Sea Otter Classic Off-Road Gran Fondo


“The time has come,” the Roadie said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and clips—and single-tracks—
Of baby heads—and springs—
And why the trail sucks every watt—
And whether your freehub sings.”

—With all due apologies to the wonderful Lewis Carroll.

Other than last week’s post about the new 29er from BMC, it’s been a long time since I was last paid to write about the sport of mountain biking. It’s not that I wasn’t into mountain bikes or riding off road. Prior to moving to California and joining the staff of Bicycle Guide I spent half my time riding off road. But because BG was a road publication and freelancing was verboten, I didn’t do any writing about mountain bikes while there. Later, I sold my beloved Merlin mountain bike as I did everything possible to generate capital for my magazine Asphalt. After a while, it’s been so long since you’ve written about something it’s hard to convince an editor you’re the right guy.

I realized something recently. That hostility that used to exist between mountain bikers and roadies (and vice versa) has either died down or just never made much sense to most of you. It’s been apparent from our Friday Group Rides that many of you still own and ride mountain bikes. Heck, for a few of you, you’re mountain bikes are your favorite bikes. It seems if we were to include a bit of mountain content here and there the chance of a full-scale readership exodus is unlikely (though I could find myself deleting this post Saturday if we get four hits between now and dinner Friday).

A bunch of guys on bikes with 75cm-wide bars makes for a more spacious start. 

So I sold some bikes on Ebay and picked up a Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper FSR 29er which was being turned over as part of a demo fleet.


My first ride on the bike was Saturday’s off-road gran fondo at the Sea Otter Classic. My form isn’t what you (or anyone) would call stellar, so rather than race—or do the full-distance road gran fondo—I thought it would be advisable that I sign up for the two-hour guided tour, so-to-speak. I spend a lot of time talking about how a new bike can make the sport fresh again, how even a really perfect piece of gear can brighten an ordinary ride. Riding that Stumpy over the fire roads and singletrack of Laguna Seca and Fort Ord was pretty close to taking up a whole new sport—and not sucking at it. And that’s the thing: the combination of 29-inch wheels, full suspension and 130mm of travel front and rear (as opposed to the 80mm travel of my old Rock Show Judy) allowed me to sail through stuff that would have given me a good deal of trouble on my old bike. Like I said, a whole new sport.

Finding opportunities to shoot wasn’t easy.

It may be that this is the nation’s only off-road gran fondo. I can’t say that for certain, but I’ve done a fair amount of checking. And while it may seem that calling an off-road fun ride a gran fondo is silly, I suspect that the term “gran fondo” did a lot to bring in riders who wanted a chance to ride the fire roads and trails in the area without having to enter a race—or get in the way of one. There didn’t seem to be that many riders at the start, but the finish sheet indicates there were more than 300 riders who completed the event, a bit less than half the size of the road event.

The course was essentially the cross country course with an extra, four-mile loop added on. Late in the cross country when riders begin the long climb back toward Laguna Seca, the gran fondo turns off to take an even steeper climb then tosses in a brief descent before rejoining the race course. All in all, the course had four sustained climbs to give you 3000 feet of climbing in just 20 miles. The longest single flat on the entire course came as you exited the one sag stop on the ride. It was 200 meters, tops.

This rest spot was a nice chance to regroup and just soak in the surrounding landscape.

Now to give you some idea of just how steep some of this terrain is, I won’t bother telling you about which climbs I flamed out on and had to walk because  I couldn’t maintain either my direction or traction (there weren’t many, but there were a few). I think this will tell you more: Near the start there is a gravel descent that hits 13 percent. It’s pretty smooth and bends slightly to the right. My Garmin tells me I did 42 mph there. Strava thinks I only did 40.4, but what the hell. That’s got to be 10 mph faster than I’ve ever gone on a mountain bike (off road) before.

Did I mention I wasn’t nervous?

