Friday, the pros will kick off their weekend with short track races on the hill adjacent to the dual slalom course. This spectator-friendly event is always one of the most hotly contested races of the weekend.
It is almost certain that last year's winner Max Plaxton will be duking it out with teammates Stander and Wells. However US short track national champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski will be attempting to put his stamp on the event as well. Geoff Kabush, perhaps the best tactician in the race, is also quite capable of pulling out a victory despite the Team Specialized juggernaut.
Team tactics can play a large role in short track. Allowing even two team members to lead the race can often spell doom for the followers. The course has several sections of singletrack and single downhill lines that make passing next to impossible. If someone is blocking for a teammate, it will be extremely difficult to get around them.
Last year Georgia Gould simply rode away from all her rivals in an awesome display of power. Only Lea Davison was able to hold her wheel for part of the race. This year, however, Katerina Nash, "The Queen of American Short Track", is coming to Sea Otter with her best form of the past three Sea Otters due to the selection process for the Czech Republic Olympic Team. If Nash is second wheel with one lap to go, she almost always wins. Nobody can ride one lap faster than her.
Emilly Batty, winner in 2010, has proven that she needs to be taken seriously in short track racing. Lea Davison will be cheered on by a huge contingent of her Little Bellas, who will be attending a three-day camp at the Sea Otter Classic. She never fails to make the podium when her girls are present.
The Little Bellas, founded by Lea and her sister Sabra, is a "mountain biking organization whose goal is to help young women reached their fullest potential".
The men's downhill field is the most star studded of the weekend. Many of the best downhillers on the planet are in town primarily to fulfill obligations to their sponsors. While the Sea Otter downhill course does not have the technical challenges these racers normally see, the course was improved significantly in 2011.
World champion Danny Hart (Team Giant) from the United Kingdom headlines the roster, but all eyes will be on American Aaron Gwin (Trek World Racing) who is ranked number one in the world in UCI points. Also on the roster are South Africa's Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) and Andrew Neethling (Giant) and the always electrifying Australian Sam Hill (Monster Energy-Specialized) and his younger teammate and compatriot, junior world champion Troy Brosnan..
The downhill finals will be held on Sunday starting at 10:00 am.
The dual slalom events at the Sea Otter Classic are sure to draw the biggest crowds of the weekend. While the loss of four cross on the World Cup circuit may have cut down on the level of competition this year, some of the world's best will still be there.
Former four cross world champions Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox Factory Racing) and the USA's Jill Kintner (Team Norco) will be headlining the event. At the time of this writing, Brian Lopes was not registered but if he does choose to race, it could mean an exciting repeat of the 2011 final. Lopes is arguably in his best shape of the past few years after having trained for and won the inaugural eliminator World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium this past weekend.
Dual slalom qualifying begins at 11:00 am on Saturday with the finals at 4:00 pm.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews all weekend for race reports and photography from the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey.