In telling members of my family that I was headed to Monterey for a week—without my wife or son—there were, inevitably, questions about just what my justification was. How important could a bike event that wasn’t the Tour de France be? My response helped make fresh an event I’ve been going to for something like 15 years.
I told family and non-cycling friends that the Sea Otter Classic has more different types of racing in one place than any other event I’ve ever attended—nay, any event I’ve ever heard of. Early on, it was a mountain bike event. Then it added a couple of road events. Today, it’s much, much more. It’s easier to define what it doesn’t have than all that it does; other than cyclocross (which would be kinda silly in spring), all that’s missing is BMX (no track) and track (they did try running some events in San Jose a few years back, but that seemed to be a bridge too far). What really helped round out the festival, making it more non-racer friendly was the addition of two gran fondos, one on-road, the other off-road.
The real glue holding the event together seems less the racing than the expo. The Sea Otter was made in the mold of the season opener of the 1990s, the Cactus Cup and the old NORBA Nationals in Big Bear and Mammouth Mountain. Those events drew spectators in a way other races failed to achieve thanks in no small part to the expo areas they hosted. Today, Sea Otter is something of a spring Outdoor Demo. Companies like SRAM use it as an opportunity to launch products so they can achieve attention for products that either weren’t ready or might have gotten lost in the shuffle of Eurobike or Interbike. Sea Otter’s expo is so large that what you could easily get through in an afternoon 14 years ago can now require a methodical approach spanning three days.
Did I mention, it’s fun as hell?
Perhaps nothing has done more to cement in my mind the idea that the Sea Otter is one of the best events in cycling, an event that can draw anyone with even the slightest interest in things two-wheeled than the photo that leads this post. Last year I wrote a feature for peloton magazine about the New England bike industry and one of the most significant figures within it was mountain bike pioneer Chris Chance. I spent two months trying to find Chance. No dice. Then, as I’m talking to John Neugent of Neuvation Cycling fame, Chance walks up and says hi. I had no idea that John had helped Chris get his job at Witcomb Cycles working with Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle.
File this under “you can’t make this up”: Chance lives in mountain bike heaven these days. He’s in Marin County. And I’ve got his business card.
This year my role was a good bit different than in years past. While I still played journalist to some degree, checking out new products, much of my job was in support of our two ad guys, Roger Wotton and recent addition Nick Ramey. Nick has joined us to help land advertising for Charles Pelkey’s Live Update Guy. Rather than paying Charles a flat contributor fee the way most freelancers are treated, we’re treating him like the star that he is: we’ll be paying him a percentage of the ad revenue. Why do I mention this? Well, the companies that have expressed interest in advertising on LUG are interested precisely because it’s Charles. We hope you’ll think kindly of those companies once we are able to sign a contract or two.
The closest thing to a failing the event has is that sometimes the racing seems like a sideshow, or worse, a distraction when compared to the expo. It can be jarring to walk by the many tents set up and see some racer straddling a bike, clearly still out of breath from a recently finished event. But the image above really speaks to my love of the event. It’s a chance to bump into cycling (not just industry) friends. And Rapha, by the way, took the opportunity to use Sea Otter to introduce a few new products. I wore the brand new bib shorts and will soon try their new base layers. They also have a new series of casual shirts (it’s kind of insulting to call them T-shirts) that speak to the company’s love of the history of the sport. You’ll hear more about those very soon.
Then there’s the stuff you never expected to see, like this creation from Paul Sadoff, or the stunning Ibis Maximus. Sadoff rescued some S&S couplers from a damaged bike and then used a bunch of other scraps and orphaned parts to build up this bike for little other than his labor.
Unfortunately, I missed some friends and a few companies that were showing stuff I was really interested in because I had to skedaddle (only time you’ll hear that verb on this blog, I promise) for home and a book signing (no pictures, thank heaven) on Saturday afternoon. I’ll be honest, the LA Times Festival of Books was the only thing that could get me to leave Sea Otter early.
And this year was the first year I rode off-road at Laguna Seca … ever. What the hell is the world coming to? Stay tuned, I’ll tell you more.
The forecast for my favorite event of the year and the event I’ll go to the mat arguing is the best day of cycling in all of the Americas was for wet. Fog, mist, possible rain, it wasn’t a day to have a camera on your shoulder. Ugh.
In the previous editions (both of them), Levi spoke to the crowd from the announcer’s dais, which is to say that unless you were within 20 feet of him, you couldn’t see him. This year he stood up on top of a Sprinter van and the excitement the crowd drew from actually seeing him was palpable.
And then we were off. And by “we” I mean an incredible 7500 cyclists. It’s the biggest one-day event I’ve ever taken part in. The start was a bit sketchy, with everyone within 100 meters of me attempting to make sure they stayed in the front 20 riders.
The first climb of the day comes roughly 12 miles into the ride and while the pace has been animated up to this point, it hasn’t been fast enough to burn off anyone with reasonable fitness. However, by the time we begin the second kilometer of that climb, the real sort is underway. So goes the story of the day. Each successive climb continues the sort.
A friend commented to me at the finish, as we were consuming an ambitious post-ride meal, the unexpected pleasure of being on a ride with 7499 other people and yet finding himself utterly alone at times. The opportunity for seclusion and quiet moments alone is arguably one of the ride’s surprise gifts.
This year, for the first time ever, I actually looked down at my Garmin unit on a couple of occasions to check the gradient of some of the pitches on King Ridge. I’d heard that there were sections at 20 percent previously. I filed the data under unnecessary. As it turns out, on two entirely different pitches I saw the numbers 24 and 25. It was less informative than a pick-me-up for my self-esteem. I was moving pretty slow.
The weather on King Ridge started overcast and damp, gradually turned foggy and then near the top mist flirted with drizzle. It made some of the descents a puckery affair. There was a reward, though, for the truly fall weather. On the descent to Jenner we dropped out of the fog with just enough elevation remaining to give a view of the coast that was as sudden in its appearance as it was spectacular in expression. I’d compare it to walking into a friend’s living room only to behold Botticelli’s Venus.
I’ve done rides with a tenth of the ridership that were goat parades. I’ve never done a ride that was better organized. Sure, there was plentiful food and signage. Thank heaven all the intersections were controlled (well, we were stopped at one and at another the CHP officer was sitting in his cruiser while traffic approached), but it may be that what really defines a gran fondo in the U.S. (it’s a different beast in Italy—I accept that) isn’t the mass start or the controlled intersections.
What makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so special is that it’s an expression of place. Santa Rosa is Levi’s adopted home and they have adopted him as much as he has them. So you’ve got an adored and bona fide cycling celebrity, which is a good start. But that’s not enough. The secret really comes down to the way Carlos Perez, Greg Fisher and Yuri Hauswald—the guys behind Bike Monkey have enlisted the support of not just Santa Rosa, but Sebastopol and Jenner and Bodega Bay and more. At a certain level, the fact that the ride happens says something for the love the community has for the way the guys at Bike Monkey have created a cycling culture outsized to the community they serve, which is why the gran fondo can draw people from all over the world.
I can tell you this: If I ever miss this event, check the hospitals.