Normally, when I write up my experience at a gran fondo I like to give the arc of the day in broad strokes. The road gran fondo there is flat for a long way, then has a few steep rollers, then a long false flat climb that eventually turns into a real climb to Cahoon Summit followed by a descent into Carmel Valley where none of the drivers are interested in making room for cyclists, then a steep climb up Laureles Grade before the descent back to Hwy 68 and the climb back into Laguna Seca. Honestly, my memory of the off road gran fondo is just a blur of up and down and twisty. Not that I mind. The views were ever changing and the other riders present were really nice, even when they were passing my broken self.

Not all of the trails were as smooth as this, but it was hard not to welcome such pristine singletrack.

In talking with other riders I heard a single complaint, one that was echoed by some of the riders of the road gran fondo. How can riders who did two different events on the same day have the same complaint you ask? Easy. They were forced to choose either the road or off-road gran fondo. They couldn’t do both, which would have been possible if, for instance, the road event was Saturday and the off-road event was held on Sunday. I heard from plenty of riders that they would have done both. Until someone complained, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me. I gotta admit, I’d have tried to carve out time enough to at least do the medio fondo (which is what they call the medium-length, 100km or so option in Italy). No Virginia, they aren’t all “gran” fondos.

So why bother paying an entry to a non-competitive off-road ride? Easy. It’s a chance to ride somewhere you don’t know at all and not have to worry about maps or even route slips. You can ride as hard or as easy as you want and you’ll have company for it. And then there are the touches like the fresh strawberries at the rest stop; there was other food there, but I had so many strawberries, I honestly don’t recall what else, besides some granola, was available. You know that won’t be sitting out on the trail waiting for you to show up.

I’m really hoping that next year they split the gran fondo to separate days so that I can do both, provided my fitness returns.



  1. Peter Lin

    I don’t really care what it’s called, as long as it’s fun! The chance to ride a new route with friends or new cyclist is always fun. When you think about it, it’s a win win win situation. The ride is supported, you’re out riding and there’s others suffering with you.

  2. andrew

    It’s been raining for weeks here in Wales. Seeing dry trails makes me so jealous I can’t believe it.

    Never mind, mountain mayhem 24 hr race will be dry this year… please?

    As for more mtb content. that be good.

  3. thrash

    I think the fact that the latest TDF winner started as a Mtn Biker and some of the best Mtn. Bikers started as roadies underscores the fact that we just all love our bikes – NO matter what kind. Maybe it is kind of a Civil Rights Movement in the bike community?

  4. armybikerider

    Bikes is bikes….no matter the dimensions of the wheels or geometry of the frame or what surface they are meant to be ridden on. I’d love to see more MTB/cross/whatever bike content.

  5. Sterling Matt

    Good re-entry piece…guess you were serious about the MTB angle. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who disparages one or the other isn’t quite a complete rider (well, if they add cross of course!). You have to be able to do it all (except BMX, that’s just scary!).

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for the words of encouragement. Honestly, I would never have guessed that MTB content could become part of Red Kite Prayer when I started, but it just seems to fit. Your attitudes say it all.

  6. Doug Page

    When I started racing there were no mountain bikes. After I began racing MTB, I never stopped road riding. My bike collection and riding is adapted to road and cross-country riding because I live in a valley and have access to cross-country MTB trails and lots of road riding. If I lived near a ski resort, I might have a downhill rig. I miss the old days of MTB when we were all of the same tribe, but I agree with you Padraig, that the animosity might have died down a bit between tribes. However, that could be a just a warm fuzzy feeling you felt at Sea Otter, because, as we know, Sea Otter is one of those rare instances when all the cycling tribes unite, sort of a “gathering of the tribes”, if you will.

  7. Joe

    PLease stick to road coverage. It’s what I (and many others) were hoping for when RKP started; a serious road blog. There are plenty MTB sites out there. Why not specialize, and do it better than anyone else.
    Also, those forays by Robot into “what do you think”, are getting tiresome. To read a bunch of clumsy writing about things that only invite readers to tell us how much they really don’t know about road riding, is starting to sound more and more like VeloNews; a little bit for everyone, but nothing that sticks.
    Some constructive criticism that should be taken like that. You started off hot. it’s getting watered down.

  8. Chromatic Dramatic

    I would say there was a period of time, where you either road a MTB or a Road bike, with very few people doing both. I don’t see that anymore.

    Everyone that I ride with does both.

