The Sea Otter Classic is indeed a celebration of bicycles, and all bike enthusiasts should put it on their bucket list to participate at some level. I first went there in 2006 to participate in my first century ride — and what a century it was! Since then I have been back 4 times, and each year it gets better for me.
DAY 1: Arrival
I thought last year’s 10th place finish in the criterium would be the highlight of all my Sea Otter Classics, but the 2010 event turned out to be a bit anti-climactic as I over-did it and got pulled from the circuit race, my final race of the four-day event. I decided that I wouldn’t over-do it in 2011 and only signed up for the road race (on Friday) and the cross-country race (on Sunday). We loaded up the Go Chuy Go bus and left on Wednesday night, after Isa’s softball game. We stopped in Frazier Park where the Go Chuy Go chef had prepared delicious tostadas de jaiba for dinner, then continued on until we stopped in Lost Hills (where the I-5 and CA-46 meet) so that the Go Chuy Go driver can get some sleep. We arrived in Laguna Seca around 11:30 AM on Thursday and found our spot on the Paddock D-campground.
This year’s Sea Otter was different for me in that I went as the only Celo Pacific racer (that I’m aware). R. Lee Willmore, who was always there even if I wasn’t, decided not to attend this year, and my partner-in-crime for the last two years, Dave Williams, was unable to go. Last year’s Sea Otter cross-country star, James Walsh, is seeing his star rise as an Ironman, and super strong Ryan Weeger didn’t go either. Jason Kirsch thought about racing but decided the Gran Fondo and some family time was the best thing for him. I don’t typically race with these guys, as they are all way out of my league, but having someone with whom to pre-ride and talk about the course and the race is always good.
Thursday was uneventful for the most part, but I did get to go on a ride with my dad (Go Chuy Go Bus Driver), which I don’t think I’ve ever done. We rode the short track a little bit, which was the finish of the cross-country race. I stopped and waited for my dad and when he caught me he said, “A tree jumped in my way!’ He’d challenged a tree and according to my pops, the tree lost. He had some scratches on his right forearm and nothing else. We went back around to check out the start of the cross-country course and I stopped to take a picture. “You better get me in the picture,” he said in his fatherly authoritative voice. “Definitely!” I thought. We went back to the Go Chuy Go bus and my pops told everyone that he’d knocked down the tree that got in his way. He wore his abrasions proudly and showed them every time he got on the bike after that.
I jumped on my road bike and took a spin down to check out the start of the road race, mostly to get my legs spinning, but also to check if anything had changed. I didn’t climb the first section because I didn’t want to be too tired for the race the next morning. It was a nice steady climb on the way back, and except for a few lizards staring at me, the ride was uneventful. When I got back to the Go Chuy Go bus, I cleaned up and my mom (Go Chuy Go Chef) had prepared her enchiladas and frijoladas. We ate and my dad and I had a beer (I had one New Castle and he had about a dozen Bud Lights). As usual, dinner on the Go Chuy Go bus was delicious!
DAY 2: Road Race
I had a 6AM wake up call because my race was at 8AM. I had some work to finish Friday morning, which I did, and emailed it to school. I later found out I didn’t do such a fantastic job, but I was getting ready for a race! I got dressed and ate half a banana. I jumped on my trainer for 10 minutes and Claire went with me to stage under the Sea Otter bridge. There was some commotion with the official’s and the support cars trying to get through the staging area, and when things settled back in I noticed a guy wearing B+L Bikes jersey. I went over and asked if he came with other teammates. He hadn’t. His name was Todd and he hadn’t pre-ridden so I gave him the scoop. He seemed like he was ok with what I told him. One guy on my left side asked if we went up “that wall” at the bottom of Barloy Canyon Road like they had done 15 years ago. When we went off on our neutral start there were about 30 of us it seemed and I stayed in the middle as much as I could. When we hit the bottom of Barloy Canyon, we made a left turn at Eucalyptus and the official put his red flag away and we started a small steady climb. The pace was bearable at that point. We turned right at Hennekens Ranch Road and the real climbing started. I moved up as far as I could so that I wouldn’t have to take a turn pulling because I knew that any time at the front would destroy me. I hung in there until a few hundred feet before the KOM top where it kicked up to an 11% grade after an 8% average. I was thinking to myself that I was proud to have hung in there farther up the climb this year: last year I got dropped a little more than half way up.
