By Chris Milliman, VeloNews correspondent
While scaled back in size for 2004, the Sea Otter Classic road stage race still aspires to be one of the better multi-day races in the U.S. With only three stages, down from the four in 2003, Sea Otter organizers have chosen to center all of the racing around the grounds of the Laguna Seca raceway, with every stage starting and finishing on the track’s familiar tarmac. Racing commences Thursday, and runs through Saturday.
As the final event of the active California spring stage race season, Sea Otter seems the perfect opportunity for Webcor’s Chris Horner to complete the Golden State sweep. An on-form Horner dominated proceedings at the Pomona and Redlands stage races in March, winning stages whenever and however he pleased.
However, with the Tour de Georgia start only three days after the final race in Monterey it is conceivable that Horner and other potential contenders for Georgia could lay low at Sea Otter. In fact, the lure of Georgia will keep the Colavita Olive Oil, Navigators and Ofoto squads away from Sea Otter altogether. In their absence, Northern California-based squads like Health Net-Maxxis and Sierra Nevada will mark Sea Otter as an opportunity to snag wins on home soil.
“The new guidelines limiting teams to six riders definitely changes the dynamic of the race,” notes Health Net team directeur sportif Jeff Corbett. “But our goals will be the same as they are every race, and that’s to win stages and be in the hunt for the overall.” Plus, with a California-based title sponsor in Health Net, Corbett adds, “we’ll be looking for a good showing because this is an important race for them as well.”
Riders will bust out the massive front chainrings for the race’s opening 3-kilometer prologue, which starts at the top of the race course’s corkscrew turn section and descends to a flat finish straight. The short course will keep time gaps small and expect a big power rider, maybe even one with experience on the velodrome, to snag the win.
Stage two’s circuit race, while chock full of short punishing climbs, most often finds harmless breakaways that dangle for a while but have little impact on the overall GC. The circuit race could provide a perfect opportunity to see a rematch of the Gord Fraser (Health Net) vs. Charles Dionne (Webcor) sprint free-for-all that punctuated stage four at Redlands.
The 100-mile final stage includes steep climbs and will certainly decide the overall GC. If Horner remains in good form, the stage seems perfectly suited for him, though the final climb into the raceway could see a climber spring away for the stage win.
The women’s stage race will not be run under the shadow of the upcoming Tour de Georgia, meaning that a complete field of top women will race hard all three days. The Danish S.A.T.S squad, ranked No. 1 in the UCI rankings, will field a team for Sea Otter, though an appearance by world champion Suzanne Ljungskog is not scheduled. Lyne Bessette (Quark) will try to follow up her brilliant Redlands win with another Sea Otter GC title — she also won in 2002.
With rival Geneviéve Jeanson (RONA) taking a pass on this year’s race, a Bessette win becomes much more likely. That said, the Genesis Scuba duo of Tina Pic and Susan Palmer-Komar could prove strong enough to jump into any gaps left open by Bessette and her team.
Stage 1 – Laguna Seca Prologue, 3km
Stage 2 – Laguna Seca Circuit Race, 38 miles women/60 miles men
Stage 3 – Carmel-Salinas Road Race, 100 milesCheck back to VeloNews.com all week for race reports, results and photos.