The Sea Otter Gran Fondo

Clif founder Gary Erickson and Gran Fondo Colnago Philadelphia organizer Brian Ignatin.

Just days before heading to the Monterey Peninsula for my annual pilgrimage to the world’s most unpredictable weather, I had a conversation with a friend about gran fondos. He, like many, was under the impression that a gran fondo was just a fancy pants name for a century. Why calling a century a century was no longer good enough was the only question on his mind.

He had a point, really. I’d rather engage a conversation of why to use the term “sportif” instead of “gran fondo” but just what distinguishes a gran fondo or sportif from a century isn’t as clear to riders as it ought to be, and blame there rests on event organizers. I’ll come back to why later.

We had a terrific double paceline as we rolled through the farmland of Soledad.

This was the first time I would ride an organized event as part of the Sea Otter since I last raced the event as a masters rider in 2001. That year, on the opening descent out of Laguna Seca, the same descent that opened this year’s gran fondo, we were single file and I had wound out my 53×12 going 50 mph—and it’s not a particularly steep downhill. The leisurely start to this gran fondo was a good bit more my speed. We had several hundred riders for the 93-mile gran fondo, not the several thousand the weekend before at the Colnago Gran Fondo and with no VIPs to turn up the heat early, we relaxed behind the Nissan Leaf lead vehicle.

The single most important thing I can say about the gran fondo is that it boasts one of the prettiest gran fondo courses I’ve ridden. It is a perfect statement of central California riding. The opening 40 miles were countertop flat and as we rode over the chip and seal farm roads I enjoyed flashbacks to the spring road races I’d do in the San Joaquin Valley. It was all the beauty with only 1/3 the suffering.

Andrew is a Bicycling Magazine editor and was the strongest rider in our group.

After the second rest stop (our first actual stop) the course began to undulate, taking in the area’s rolling hills. Driving the group were Andrew and Alex from Bicycling and VeloNews, respectively. They enjoyed the fitness of two guys who race weekend in and out. Clif Bar’s founder Gary Erickson had been riding with our group but made the briefest of appearances at the rest stop. I think he took on water and nothing else before rolling out. I could see tubes of Shot Bloks with the ends snipped off protruding from his jersey pockets.

By the time we caught back up to Gary, the group had been whittled down to fewer than a dozen riders. The hills here were brief, usually 50 meters or so, but often with pitches as steep as seven or eight percent. The winter and spring rains meant the fields and hillsides were all painted vivid pastoral green. Gary looked over his shoulder, saw us, soft pedaled for a few seconds until we caught him on the hill and then he stood up to accelerate into the group. I’ve heard that he was a strong rider, but I hadn’t expected that he would ride as judiciously as a racer. Moments later, we caught two other riders who had been with him and that’s when something broke loose. It may have been hell.

We knew the easy farm roads would be short-lived.

I was at the back, having just completed a pull before we hit the hill and after Gary joined us the resident Bicycling gear editor applied a bit of pressure. Guys started to blow and I found myself locked in traffic like Tom Boonen on the Haaghoek, watching Fabian Cancellara ride away. After working through the traffic I put my head down and drilled it for the next 5k or so. So long as Andrew or Alex weren’t on the front, I’d make up time on the sextet, but as soon as one of them went to the front, the gap would grow. Watching the group yo-yo from 100 meters to 50 meters and back again was, um, well, it wasn’t my favorite.

Just as I was ready to wave the white flag a group of five riders caught me coming off one of the rollers but once the group came to within 30 or 40 meters, guys started trying to jump across on their own. Really? No one made it. I sat up. Then I made the right turn onto Carmel Valley Road and crossed the speed trap.

I usually eat energy foods on a gran fondo but these panini were too delicious to pass up.

That seemed as good a time as any to start recovering. I was 10 miles, give or take, from the course’s high point, Cahoon Summit, but with the exception of the final three miles of the climb, the headwind was more difficult than the grade. The road was secluded, the rolling countryside dotted with trees and few structures. And in a stroke of cosmic justice, just as I started to feel good, the road turned up for the final three miles of climbing to Cahoon Summit; it was here that the road felt like a true climb. Less than 500 meters from the top riders were treated to a sweeping view of the Carmel Valley.