I saw that Todd from B+L Bikes was leading the group up the climb. I wondered if he knew what he was doing until I saw him take off and drop everyone. The rest of the race was pretty uneventful. I did my laps keeping the cross-country race in mind, not pushing as hard as I could because I was trying to save it for Sunday. I could tell that I didn’t have much energy from missing breakfast and I decided to make it a point to eat my pre-race breakfast on Sunday. It turns out Todd knew exactly what he was doing as he beat the second place finisher in an apparent solo breakaway by more than 3 minutes! The final climb to the finish line was also much better this year. I kept a good cadence in the final climb and wasn’t ready to cough up a lung the way I was last year. My lower back tightened up a little, but I had taken turns standing on the course, which really helped. I finished 17th, about 30 minutes after Todd!
When I got back to the Go Chuy Go bus, my dad said he’d gone looking for me. Claire (official Go Chuy Go masseuse) asked how I felt, to which I replied, “I’m hungry!” They had saved me some Eggs Florentine and I scarfed down and asked, “What else you got?”
After settling in we he headed to the expo where I picked up a new set of ESI Grips to match my Celo sleeves. I hung around and talked to Gary a little bit who was racing in the Cat 2s. He offered me a great deal on the grips so I finally bit. I’ve seen lots of guys using them in the Kenda Cup races, including Celo fast guy Ben Jones. I was hoping they’d make me as fast as Ben, but there may be a little more to it than that.
Although I hadn’t raced my hardest, I was still pretty tired and just hung out the rest of the day. The Go Chuy Go Chef prepared her famous fish tacos for dinner. Then we set up theoutdoor movie theater for Isa and Adrian and after a few technical difficulties we were finally able to show Transformers. Some guys, ostensibly Sea Otter Classic employees, came by at a few minutes before 10 PM and asked us very nicely if we would turn off our generator at 10PM.
There is quiet time from 10PM – 6AM on the campgrounds. The kids came in and watched the rest of the movie inside, but not on the big screen.
DAY 3: Rest
Saturday was rest day of sorts, but one that I had been looking forward to since we got to Laguna Seca. I got ready to go for a ride when my mom started making eggs, bacon and protein fortified pancakes. After filling my belly with protein fortified deliciousness I hopped on my Giant XTC 29er and took off to pre-ride the cross-country course. I’ve done the cross-country race twice before, way back when I wasn’t riding mountain bikes. It was a ride for me then, not a race, one done for participation only encouraged by my good friend, R. Lee Willmore. Back then it was daunting! Scary, even! As I have with many other races since then, including Saturday’s road race, I was simply trying to survive it. But not this year. Lee boosted my confidence a little when I saw him at the Seal Beach 5K run and he said of my mountain bike racing, “I think you’ve found your forté.” The next day I earned 3rd place at Sycamore Canyon.
So this year, I was really looking forward to racing the cross-country race. I got out on the pre-ride like a kid with a new toy. I happened to jump in at the same time as the mountain bike gran fondo, so there were lots of people out on course. I rode through the course nice and easy, trying to make mental notes of those areas where I thought I should make mental notes. I remembered Lee telling me that the pre-ride should be used to notice sketchy parts where I need to be careful, and that’s what I did. There were some rutted downhill sections, but there were good lines available through everything. I came upon a sandy descent (not the same one I remember from the previous two races I’ve done there) and hit the brakes. I fell off my bike, unfortunately into the bushes. Falling into the deep sand would have been softer, I’m sure of it. Some single track here and there, lots of fire road, and before I knew it I was climbing my way back to Laguna Seca. It was 15 miles only and I was a bit disappointed that it was so short, but it was my kind of course. As I got back to Go Chuy Go camp I saw my parents riding away. We’d apparently filled the reservoirs and couldn’t use the shower in the RV.
We hopped on the bikes and went for a ride. Isa was on her road bike, while Adrian rode Isa’s mountain bike; Claire was on her road bike and my dad was on Isa’s cruiser because it had a cup holder where he could put his beer can. We rode up to the MTB demo ride where this ensued:
I just love it when Claire has a video camera in her hand because you can’t beat the commentary! We went back to camp and I decided to take Claire and Isa and Adrian on the same ride I’d taken my dad a couple of days back. With only one extra mountain bike (Isa’s) they each took turns. I’ve been telling Dave since I started mountain biking that Claire would really like the dirt rides and I was right. It was an easy (not technical) ride through the start of the cross-country course and to the end of the the gran fondo course. After Claire, Isa went, who absolutely impressed me with her climbing. Her pedal stroke is so smooth and she climbed so quickly both on the mountain bike and more so on the road bike earlier. Adrian was the last to go and I asked him as we were in the section where the “hills are alive” if he’d ever seen anything like the hills and valleys we were seeing. “No, never,” he said. That filled me with a considerable amount of satisfaction and after watching Isa tear up the hills and hearing Claire say she wanted to start mountain bike, I felt pretty good about the day. Unfortunately, Adrian crashed as we were headed back to camp, but he popped right up and didn’t even have a scratch on him. I was amazed because he seemed to hit the deck pretty hard.
