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Roel Paulissen (Cannondale)
Mountain bike racers of all ages and abilities are converging at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, for a weekend of competition in super D, downhill, cross country, short track and dual slalom.
If the forecast holds, racers can expect relatively good weather with temperatures in the mid-60s (degrees Fahrenheit) and mostly sunshine throughout the weekend.
The US Pro XCT makes stop number two in Monterey on Sunday.
Fresh off his victory at the Pan American Mountain Bike Continental Championships in Guatemala last weekend, Todd Wells (Specialized) will headline an all-star roster in the elite men's contest. Having won the Pro XCT opener in Fontana in March, Wells is currently the series leader, but he'll have to toe the line with Canadians Geoff Kabush (Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and Max Plaxton (Sho-Air-Specialized), as well as Australian strongman Sid Taberlay (Sho-Air / Specialized). Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher) and Sam Schultz (Subaru-Gary Fisher).
The race will be far from an all-North American affair, though, with riders like Belgian Roel Paulissen and Italian Marco Fontana (Cannondale) and Swiss Christoph Sauser (Specialized) among the foreigners in attendance. Sea Otter falls favorably on the calendar this year for international riders whereas last year, many European riders sat out the event to save themselves travel from South Africa to California and then Europe - all within three weeks. This year, Sea Otter happens just one week before the first cross country World Cup, making it a good leg opener before round one in Dalby, United Kingdom, next weekend.
After an American sweep of the elite women's podium in Guatemala, 2009 World Championship bronze medalist Willow Koerber (Subaru / Gary Fisher) and her teammate, 2009 national champ Heather Irmiger, are both looking quite strong for the women's cross country. Other women to keep an eye on this weekend will be the Luna trio of Georgia Gould, Katerina Nash, and Canadian national champ Catharine Pendrel while Trek World Racing's newest female signing, Emily Batty, proved she can race with the best last year at Sea Otter. There is no word yet on whether US Pro XCT women's leader Pua Sawicki will be competing, but Specialized's Lene Byberg, runner up at last year's World Championships and Giant's Kelli Emmett are both expected to compete.
Racers will be competing for UCI points, which will help determine starting positions at events like the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Quebec at the end of this summer.
Elite racers will race on a new, shorter cross country course this year in order to comply with the UCI standards for Cat. 1 races. Instead of the traditional two 19-mile loops, the elite men and women will race a to-be-determined number of 5-6km laps that keeps them in close proximity to the the raceway.
A brief glimpse of part of the cross country course that was open on Thursday afternoon showed a relatively newly cut track in most places run through grassy terrain and roads. It appears to spend a few hundred feet on an old four cross or dual slalom track, with berms to match. There is plenty of room to pass throughout although as the course wears in, probably a single line will emerge as best and no matter where you are on course, there are many deep ruts to avoid. The course is quite exposed in the sun, so if it is like in 2009, heat could play a major role.
"The course is rough right now. I think once more riders go through, that will help it," said Emily Batty to Cyclingnews. "I don't think there is any singletrack on the course, but I think it's a much more spectator-friendly course this year, and there is a ton of passing."
"I think it will be a course where a lot of people stick together," she said.
"I don't think there is any place for recovery," said Roel Paulissen, who is returning to Sea Otter for the first time in many years. "You have to keep the power on the whole time, but you keep just a little in reserve to push in the end."
Expect all the cross country favorites to warm up their legs on Saturday afternoon in the short track. The popular event at Sea Otter is good for spectators, with plenty of course visibility.
Tactics typically play a role in an event that is almost always less than half an hour. At the opening Pro XCT round, racers were pushed to the limit for a 15-minute short track, a bit shorter than the short tracks of previous seasons. Durations for this year's Sea Otter short track have not yet been published.
Racers will drop over 800 feet in three miles in the first event of the weekend on Saturday afternoon. The course is traditionally considered a pedalling-intensive course, and it's mostly on wavey fireroad that gives some of the riders a chance to catch air on their way down.
Look out for Super D favorites Carl Decker (Giant) and Kelli Emmett (Giant) as the favorites, but it's always a suprise to see which of the other big name downhill and cross country riders will come out and throw down.
The dual slalom, on Saturday afternoon, may offer the most anticipated course of the entire weekend. Racers on Thursday afternoon couldn't help but break into a big grin when asked what they thought of the course.
"I missed out riding here last year, and it is nice to be back again this year," said Rachel Atherton (Commencal), who sat out 2009 due to a shoulder injury.
"I'm looking forward to the dual slalom. It's pretty much the only one I get to do each year," she said to Cyclingnews. "It's super fun to be on the little bike. You can hop around and go flat out the whole time, it's a shame they don't have it at more races."
Atherton will likely be up against riders like Tracy Moseley (Trek World Racing) and Sabrina Jonnier.
"The dual slalom course is one of the best," said Giant's Jared Rando to Cyclingnews. "It's fun and a good track with lots of history. It's one of my favorite events."
Rando will take on riders like Greg Minnaar and downhill World Champion Steve Peat (Santa Cruz Syndicate), Duncan Riffle (Giant) and Dan and Gee Atherton (Commencal), just to name a few.
Expect many of the same faces from the dual slalom to excel in the downhill. The course is not the most popular one on the circuit when compared with the steeper, more technical World Cup courses, but riders will appreciate the chance for some early season general racing as well as high-speed practice on a pedally course.