    What caused it? NFI. Maybe just the general increase in riding. Certainly living in a big city, it is hard to get out on a MTB without spending hours driving there and back. That time can often be better spent riding out your front door on a road bike. Being a MTBer initially, after awhile you realise that riding is riding is riding.

    Same Same. But different.

    What I do find interesting, is the differences in both. On a road bike, I do enjoy the challenges of riding hills (Strava feeds my addiction), where as on the MTB I enjoy the challenge of riding down technical (not too technical, I’m still a spaz) single tracks, fast. While I generally don’t like riding the same tracks (road or MTB) multiple times on a bike. Give me a fun fast technical descent, and I’d happily ride all day.

    More MTB content would be welcome. Not sure what type would appeal to others, but the escapism of riding some far off trail appeals to me.

  9. Eddie

    My wife and I are long time road riders. We even put our then 6 year old on the back of a nice Burley tandem so she could ride with us. We decided to start riding Mt. Bikes with her when she turned 10. So for Christmas I bought her and my wife Mt. bikes. It was a great reason to buy new bikes and I always love that. Now that we have started my wife seems more interested in single track than the the road. We love Mt. biking and still ride the road when we get time. I think most folks who love bikes would ride whatever seems to fit their life at the time.

  10. Jesus from Cancun

    I really like RKP the way it is. Here I can find the intelligent and unbiased comment and reviews that can rarely be found elsewhere.

    Personally, I am not interested in MTB racing. I have no idea of who won what and how, and I don’t need to know. But I enjoyed this article, and I wouldn’t mind reading about great MTB rides or good new products every now and then.

    Keep up the good job and the road racing emphasis. In the worst of cases, if you publish something I don’t care about, I won’t read it and we will still be friends.

    I don’t know, but I believe there is no red kite at MTB races, just a big sign. Right?

    1. Author

      I’m appreciating the feedback from everyone regarding our editorial direction. The thing for me is that with additional talent, we’ve got the ability to do more things. I don’t see us ever “covering” pro MTB racing the way we do the road, but it doesn’t feel like a reach to me to embrace the range of experiences our readers enjoy. Bottom line, RKP is about the interior experience and we’ll continue to stick close to what you’ve enjoyed so far. We’ll just be more, not different.

  11. Eto

    I discovered “riding” at the ripe age of 23, just after graduating college and re-locating to western Michigan from home (southern California). My first bike was an MTB that served me both on and off road. After a couple of years I built my first road bike. I could not believe how much more effecient it felt… I quickly fell in love, again.

    Because of where I started, I have always ridden an MTB while staying committed to the road. These days with a young family, I find myself riding my MTB on the road more often than off. I find it tough to be a purist when my time to get out is so limited. When I get out on my own, it tends to be on the MTB usually on the road. When I ride my road bike it is usually with a group.

    I read RKP for the perspective(s) not just the subject matter. Great writing, thinking, insight, etc. defines the core for me. If you ever see me on the road, I might be the guy pulling through on a 26’er steel Curtlo working extra hard to hang with the group.

  12. andrew

    Those people who don’t want mtb stuff, don’t have to read it. It seems to be in addition to all the road interest, not subtracting from it.

    Do you not buy a newspaper if you are only interested in one sport but it has coverage of others?

    I’d be happy to read anything on any aspect of cycling. on mtb shoes, good for touring, good for commuting, good for racing.

  13. offroaded

    Most of my dirt riding is done on rolling sandy/gravelly single track that just about anything works on and its a nice change of pace. I’d keep the content as a change of pace too. That new hardtail 650b looks pretty cool…

  14. Dan O

    This is a fantastic site, adding a few mountain bike articles will add to it – not detract. Keep it mainly road oriented, but toss in some XC related mountain bike stories/reviews. I’m guessing most cyclists attracted to Red Kite Prayer, if they ride off-road, would be more XC type riders – so probably skip the downhill/freeride stuff.

    I ride road and off-road, both have their place and are attractive for different reasons. And of course – cyclocross – where the two worlds blur into each other, is more fun then humans should be allowed. If you only stick to pavement, give a modern mountain bike a try. You might even like it…

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