The Sea Otter mountain bike course is fun, as long as you’re not in any hurry.

A Half-Fast Ride: Single-Track Mind: Four-time Sea Otter Classic competitor Jeff McGrath negotiates some of Fort Ord’s famous backroads.— Zachary Stahl

My front tire buckles on the hard-packed sand as I tightly round a bank. One second I am ducking under branches on the shady trail, the next second the canopy opens to blue sky. Tall snags stand like moai statues on Easter Island.

But there is no time for musing. I barrel past ferns and oaks, trying to catch up to my guide, Jeff McGrath. As I roll over ruts, my front brakes jingle like pocket change. I ignore the unsettling sound; I just want to keep pedaling.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, a perfect time to ride the cross-country mountain bike course where pro-riders will be racing at the Sea Otter Classic.

Energized from the downhill, I climb at a steady pace. I look behind me, expecting Jeff to blow past me. (He has competed in the Sea Otter Classic for the past four years, while this is my first time riding the trail.) Yet somehow I’ve got a lead on him. “Heck,” I think to myself, “this course isn’t so tough.”

Suddenly my front brake arm collapses. Washers and screws hit my spokes and scatter. I curse myself for not checking my bike before the ride. Jeff arrives in time to help me gather parts off the dirt, but I am missing a crucial bolt. We slowly backtrack down the trail. Lucky for me, Jeff finds the bolt. After about 15 minutes of experimentation, he has the assembly back together. He also tightens my back brakes, just in case.

≈ ≈ ≈

We race past patches of sweet-smelling wildflowers on what locals call Outhouse Trail. I’ve ridden this fun downhill off Skyline Road many times since I moved to Monterey County in 2002. We stop at a vista that offers gorgeous views of Toro Park. I look down at Goat Trail, a popular hard-pack path that cuts through a meadow.

This 19-mile course through Fort Ord is one of the most renowned cross-country trail races in the United States. The course has incredible variety, ranging from fire roads with expansive views to single-track with rock-and-sand-filled turns. Thousands of riders, including the top names in mountain biking, will come from across the country this weekend to hit this stretch of dirt.

At the vista, I get excited about riding down Goat. But Jeff tells me that we are going uphill instead. He points to Three Sisters, a super-steep fire road that I have never dared to climb. Uphill, the name changes to Three Bastards, he says. Pedaling in my granny gear, I make it up the ridge. Later, we ride up another of my favorite downhills, No Name. The winding stroll through thick brush normally shoots me out onto Engineer Canyon Road. But instead we have to go the opposite direction.

“The designer was a sadist,” Jeff says as we trudge up No Name.

“This course is backwards,” I reply.

After riding an arduous leg of Jack’s Road, we pull off the pavement to ride down Goat Trail. I am tired and ready to coast for a while. But Jeff suddenly remembers that he has to rush home to attend an event with his fiancee. That means no more breaks or sightseeing.

After Goat we take Three Sisters to Oil Well, an unwelcoming uphill fire road. My quads start to burn as soon as I hit the incline. I downshift but it doesn’t seem to help.

I look ahead for the finish line, but the road doesn’t appear to end. Instead, the path becomes gradually steeper. The open hills lose their attraction. At this point I just want the ride to be over.

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Oil Well turns into Skyline Road. I imagine that the race is won or lost on this last uphill stretch. Riders that smartly save their energy surpass those that have no legs in the end.

I get a whiff of an herb that smells like cilantro. I think about biting into a chile relleno burrito with salsa and washing it down with a cold beer. A dry energy bar and water tasting of plastic just aren’t cutting it.

I look to the south and see a green-striped camper perched on a hilltop—a sheepherder’s camp. I imagine chilling out on a lawn chair while he fires up the barbecue.

At last, we arrive at the final ascent. I see the welcoming fence for Laguna Seca as I reach the peak. After one quick downhill, we are done.

At our riding pace, we would have finished the race in about an hour and 55 minutes, Jeff says. I am thinking my time was pretty good until I find out that the pro racers do two laps in about the same time it took us to do one.  

Beginner cross-country racers will start at 7:30am on Saturday. Sport and expert categories will begin at 7:30am Sunday with the pro-riders starting at noon. Visit seaotterclassic.com for more.

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