The events that go airborne help the Sea Otter Classic draw thousands to Laguna Seca to race and recreate.

Two Treacherous: Riders battle berms, jumps, dust and gravity side by side during the SRAM Mountain Bike Dual Slalom.

Dusty bikers blow down steep hillsides, separated from one another – and a mean Seca scrape – by a fraction of a second and just a couple of feet. A specialist and his bike leap off a ramp as one, shooting him up to perch on one thin cross bar (then another), a teetering stunt made more surreal by the fact he simultaneously narrates via wireless mic. Meanwhile, cycle-centric citizens and more casual connoisseurs ogle futuristic socks and bamboo bikes in the Sea Otter Village and BMXers loop through big backflips in the dry sky.

With all this buzzing around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the space of an afternoon, it doesn’t take a soothsayer to intuit that there is a big bundle of stimuli to be soaked up over four days at the annual Sea Otter Classic. The diversity of the intrigue – off-road and on, competitive pro or goofy amateur, adult or ankle-biter – has helped transform a tribal gathering of tread-heads that drew 300 participants and half that many observers for ’91’s inaugural into a small city-sized festival that attracted 9,500 participants and 50,000 spectators a year ago.

Here are just a few of the things (with an emphasis on high-flying events) that gear so many to steer their handlebars in this direction. For complete schedules, race over to www.seaotterclassic.com:

SRAM DUAL SLALOM

The Sea Otter powers-that-be call this one “a classic.” Big berms, backbone-rattling “rhythm sections,” and a range of jumps, all accelerated by good old gravity, test two side-by-side mountain bikers mightily.

Course builder and designer Keith Defiebre of Prunedale says he feels challenged to come up with the craziest course he can each year. That means he has some treats in store for the biker corps come this weekend – a group that will include the top-ranked competitors in the slalom game – like the huge tabletop combo that will close the sprint.

“I brought in 25 truckloads of dirt,” he says. “I added more roller jumps and another berm section; the finish should be super exciting – a 30-foot and a 25-foot table top – and the fence line is right next to crowd. The riders will [soar] over the crowd’s head.”

SRAM DUAL STUNT

Course designer Jeff Lenosky, himself a freeride pioneer and former trials national champion, describes this 2-year-old event as similar to a “bicycle steeplechase.” Two racers barrel through a 200-foot-long gauntlet decorated with wood and dirt devices – including balance beams, skinny wooden ladders and jumps Lenosky says “have a sweet spot where too slow is no good and too fast is no good” – perform a pirouette on a virtually vertical turning bank and zoom back through.

The riders then switch sides and race again. The rider with the best overall time advances in a single elimination tournament. The rider who falls from one of the raised obstacles…

“The course is pretty unforgiving,” Lenosky offers. “You want to try not to fall. That’s for sure.”

GT AIRSHOW

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When the GTA and their bikes zip up their prodigious ramps and half-pipes, jaws head the other direction. These stunt riders dance with wheels and handlebars as much as 30-plus feet off the ground, recalibrating common definitions for twist, flip and spin.

The most surprising thing, though, isn’t so much the way some of their artists cruise the clouds with only one limb of four gripping any given bike frame, but that the land-bound half of this outfit’s outlandish activities is just as arresting.

RYAN LEECH

Most civilians would struggle to stand on the elaborate apparatus Leech assembles for more than a second or two without falling. This headliner, though, balances on the little bars and platforms on bike tires not much fatter than banana slugs. Maybe he mastered this when he and the little biker buddies were bored at the playground, hopping, bouncing and otherwise scouring all the slides and stairs. He’s gotten nimble enough at his craft to perform with Cirque de Soleil.

SEA OTTER VILLAGE

This is the place to stock up on new clever Clif Bar flavors; taste the next generation of Goos; swig some of the debut H2O Overdrive (“scientifically formulated with a precision ratio of eight grams of protein, 24 grams of carbohydrates, and more than 30 vitamins and minerals”); or lounge in the Sierra Nevada Beer and Barbecue Garden. This is also the place to test ride one of the sexier breakthroughs of the cycling world, a bike made from bamboo – and produced locally by La Selva Beach’s independently owned Calfee Design.

THE SEA OTTER CLASSIC takes place 8am-6pm Thursday-Sunday at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, 1025 Monterey-Salinas Highway 68, Monterey. For complete schedules and more, call 373-2331 or visit www.seaotterclassic.com

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