April 17, 2005: Otter pop weekender

Romulus adds another layer to the Sea Otter experience:

The Sea Otter Classic is the Super Bowl (or Woodstock) of fat-tire cycling. Analyzing the pros and cons is probably too narrow a viewpoint because the experience itself is so infinitely positive. However, for those seeking to join the party there are several tricky elements you should know in advance. First off, the logistics involved with this 5-day spectacle cannot be underestimated. If you have access to one of the many villas/estates in the posh area, you're definitely an aristocrat; the rest us working-class folks have to consider budget and time constraints. Monterey is undoubtedly one of the most attractive lodging areas in the entire country but the costs can be prohibitive. Nearby Salinas has reasonable accomodations though the quality is way below Monterey and the prices are not much cheaper. The other lodging option is to camp at Laguna Seca but that also has it's own pitfalls. The going rates are $40-$80 per night for two vehicles, which is not much if you have enough campers to share the costs. But then you've got the hygiene, food, crowd (noise) and weather issues to deal with so it's probably not the ideal camping experience; more like an extended tailgating party perhaps.

This brings us to the second logistical hurdle - how many days can/do you stay? There's a 2-night minimum for all of the rooms available and of course the weekend rates increase significantly just like in Las Vegas. Most lodgers plan their stay through Sunday which means rising extra early on race day to checkout. This year we left San Francisco at 4:45am on race day, stopped in El Granada to pick up Cannonball & JB, drove along Hwy 1 the entire way and were parked at the venue by 7am. The previous two years we stayed in Salinas and still had to rise at 5am to checkout and get to the race on time. So what's the difference? In both cases you are scrambling to the start line because you must account for traffic and the fact that all amateur races start between 8am & 10:30am. Hence, the ideal scenario is to stay that extra Sunday night and checkout Monday.

If you can swing the extended stay that will help you overcome the third hurdle - how to get the full festival experience? Beyond the parking/traffic woes (which seemed to be solved this year), the Sea Otter is notoriously cheap when it comes to shwag. It's the only event I've ever done where the participants don't get a free t-shirt or even the option of a $10 pre-order. Anyhow, the plethora of vendors tends to make up for this egregious slight but you need time to patiently view it all. This is the perfect place to load up on all of your cycling apparel, maintenance equipment, and nutritional/fuel supplies. Seriously, whoever is smart enough to save their loot until this event will not be disappointed as most of the stuff is heavily discounted or sold at wholesale prices. The other boon is that almost all of the major manufacturers are present and between 8:30am & noon, mechanics will do free service to your ride as long as it's nothing major. The folks at Fox and SRAM (Rock Shox) are even willing to do a front suspension overhaul for a standard fee of $60 - a great value when you consider it's usually a 2-week process that involves your local bike shop's labor, shipping & handling charges to the tune of $100. Lastly, for those of us with kids of walking age, there's endless fun for them too. Just don’t forget the sunscreen because shade is almost non-existent.

Now that you've digested all of these issues, let's consider the racing/racers. Eye-candy is all about in the form of dope rides, sick components, and cyclists galore. The pros are just mind-boggling, guys and gals alike, and the speed at which they travel doesn't seem humanly possible. Then you have the true extra-terrestrials - Single Speeders - whose ability is simply phenomenal. To see it all in person is both humbling and rewarding. One of these years I'd like to try my hand at Short Track racing but for now I'm strictly XC. I had the pleasure of pre-riding the 18mi XC course on both Thursday and Friday. Thursday was a bit of a struggle to start but Friday was significantly better from start to finish. I was dialed in on the singletracks and fairly strong on the climbs. Unfortunately, pre-ride conditions are vastly different from raceday. It's one thing to go fast in practice when the course is wide open, but a colossal task when hundreds of racers are around you.

The Sea Otter XC course is reknown for the sheer speed that the hardpacked terrain produces. Deep sand is certainly a challenging presence but that subsides as the track sees more riders. In fact, most of the sandy sections encountered on pre-rides practically disappeared during the race. Nonetheless, the course is virtually the same every year except for variations on the northernmost section. Having done about 10 laps over the past three years I've got a pretty good idea of what to expect as the course can be broken into about seven major sections. Lined up 12 to 15 abreast across the Laguna Seca track and at least seven rows deep, the start is a mad dash up a sneaky steep hill to a short strip of tight singletrack, followed by a rapid fireroad descent and a sharp turn onto all singletrack, where passing is perilous at best, until the doubletrack that begins and ends on Hurl Hill. I probably failed to hydrate sufficiently (not to mention warm-up) so when I reached the top of Hurl my head started pounding with migraine-like symptoms and most of the riders I'd conquered on the hill returned the favor on the descent. Still 13 more miles to go and to think the experts and pros do 2 laps.... and those $%&*! singlespeeders!

