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20,000 wheels descend on Sea Otter Classic

Nearly 20 years ago some 350 mountain bikers congregated to race cross-country and dual slalom at the Laguna Seca Challenge. The events of that 1991 weekend eventually grew into the Sea Otter Classic, which this year will host multiple thousands of racers competing in the widest range of disciplines of any event in North America.

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California event unique in multi-discipline draw

By Ben Delaney

2009 Sea Otter Classic

2009 Sea Otter Classic

Photo: Brad Kaminski

Nearly 20 years ago some 350 mountain bikers congregated to race cross-country and dual slalom at the Laguna Seca Challenge. The events of that 1991 weekend eventually grew into the Sea Otter Classic, which this year will host multiple thousands of racers competing in the widest range of disciplines of any event in North America.

Just outside Monterey, California, Sea Otter kicked off Thursday with criteriums on the Laguna Seca racetrack, plus dual slalom and downhill practice and qualifying runs. On tap over the four-day weekend are pro and amateur road races, circuit races, cross-country, short track, downhill, dual slalom, super D and more.

Sea Otter organizers claim last year’s event drew 9,500 race entries and some 50,000 spectators over the four-day weekend. Similar numbers are expected this year.

Frank Yohannan, Sea Otter Classic president and CEO, and his partner Lou Rudolph started the event in 1990 after a conversation in a Monterey bike shop. “We had an event management business and were looking for some things to do,” Yohannan said. “The shop owner said, ‘you oughta put on a bike race.’ We said, ‘yeah, let’s give it a try.’ The learning curve was almost vertical. But a few months later we had 350 athletes racing here at Laguna Seca. We’re real happy with the growth and how things have progressed throughout the years.”

09 Sea Otter: "Big C" has been coming to Sea Otter for more than 10 years

09 Sea Otter: “Big C” has been coming to Sea Otter for more than 10 years

Photo: Brad Kaminski

Sea Otter has experimented with a variety of events and formats over the years, from major road stage races to inline skating, roller hockey and even volleyball one year.

“We’re always looking for events to add, but the focus is always on key events in mountain biking and road cycling,” Yohannan said.

MOUNTAIN BIKING

For a few years, Sea Otter was a major stop on the international mountain bike circuit. This year a few big name riders will make an appearance but the timing and geography — just days after a World Cup in South Africa — limited the appearance of international talent.

That said, the 145-man cross-country field will include the likes of Christoph Sauser, Max Plaxton, Manuel Prado, Burry Stander, Conrad Stolz and Sid Taberlay. Notable Americans toeing the line include Troy and Todd Wells, Jeremiah Bishop, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Seamus McGrath and Ryan Trebon. Living legends Dave Wiens and Ned Overend will likely drop more than a handful of riders half their age, and roadies Burke Swindlehurst and Aaron Olson will also be giving the off-road race a go.

On the women’s side, American Olympian Georgia Gould will return, along with her regular American competitors Heather Irmiger and Willow Koerber.

Where Sea Otter continues to shine is in gravity — more than 1,000 race entries have been registered for downhill and dual slalom events. Besides the few international pros, swarms of regional racers of all ages make the annual pilgrimage for the long weekend.

ROAD RACING
For road racing, Sea Otter quickly added skinny tire events early in its history, and grew to include a pro stage race at one point, with stages in various years in Redwood City, Santa Cruz and a criterium in Cannery Row. But those were ultimately cut out.

“What we discovered was that we were getting a little too separated geographically to really control things the way we would like,” Yohannan said. “Our model is not the model of the great tours — the Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia when that was going on, and the Tour de France of course. Our model is to stay self-contained within the Laguna Seca recreation area. We enjoyed doing the other events off-site, but in the final analysis it just didn’t make sense from an operational standpoint, a business standpoint, or from the athletes’ standpoint.”

This year Bissell and Land Rover-Orbea are the only two pro teams with full squads competing in the criterium, road race and circuit race.

INDUSTRY EXPO

09 Sea Otter: More than 250 brands set up shop in the expo

09 Sea Otter: More than 250 brands set up shop in the expo

Photo: Brad Kaminski

For the bike industry, Sea Otter is a de facto spring tradeshow, where current and upcoming product can be shown to the media and consumers. More than 250 brands are represented this year.

“International media, athletes, industry and families are all here,” said Dain Zaffke, WTB’s marketing manager. “It’s important for us to have a presence. I’m excited to see what this all looks like, as it will signal what the summer’s going to be like with the industry, and the economy. Because it’s an expensive event for the high school kids who race all the way up to the exhibitors, it’s a good signal for the rest of the season.”

Many manufacturers offer demo mountain and road bikes for real-world testing on the singletrack and pavement. Any a number of local retailers also use the event to move product, from socks to hardware.

“It’s a selling race,” Zaffke said. “People are ready to buy new stuff, more so than at any other race I’ve ever been to. It’s a different group of people than your NORBAs. It’s people who don’t necessarily follow racing. It’s a good introduction to the sport.”

Which is exactly what Yohannan is after.

“We’ll continue to grow Sea Otter,” Yohannan said, “with things like the Bicycle Leadership Conference this week, where we’re bringing leaders in to talk about what’s going on in cycling, to talk about the business challenges out there. But we also will continue to bring in the top riders and all the amateur riders to race. And most importantly we, we will continue to get in a lot of young families and children in. They’ll be playing in the bouncy castles and being introduced to cycling. That’s our future.”

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