Sea Otter Classic rolls this weekend in California

The 2015 Sea Otter Classic "Celebration of Cycling" will take place April 16-19 at Laguna Seca Recreation Area in Monterey, California. The venerable event brings out nearly every professional mountain biker in North America, and many from other countries due to the embedded industry expo that attracts more than companies.

The 2015 men's cross-country event will headline former World Champion Nino Schurter (Scott Swisspower), who is coming off a win at last week's UCI HC in San Dimas, California. While Shurter may be the class of the field, he will have to contend with many talented riders, including last year's winner and former World Champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized).

The Sea Otter cross-country course has changed dramatically over the years. In recent years they tried to make a course similar in length (less than three miles) to World Cup courses. This had advantages that included being more spectator/media friendly, and giving the riders more frequent access to tech zones for repairs. However, given the configuration of the Laguna Seca Raceway, it meant that riders raced up to 40 percent of the time on pavement and were forced to use road racing tactics and drafting.

Last year the Sea Otter Classic returned to using two laps of a 27km course, which was quite similar to those used a decade ago. Some competitors like the "old school" nature of the big loops, but they are not looked on favourably by some of the well-oiled World Cup Teams. The major advantages to this course are that the riders spend very little time on pavement, and the climbs/descents can be much longer. Pure climbers have more time to exert their advantage, while good descenders can reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour on the fire road descents.

The long course also plays well into the hands of former Marathon World Champion Sauser. Although he retired from active World Cup racing a couple years ago, he is highly competitive in endurance events such as the Cape Epic (which he won again this year), and the Leadville 100.

The remainder of last year's men’s podium will all be racing; Russell Finsterwald (SRAM), Geoff Kabush (Scott 3Rox Racing), US Champion Todd Wells (Specialized), and Derek Zandstra (Scott 3Rox Racing).

However, a talented group of foreigners, particularly from the Trek Factory Team, may spoil the party. Australian Champion Dan McConnell, Sergio Mantecon, and Kohei Yamamoto are all potential winners for Trek. Canada's Raphael Gagne (Rocky Mountain) has been on fire in the USA Pro-XCT series and will be likely to make the critical selection process that takes place on course..

Former Sea Otter winners Max Plaxton (Sho-Air Cannondale) and Geoff Kabush have not looked as sharp as usual so far this season. Both, however, are fierce competitors and will not give up ground easily.

On Friday, the men's field will compete on a Short Track event. This American invention features 20-minutes plus three laps of racing on a small circuit. Todd Wells will be looking to repeat his 2014 victory, but his new nemesis, USA Champion Stephen Ettinger (Sho-Air Cannondale), will want this victory as well. Dan McConnell (Trek Factory Racing) won his first short track event last week at Bonelli Park and surely has the horsepower to upset the American's plans.

Women's racing

World cycling super-star Marianne Vos (Rabobank Liv Giant) has dominated the past couple years at the Sea Ottter Classic, but she will not be competing this coming weekend. This will open the door for a host of North American racers to take the top step of the podium.

In 2011, Emily Batty (Trek Factory Racing) won her first big race at this venue in a sprint finish against fellow Canadian/ World Champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team). Both riders have battled mightily in the young 2015 season, with Batty generally coming out on top. The climbing on the long Sea Otter course will favour both of them.

Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) finished second in 2014 and has been riding well this year. 2012 Sea Otter winner Georgia Gould seems to be ramping up her fitness over the past few weeks and will likely be a factor.

The pro women will also be competing in Short Track Racing on Friday. Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) is the favourite in any short track race she enters, but teammate Georgia Gould, Emily Batty (Trek Factory Racing), and Chloe Woodruff (NoTubes Niner) have all proven this season that they have a shot at winning.

This weekend's racing, which includes virtually every cycling discipline, is expected to attract nearly 10,000 racers, 65,000 spectators, and more than 300 media representatives. It not only includes 200 mountain bike and road racing events, but also a massive Grand Fondo that allows amateur riders to enjoy the roads surrounding Monterey.

For adults there will also be the Sea Otter Expo, free bike demos, stunt shows, and an International Food Court. For children there will be the Sea Otter Egg Hunt, Kid's Carnival, Kid’s Bike Races, and a Kid’s Bicycle Playground.

Co-founders Frank Yohannan and Lou Rudolph hosted the original Laguna Sec Challenge in 1991. That race had only 350 racers and 150 spectators. It was renamed the Sea Otter Classic in 1993.

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