The descent off the mountain was pretty relaxing with one short and steep exception. I spent most of the next 20 miles chatting with the ride director of the Gran Fondo Colnago Philadelphia, Brian Ignatin, who comments here under the ID Touriste-Routier, the name given to the privateers who were allowed to enter the Tour de France during its early days. He’s an insightful guy I don’t spend nearly enough time with and he, like me, struggles with some neck issues as a result of years of racing, so we had lots to talk about.

Carmel Valley road was an idyllic way to spend part of a day.

In general, the course was so devoid of stop lights and stop signs due to its rural nature that two of the only occasions I put a foot down were for rest stops. So when we rolled into the village of Carmel Valley and cars began to buzz our single-file paceline, the earlier hours of peace shattered like a dropped lightbulb. We were so eager to get out of the crush of traffic that we skipped the final rest stop. Not my first choice.

As the group broke up on the 6k climb up Laureles Grade the wide shoulder gave us plenty of insulation from the traffic. But it was here that I finally regretted bringing only a 23, even with the aid of a compact. The course contained yet another surprise though. The descent of Laureles Grade drops riders off right at the main entrance to Laguna Seca, making for an as-advertised 93-mile route. We were, instead, routed in via York Road but to get to South Boundary road we were forced to dismount and walk around a chain-link fence on a narrow patch of dirt because someone didn’t open a gate for us. Had there been 3000 riders, that would have turned into a goat parade as the strip of dirt was strictly a single-file affair.

The climb up Laureles Grade shattered our group.

Once onto the road into Laguna Seca we joined with riders finishing the medio fondo route and an incessant stream of cars and trucks entering and exiting the venue. Why we were on that road defies explanation and the drivers were no more accommodating there than in Carmel Valley and my need to pass the slower medio fondo riders put me further into the road than I relished. At one point, the crush of vehicles waiting to park forced me onto the gravel shoulder. Couldn’t organizers close one road for an hour or two to let us live through the experience? The final turns were confusing—in part due to cones meant to direct traffic, not us—and lacked enough volunteers to make our return to the finish line as clear as possible, or even advisable.

Though I only stopped twice, my experience with the food was terrific. I enjoyed some bite-sized panini of smoked salmon and cheese, plus some real gourmet cookies. While the chocolate tangerine was really good, my favorite was the molasses ginger. There was plenty of water, some soda—Shasta?—and Heed. The soda would have benefitted from ice, though. As happens with so many organized events, the energy drinks, whether Cytomax, Gatorade or Heed, were mixed rather weakly. You couldn’t count on the Heed for adequate calorie replacement.

Signage throughout the route was terrific; a route sheet was unnecessary, as it should be. I can only recall two intersections that really would have benefitted from police control. That’s really impressive route design in my book. Next year, I hope the organizers will spring for some police assistance. Additionally, it seems that the residents of Carmel Valley might have benefitted from greater notification of our presence. Had thousands of riders been passing through the village, rather than the dozen or so I was with, I think things might have been significantly more hostile. A police presence would definitely be necessary.

So why isn’t a gran fondo a century? The mass start and course control are the defining characteristics. The Sea Otter Gran Fondo got the mass start right and as I mentioned the course didn’t require much stopping, but controlled intersections give riders a very different experience. They’re meant to make cycling a big celebration, and in that regard I think the Sea Otter Classic already had that part right.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the ride was the post-event meal. Free food? Just point me to it. I was so hungry I went straight to the tent holding the feast and sat on a picnic table in my chamois.

All in all, it was a terrific event and with a few minor changes—course control, more marketing, ice, a smaller number plate and no ridiculous dismounts—could make this event a real jewel among California gran fondos.



  1. Pingback: A report from the Sea Otter Gran Fondo | Gran Fondo Online

  2. Mari Lynch - Bicycling Monterey

    Thanks for emphasizing the “countertop flat…all the beauty with only 1/3 the suffering” of biking the Salinas Valley. I’ve added your remarks to my own suggestion to Monterey County visitors that they not miss out on biking the flat, gorgeous routes in our county seat:

    I appreciate all you shared from your experience of “one of the prettiest Gran Fondo courses” you’ve ridden. Hope you’ll be back often!

    1. Author

      Hi Mari: I had a terrific time and look forward to many returns to the area and the ride. And while I did like having some flat roads, the hills added some terrific spice.

