The Sea Otter Classic began today in the Monterey Penninsula south of San Francisco. About 9000 individual athletes are expected to compete over fours days in both road and mountain bike events. The Sea Otter Classic(SOC) is the unofficial kick-off for the biking season with most of the major (and a whole host of minor) industry players being present at the event's exposition and also at a number of hospitality events around the Monterey Penninsula area.
The SOC is a lot of fun to race, spectate or in my case announce. Throughout the four days I will be calling both road and MTB events from criteriums and circuit races to dual slalom and cross country. We have an expert, veteran crew who are as passionate about the sport as the racers. It is a big task keeping crowds as informed as possible. Our announcing calls are also broadcast on KSOC 90.1 FM Sea Otter Classic radio.
The big news at the SOC on the road racing front is that Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer will be riding the road race and circuit race on Friday and Saturday. With Lance Armstrong's broken collarbone, Levi has been bumped to team leader for Astana at the Giro and his stop at the SOC is an important tune-up before he returns to Europe to make final preparations for the Tour of Italy.
Also present on the road side is the Bissell Professional Cycling team. These guys have some major firepower and proved that in Thursday's criterium where they took the top four places on the podium. The Bissell boys look unbeatable, but that's never the case at Sea Otter.
In the MTB events, top American female racer Georgia Gould, and Canadian ace Geoff Kabush headline star-studded fields. Short track and cross country events are on tap for the endurance athletes while downhill, super-downhill and dual slalom make for a lot of excitement in the gravity events.
The weather forecast is for warm, dry conditions making it an ideal conditions for racing, spectating and announcing.
This weekend is the annual Belgium World Championships (well, if you are Flemish) also known as De Ronde Van Vlaanderen or by it's English name, the Tour of Flanders. It's a professional race so you have to be a pro to get invited. In a couple of weeks, the Sea Otter Classic will take place in Northern California. Unlike De Ronde, anyone can enter the Sea Otter. That seems to be the major difference between the two.
Okay. You can enter the cyclo-tourist version of De Ronde which is held the day before. Lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) individuals can ride exactly the same route as the professionals ride, all 165 miles of it. But, the tourists can't ride alongside the pros. Seeing how fast the pros ride, maybe that is a good thing.
At the Sea Otter Classic, the joes can ride with the pros. Well, sort of. While there are different categories for each racing class the classes go off at five minute intervals so all classes are on the course at the same time. The "sort of" part is because the pros go off after all the amateurs have finished, but for that one day, you can race on the same course at almost the same time and compare your finish time with the lap times of the pros. In my book, that comes pretty close.
Is it really necessary to compare De Ronde with Sea Otter, probably not, but I only have one blog and I thought it would be fun to double up. You mileage may vary.
You might be wondering why De Ronde is such a prestigious race to win. It has to do with the murs or walls or climbs which punctuate the final 50 miles of the route. They are short, steep and most are cobbled. Every once and a while someone like Jacky Durand sneaks off and wins the thing when he wasn't the strongest rider in the field, but to paraphrase the legendary Phil Liggett, "the race always produces a worthy winner."
That's a bit of a backhand way of saying if you aren't one of the strongest riders in the field you don't have a chance. The climbs would be very, very tough if they were just smooth pavement. Throw in bone wrenching cobbles and it becomes epic. This Sunday we will find out who is strong. Trust me.
You also have to be strong to win at Sea Otter. There are road, mountain and BMX events and there are so many categories that last year over 9000 riders participated. Some were strong and stood on the podium. Others were less strong, but still had a great time and some were just there to participate and still had a great time. The key phrase here is that everybody had a great time.
The Sea Otter Classic runs from April 16-19th. Visit their website at www.seaotterclassic.com to find an event that suits your riding. And don't forget to check out De Ronde. I am pulling for George Hincapie. He hasn't had a great spring, but he's been so close for so many years and he is strong.
Yeah, there is De Ronde and Roubaix, spring classics on the Euro side of the pond, but over here in 'merica we have our own classic and it's named after a furry little creature that swims and loves abalone. The Sea Otter Classic is in its 17th or 18th year and going strong. The event schedule, which includes road racing, mountain bike racing and BMX racing covers so many aspects of the two-wheeled community that it has become a destination for racers and industry types from across the country. In Thursday's junior women's road race, the riders from Alaska and Idaho outnumbered the Californians, the home of the Sea Otter Classics, by a ratio of six to one!
I love going to Sea Otter and have been at the event as spectator, journalist and race announcer. It really doesn't matter why you are there, you are going to have fun. OK. The weather can be a bit funky. My fellow announcer Larry Longo said it best. "During the four days of Sea Otter we usually have one sunny day, one windy day, one rainy day and one day when we have know idea on what is going to happen." That shouldn't stop anyone from attending. Weather or not, you are still going to have fun.