We all headed back to the expo and the kids played some games and had some fun. They especially liked the bungee cord jumpers where they could flip and see the camp at their highest point. We were all pretty tired afterwards and we headed back to camp to startthe carne asada. My pops grilled and we ate and drank beer. They had made the decision without me that it would be too cold for the outdoor showing of Goonies. I kept warning everyone that I was waking up at 5:30AM because I thought I had a 7:30 AM start. Fortunately, Chris Bautista showed me how to find the exact start times, and I didn’t start until 9:20AM. I had been planning on a 6:30AM warm-up, so Chris saved the day! I got the bright ideaof having the Go Chuy Go masseuse massage the key points in my legs that normally tighten up during the race with Icy Hot: my calves and right above my knees, both front and back. I covered up in my Under Armour compression pants and went to bed.
DAY 4: XC Race
After a good night’s rest I was up at 6:30AM getting myself ready. Claire woke up with me and helped me with breakfast. I hopped on the trainer a little after 8. I’ve figured out that if I don’t do it right, it can take me up to an hour to get completely warmed up; an hour here would be almost the entire race. I warmed up, checked tire pressures and all of that pre-race stuff and headed to the Sea Otter bridge on the race track. I panicked a little as I saw a group being released before I staged. Once I found my group I was last row. “So much for starting in the front,” I thought. I had told Dave that I wanted to start in the front and try to stay there. One guy on my right asked if I’d pre-ridden. I gave him the quick low-down on the course and found out he was a Bay Area cyclo-cross racer. We were both mountain biking for the sole purpose of improving our ‘cross racing.
When they sent us off he began moving up. I followed him as we maneuvered through the race track. As we hit the first climb he moved way up; at the top I kept going. On the final right turn of the track I saw a guy way ahead, “What are you guys, his teammate?” So I moved up to catch him. Once I caught him, I saw another guy ahead of him and moved up to catch that guy. As we hit the dirt I was in solid second place. We rode through a very rutted section that led to the actual course. He gapped a little in the rutted section and as we entered the course the people there were yelling, “Catch that guy!” We took a slight left up a hill and by the time we reached the top I was right on his wheel. It led to a sweeping descent with somewhat loose dirt, which caused me to slow down enough to give that a guy a chance to gap me again. As we hit the next section of descents, one guy from Pasadena Velo RE/MAX caught me and said, “Looking strong Celo Pacific,” but with the soft “C” as “Sell-o Pacific” – a common mistake that I rarely bother correcting – unlike those who call me Gee-zus, but I digress. I knew the best line for the first “technical descent” was on the left and I bombed it like I’ve never bombed it before. I took more risks through ruts and curves than I have ever dared previously. We went through some undulating sections, but mostly descending, then hit the next climb. I caught the guy in front again – he was wearing a white with green kit which may have had Cytomax printed on it, but I can’t say for sure. I thought about moving next to him and telling him that we should work together to try to do some serious damage to the field, but the ruts wouldn’t allow enough time for me to be next to him. He also wanted no part of me as he was not slowing down. He was consistent, never wavering nor looking back. I decided that since I was able to catch him on the climbs my lack of technical ability would not hurt me as much, especially since the Sea Otter cross-country course is not one even I consider technical. We hit the first major climb which looked like a wall to the naked eye, but my Garmin says it was only 13% grade. There were lots of guys who’d been released before us walking it, the Pasadena Velo guy passed me and I jumped on his wheel. I was afraid I had given too much too early and that this would be the end of my impetus. The Pasadena Velo guy took a wrong line and lost his balance and I went around him, riding all the way to the top. Two guys were watching at the top and said, “You’re an animal!” as I rode by. The next section was a false flat. I did my best to spin out the recovery. I noticed then how the sections of my legs that Claire had massaged with Icy Hot felt fantabulous! I hit the single track and could see the guy ahead of me winding through. “Just do your race,” I thought and remembered Geoff’s advice about pumping the track. It seemed to work because although the Pasadena Velo guy had jumped back onto my wheel, we caught the guy in front at the end of the first single track.