  3. Todd

    We arrived up at Sea Otter on Saturday while riders were heading in back to the finish. Based on how many fairly fit people were pushing their bikes, I’ll assume it was the tail end of the ride.

    The traffic going in was definitely drag. For the most part everyone gave plenty of room when passing but I’ll go out on a limb and assume those who didn’t give a lot of room were, dare I say, mountain bikers.

    Like you I hadn’t been to SO in a while and could help but notice how much the scene had changed among the mountain bike set. To me it felt that the DH/Slalom/Dirt Jump crowd has morphed into snowboarders/skaters on dirt. In that realm there doesn’t seem to be much crossover or a connection to cycling as a whole. At least with XC riders there’s an appreciation for knowing how hard it is to pedal up a hill be it paved or not but with these chairlift kids not so much.

  4. Mike

    Nice piece. I did my first gran fondo last summer in Wisconsin (the Centurion). I think it was my favorite organized event in almost two decades of cycling, and you nailed the main reasons why. There was also that extra motivation of it being a “kind-of” competitive event, and timing chips were used. Even having heavy rains in the morning of the event couldn’t knock the spirit out of it (and that’s usually death for a century). Sure, some people bailed, but over 700 still toed the line.

    The festivities surrounding the event were top-notch, and added to the atmosphere. On the way home, my buddies and I were already planning our 2011 gran fondo campaigns!

  5. Touriste-Routier

    Padraig, it was great riding with you; it had been way too long since we pedaled shoulder to shoulder.

    As a professional ride/race/GF organizer, I have definite opinions about what makes a GF, a sportif, and a century; my requisites for a GF go a bit beyond what you have highlighted.

    One of the reasons the public is confused is the abuse of the GF term by ride organizers; so many people have jumped in on the term by slapping the GF moniker on an existing century, or creating a ride that doesn’t live up to the heritage or production value of the term.

    While the Sea Otter was a very good event, in my opinion calling it a GF was a bit of a stretch. While it certainly had many essential GF elements, it was missing a few key others, but nonetheless it was much more than a century ride.

    I too wish the final few miles were routed differently, between the venue traffic, and the riders on the shorter route returning (and walking up the final hills), it made for some unpleasant moments, but the beauty of the rest of the ride made up for it. And the post ride food was far better than I expected!

    This was my first Sea Otter experience. It is an impressive festival, though I found it very disjointed rather than cohesive.

  6. todd k

    Thanks for providing a review of your experience Padraig (and others)… I don’t get out of the state much with a bike, but hearing about these events elsewhere motivates me to do so….

  7. Todd Harney from CV

    Padraig, great write-up! I am the guy who asked you if you were a local a little ways past the KOM sensor on CV Rd. Although your camera didn’t look that comfortable to pack under your arm, it definitely made your article that much better. I wish I had some action photos of the ride. Maybe next year I’ll carry a small digital in my jersey. This was my first organized ride, and I loved it. Even though I don’t really have anything to compare it to, I only have one minor issue… the busy final climb. But like Brian said, it was trumped by the awesomeness of the rest of the ride. Can’t wait to do it again next year. I’ll seek you out and say hello!

    1. Author

      Todd: I hope you had more sunscreen than I did. Even though I last raced the Sea Otter in 2001, I’ve been continuing to go every year (I missed 2008) and have watched the evolution of the event. There are definite parallels between the skater/snowboarder set and some of the gravity disciplines.

      Touriste-Routier: Good times mon frere. I do think it’s important that riders get a clear picture of what they can reasonably expect when they go to a gran fondo vs. a century. And I think event organizers who call a run of the mill century a gran fondo should be tarred, if not feathered. I do agree that the Sea Otter event didn’t fire on all cylinders. I will also say that based on what I heard about last year’s event, this year’s was a huge improvement and the folks brought in to run this year’s event would have done more had they enjoyed full autonomy. Perhaps our continued support will bring that about.

      A final note to everyone regarding the issue of the disparate elements of Sea Otter. Short of having everyone link hands around the pump track and sing “Kumbaya”, I don’t think there’s any way to reach the sort of cohesive and harmonic setting that people would like to experience. Sea Otter is different things to different people. That the organizers bring these many elements together is, in my mind, what makes the event special. I’d like to spend more time watching the gravity disciplines as well as more time seeing my friends in the expo. Alas, it’s but one weekend.

      If you ever have the chance, go. It’s worth the trip.

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