The Sea Otter Classic is still growing and adding events after 20 years.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
One April day in the bygone year of 1991, Monterey’s Frank Yohannen decided to throw together a little bike meet. He was starting up an event business and, after a chat with a bike shop owner, decided to try a mountain bike race he was billing as the Laguna Seca Classic.
He didn’t expect a lot of riders to come, let alone anyone interested in watching, but 350 athletes and 150 spectators showed.
“Compared to today’s numbers, that race was small,” says Yohannen, who changed the event’s name to Sea Otter Classic three years in and now serves as its president. “But we were surprised how many athletes actually showed up. What I remember most was, it was a very hectic day.”
Twenty years later, this mingling of two-wheel enthusiasts has evolved to comparatively unrecognizable proportions. The 350 athletes now number 8,500. The 150 spectators have swollen to 50,000. Where there were once zero exhibitors, 300 now appear.
“We have become the largest cycling festival in the world,” Yohannen says. Events like Whistler’s Crank Works and Teva’s Mountain Games draw thousands, including big mountain biking crowds, as part of a wider swath of outdoor competitions, but neither focuses purely on man-powered machines like the Sea Otter.
It didn’t take long for the young SOC to drop its training wheels. Timing helped. Sea Otter falls right at the start of North America’s race season, making it a kick-off event that lets athletes get their racing legs going before competition season shifts into high gear.
The primordial draw of Monterey in springtime and plenty of elbow grease put in by thousands of volunteers and organizers also helped Sea Otter blossom from the thrown-together event of ’91 to what it is today: a Mecca for everything cycling. Nowhere else in the world can you eat, sleep and breath bikes as you can at Sea Otter.
Athletes meet head-to-head in nine on – and off-road categories over the four-day fest. Road bikers race lengths ranging from 47 to 114 miles around the hills and hairpins of Laguna. Circuit racers sprint for anywhere from 50 minutes, for juniors, to 120 for pros in male and female categories.
The SRAM Downhill Mountain Bike race, added to the Sea Otter in its early years and now one of the most popular races of the weekend, offers $3,000 in cash prizes. The biggest prize, though, is $4,500 to the winners of each diabolical downhill Dual Slalom run. Other classic mountain biking events like the Le Mans styled Super D, gut-busting Cross Country, or the scramble of the Short Track have become time-tested, crowd-approved, grimy, guilty pleasures.
Yohannen feels the accessibility of the athletes boosts the competitions’ appeal.
“For athletes, it lets them meet and talk with top professional cyclists from around the world,” he says. “It’s like a major golf tournament where an amateur golfer can go on the links and play with the pros, then sit and talk with them after the competition.”
In the sprawling Sea Otter Village, festivalgoers can browse all the latest tools, technology, gear and apparel, sample new Clif Bar flavors and the next generation of Goos, lounge in the Sierra Nevada Beer and Barbecue Garden – featuring SN’s 17-foot, solar-powered draft trailer – or check out the latest bike-based initiative. “If you’re in the business of cycling, [Sea Otter] allows you to showcase how important cycling is – that it’s good for the environment, individuals’ health, as a family activity,” Yohannen says.
Placing more of an emphasis on the exhibition aspect of the Sea Otter has broadened its attendee demographics. While the village swells larger every year, organizers continue to track other trends in the cycling community. That has paid off from the start: After getting its bearings as a mountain-bikes-only event, SOC brought road races into the fold in 1992 to rave responses.
Similarly, they’ve introduced a host of new events this year. Perhaps grandest among them is the Gran Fondo, a European-style endurance test that’s more ride than race, giving participants a tour of the scenery rather than a grueling out-and-out battle to the finish. Demand among American cyclists for this all-inclusive event is high, and Sea Otter answered the call. Pros, amateurs and recreational riders of every cut can participate, making it an experience in cycling culture rather than for competitive gain.
“As long as we continue to stay close and pay attention to what cyclists want, that’s what we’ll include in Sea Otter,” Yohannen says. He plans on incorporating more recreational cycling events in upcoming years for those riders who don’t compete and “just like to go out and ride bikes.”
Here’s a roster of the new additions at this year’s Sea Otter.Gran Fondo
This event has caught on like Livestrong wristbands. Banking on the Grand Fondo’s success in Europe and the turnout of thousands at a Gran Fondo held by cycling star Levi Leipheimer stateside, SOC is introducing it own. Translated from Italian as “Great Endurance,” the event actually traces a choice of two courses, 49-mile and 100-mile treks that take riders on a tour of breathtaking proportions.
“A Lance Armstrong can ride it, and my aunt can ride it,” event coordinator Ethel Chaney says. The shorter course goes coastal, starting at Laguna Seca, winding along the Monterey Rec Trail and finishing in Pacific Grove. The longer, more trying trek shares the same starting line but undulates inland all the way to Soledad’s wine country. Rest stops along both trails offer refreshment, sustenance, well-tended toilets and the chance to catch lost breath.Little Bellas Bike Camp
Sisters Lea and Sabra Davison saw a sorry lack of girls on the start line three years ago, so they decided to launch Little Bellas, a program with a simple goal in mind: Get more girls on bikes. “Junior boys would have 50 competitors,” Lea says from her home in Vermont. “And on a good day, there’d be like 10 girls.” The Davisons are both professional riders and Sea Otter vets, and this year they’ll lead a one-day camp focused on psyching young girls up on cycling. They plan on taking full advantage of “one of North America’s best mountain biking events,” according to Lea, who rides for Maxis Rocky Mountain.
Girls will lunch with the pros, watch the high-thrill competitions, and learn skills they never thought they could do. “I’m pumped to bring Little Bellas on the road and bring the concept and atmosphere to girls around the country,” Lea adds. “Some girl in California is going to get the Little Bellas experience, and I’m stoked on that.”Ride with a Pro
Ever wonder what it’d be like to ride side-by-side with Olympic mountain biker Todd Wells? Or how about three-time XTERRA Triathlon Champion Rebecca Rusch? Or rapidly rising road racer Jordan Rapp? What if you not only got to ride alongside these and other pros, but also got to test drive your dream bike as you received one-on-one pointers on your stride, shifting, and stance? This year’s first ever Ride with a Pro pairs Joe and Jane Schwinns with professional athletes from all biking disciplines, plops them on the latest designs and lets amateurs pick the brains of the best in the business. Bring a valid driver’s license and your own helmet.Collegiate Category for Mountain Bike and Circuit Races
Sea Otter knows times are tough, especially for the starving undergrad. To cater to the burgeoning number of collegiate cyclists, categories in both mountain and road racing have opened for riders who’ll receive a discounted entry fee if they wear their school’s jerseys. Races are open to both men and women and there are no age groupings.New Bike Club Zone
Sea Otter encompasses days of lung-aching, leg-swelling, blister-inducing, teeth-gritting competition. After hours of such work, athletes need a place to kick up their cleats and rest their saddle-sore rear ends. Enter the Bike Club Zone, a space within Sea Otter Village dedicated to teams and clubs setting up camp and creating a chill, hangout spot for athletes. Non-competitors are welcome to walk around the team tents and mingle with their favorite racers. The Zone has grown since it was inaugurated last year, and now 12-15 clubs will inhabit the locale. Pros often wander in among the athletes, organizers say, so be on the lookout for your fav top rider.