Section two is a long rippin' fast fireroad that takes you deep into the valley that makes up the heart of the Ft. Ord/Laguana Seca area. I reached 40.8 mph on this section despite the head troubles but was unable to reel the interlopers back in. After finishing the fireroad with a heavly rutted doubletrack assault, the course enters what I consider the premier singletrack portion of the course. You meander through some canyon/meadow territory, make a quick ascent up a really slippery slope - a chainsuck just waiting to happen - and then begin a wickedly fast undulating singletrack that takes you into canopied, off-camber, sweeping S and U turns that finally ends near some ponds and the first feed zone. In practice I was able to negotiate this piece at warp speed by feathering the brakes and letting the bike do its thing. Unfortunately, the slowpokes during the race lacked these skills and cost me precious time. Having regrouped and refueled, section four begins with a right turn onto some doubletrack and into a region replete with poison oak, sand, rocks, tree roots, prickly bushes and ample ruts that are as pernicious as potholes in the night. They brought back the rhythm-busting hike-a-bike hill this year which leads to a ridgetop that alternates between sandy double-track and rocky singletrack overgrown with nick & cut inducing brush. This is followed by a classic NorCal fireroad descent (section five) with more sand, waterbreaks, cavernous ruts, and huge mounds for the air-loving types. Eventually you come out on a paved road that descends further down towards the Ft. Ord entrance running parallel to Old Reservation Rd. If you are familiar with this road it is a definite backdoor into the area for recreational rides.

Just past the race's halfway point we re-enter Ft. Ord and begin a gradual climb into the sixth and most taxing section. By this time during the race the other classes are starting to either catch up or be caught as you grind up towards another fun singletrack section. Upon exiting the singletrack you are greeted with some rolling hills and then the infamous "Three Sisters" section of the course. These climbs are short but get progressively steeper and you may be at the mercy of slower riders because the lines of ascent are limited. I humbly admit to having destroyed this section except for the bozo who clipped out in front of me right near the top of the second sister and offered only a half-hearted, “Sorry, dude.” Oh well, the reward for conquering these bitches is a steep descent down a treacherous hill and then an immediate turn onto some singletrack. It should be noted that this particular razor sharp turn is virtually impossible to make without locking the brakes because it appears right at the trough – sorry for the mtb faux pas, but at least it’s not in a fragile area. This last singletrack section is rowdy fun but a bit on the short side. It was also the most frustrating part of the race for me because of slower traffic.

Having completed this last singletrack section we come out in sheep pasture and begin the long 3 mile huck known as “The Grind”. It’s not steep but draining because it’s the end of the race and the muscles are nearly atrophied and the lungs weazing like an octogenrian menthol smoker. This was the most satisfying section of the ride for me as I stayed in my middle ring with a bullet to spare the whole way up and passed some clown with a red scorpion on his ass that had been annoying me since the start of the race. Nothing like cowbells to spur you on and once the hill is crested the racetrack is in full view. Only problem is the wind tends to give a rude greeting and it did not disappoint. I put on a powerful sprint to the line as the official clock said 1:58 and change and my stopwatch said 1:41:06. Once I did the math with our 8:15am start I realized my time was near the 1:45 mark. I saw Cannonball and JB at the finish but my focus was on giving my wife a good luck kiss before her race started. She went on to a podium finish placing 4th and was rewarded with – a can of Cytomax? ... the most medicinal tasting, palate ravaging concoction ever and pink lemonade flavor to boot. The class winner was some gal from Florida (if you know of any hills down there let me know) who was five minutes ahead of her nearest competitor. You can always tell the sandbaggers by the time discrepancies but that’s a whole ‘nother story (along with the podium prize rip job).

All in all it was a very satisfying event. My goal was sub 1:40 but traffic definitely cost me at least 3 minutes and the mini migraine surely didn’t help. With a final time of 1:43 I can definitely see a jump of 25 to 30 spots for next year if I can just improve my start - the bane of all amatuer mtb racers. The other alternative is to pack on about 8 more pounds to top the scales at 205 and race Clydesdale. Either way, I’m going to get a top twenty finish at this event if it takes me until I’m fifty. Speaking of 50 ("Fitty" to the ebonically inclined), my wife was inspired to kick ass during her race by 50 Cent’s new cut entitled: Bitch Get In My Car. Funny, but it seems an appropriate tune - now if only I could find one to help me keep pace with the amazing Cannonball and the other 35+ year old sport class racers. Mozart and Vivaldi just ain't cutting it...


Mileage: 19.36 Time: 1:43:25 Avg: 11.3 Max:  Weight: 

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