Today, Thursday, was a whetting of our Sea Otter appetites as only a few events were contested. Come Friday, the professional riders in both the mountain bike and road events take to the venue; the MTB boys on the short track course, the roadies tackle the grueling Fort Ord road race. Saturday continues the parade of stars as the professional men and women compete on the 2.2 mile Laguna Seca road race circuit, the exact same course used by the Indy cars and GP motorbikes. Expect to see some of the top male and female pros in the US on the starting line.
Sunday is all dirt as both the MTB downhill and cross country races will attract the top professional talent. Sunday is also the launch day for the amateur cross country races with literally thousands of weekend warriors, in numerous age and ability categories tackling one or two laps of the legendary 18-mile off-road circuit.
For those who have not been bitten by the racing bug, there is an off-road fun ride on Saturday and a road century loop on Sunday. In between all the pedaling there is the 350 vendor expo where one can find just about anything biking-related and a few things that aren't. All in all, if you can't find something fun to do at Sea Otter, you are either strapped down in a straight jacket or you just don't want to experience one of the great early season events in America.
You gotta love it, Rock Racing will be at the starting line next Monday for the Tour de Georgia. The Pro Tour team Saunier Duval pulled out due to "numerous injuries to key riders" opening a slot for Rock Racing. After their reception and performance in the Amgen Tour of California it seemed like a lock that we would see the boys in black and neon green at all the biggest races on the US professional racing calendar. However, Medalist Sports announced last month that Rock Racing would not be invited to Georgia; managing partner Jim Birrell, told Velonews.com I like all the riders he has on his team its just that renegade approach and his desire to steal the limelight away from the platform that has been created for everybody else is what troubles me."
It appears that Medalist and Michael Ball were able to reach an agreement, hats off to both parties for sitting down and making this happen. This is a good thing on so many levels. First off, Rock Racing is the most popular new team on the US domestic racing circuit. Secondly, at the recent Redlands Cycling Classic, with all the best domestic pro riders in attendance, Rock Racing rode superbly and took the overall win with Santiago Botero. And probably most importantly, Rock Racing is bringing new eyeballs to the sport and those peepers belong to the young fans in the always critical 18-35 year old demographic.
On a personal level, the news is bittersweet for me. I am heading off to be one of the event announcers at the upcoming Sea Otter Classic and was looking forward to having Botero, Sevilla, Hamilton, Pena, etc. in the field for the National Racing Calendar(NRC) circuit race on Saturday. I am still hoping the Rock Racing sends a team to Sea Otter, team member Doug Ollerenshaw won there several years back. However, if it takes my disappointment to get Rock Racing into the Tour de Georgia I guess I will just have to live with it.
The next item on the agenda is to figure out a way to get Astana into the Tour de France. Short of the Kazakhstani government cutting off natural gas supplies to France, I think this might be an impossible task. Anybody out there have a solution?
With the American economy teetering on the brink of a recession the ripples across the USA haven't been limited to housing foreclosures. This past week several long-standing bicycle races and one well, never-to-be race announced that they were modifying their plans for 2008. This might just be the tip of the iceberg for the sport which has been struggling for sponsorship dollars in light of widespread doping fears and the squabbling between the sport's governing bodies and race organizers.
Of course, most of the negative side of cycling seems to be taking place on the other side of the pond, but some of these high profile issues have an impact on domestic racing. Just recently there was a regime change in USA Cycling. Outgoing president Jim Ochowicz has served a maximum three two-year terms. His place will be taken by Mark Abramson, who in his mid-30's is in a perfect position to attract the generation X crowd, wooed by the likes of Michael Ball's Rock Racing Team, into the sport of cycling. It is clear that capturing the hearts and minds of the 20-34 age crowd is critical to the success and continued longevity of the sport. Best of luck.
Back to the present, the Tour of Virginia will not be held in 2008 citing sponsorship woes, but it is hoping to return in 2009. One of the lynch pins in the late summer racing calendar, Pennsylvania's Tour de Toona is downsizing it's seven day schedule to a single day criterium. When one of the hallmark events drops 86% of it's bodyweight it is time to stand up and take notice.
On a slightly different note, the Tour of America, which many feel will never be held, announced that it will move its inaugural start date from 2008 to 2009.This cross-continent event seems more flash than substance with stage lengths and locations that appear to be difficult to attract sponsors. Hey, the organizers get points for trying, but a big dose of reality might be best path to success.
Before everyone starts hopping a plane for wet, cold and dreary Belgium and its packed calendar of races take a deep breath and let's see how extensive the damage may really be. The Redlands Bicycle Classic started today; the Sea Otter Classic and all the other big domestic races appear to be healthy. Let's hope our domestic pros have enough opportunities to strut their stuff in 2008! They deserve it.