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).
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.
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.
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.
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.