Admittedly, I was inspired at this point because I remembered reading interviews where Brent Prenzlow told stories of his races and how he and another guy were wheel on wheel until BP dropped him. I also thought of the race report I read where James Walsh told the story of his race at Sea Otter last year and how he’d battled the entire race.
The next single track was on an incline. This is where I noticed I started to slow down. I could hear the racers behind me but no one asked to pass. The lead guy had gapped me pretty good at this point. After a short while I heard someone say that we had a 40-42 guy trying to pass. He came around my left as I moved left. He may or may not have said left and I apologized for getting in his way. After a few minutes two guys in my race passed me on the single track. “There goes my podium,” I thought. The Pasadena Velo guy had again taken a bad line into some sand and was standing as I passed him. “I’ll take third place.” Before the single track climb was done he’d passed me again and so had some others, and I calculated I was in 5th or 6th place. “Oh well, try for top 10.” As we came out of the single track we went down another rutted descent. I felt better about the ruts at this point and went as hard as I could. I hit the sand descent, and knew from the fall the previous day that very little back brakes was all I needed. There was some traffic going down and when I hit the bottom the Pasadena Velo guy and another guy had fallen right in the center section. I tried to ski around them but the bottom was way too deep and my bike just stopped. I had to walk out of there and the next straight was a fairly flat but with some sandy sections. People passed me, I passed others. At this point there were so many racers from different age groups that I couldn’t tell who was in my race.
We turned left onto another single track climb, which led to a long gravelly descent, hit a left turn and then turned right for another climb. I had made a note of this section during my pre-ride because it was an unexpected climb. I spun my way up passing some people. Then we climbed for about a half mile before hitting a long straight descent that led to another single track climb. There I struggled to pass more people, I maybe got by one or two. As it opened up into the fire road it became more undulating and I was able to recover a little bit. I did my best to spin fast to through the next couple of miles of climbing leading back to the finish line. I felt better after a little bit and started to go for it again. I figured I wasn’t going to catch the guys in front of me, but I didn’t want anyone to catch me either. Some people jumped on my wheel, but I dropped them. I recognized the final long climb to Laguna Seca, and I did my best to maintain the fastest pace that I could. As I got closer to the top people were cheering, “Great spin! Catch two of them!” It helped. I entered Laguna Seca again, down the bumpy hill to the bridge and into the short track.
I took the first left way too fast, and had to skid to keep from going off the course. The tape was already broken so I knew I wasn’t the first one to make that mistake. I hit the next left and thought I took the wrong line by going wide. I tried to correct it, but one guy said, “The bottom works, too!” I saw what he meant and headed to the bottom. Unfortunately, I’d lost my momentum and I was in the wrong gear. The problem with the bottom is that you have to get back to the top. I had to dismount and run up the one or two steps to get back on the course. As I started to pick it up I hit a section that had been rutted by cars or bikes or both and as I tried to determine the best line, one guy from Sho-Air zoomed by on my right. “Nice pass!” someone yelled. Someone else told me “Catch that guy!” I tried but he was too good technically and I couldn’t catch him. I thought by looking at him that he was probably in my age group. When I looked at the results one guy finished about 10 seconds ahead of me and I’d be willing to bet it was the same Sho-Air guy. I came around the finish line and heard my name get called.
I saw Claire, Isa and my mom each with cameras in hand waiting for me beyond the finish line. I told Claire that I wasn’t sure how I did, but that I thought top 10, but I was thinking possibly top 5. I finished 9th, again losing 8th place by just over 10 seconds and 4 minutes behind the winner. I felt good because I raced the whole time, and I felt great because I held second place for about half the race. I don’t know if the lead guy I was chasing won, but I’m pretty sure the Pasadena Velo guy finished 4th. Unfortunately, Sea Otter didn’t list teams/sponsors on the results page, so there is no way to tell for sure. Oh, I think that John, the ‘crosser from the Bay Are finished 16th, just 3 minutes behind me.
After checking the results and mooching my fourth free yogurt of the trip, we grabbed some kettle corn and jumped back on the Go Chuy Go bus for home. I think I’m pretty happy with my results, and hope that I what I’m doing now transfers into better results in October. Next race is in Big Bear for Kenda Cup West #5.