Entering its 27th year, the Sea Otter Classic means many things to many cyclists

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Say the words “Sea Otter Classic” to a cyclist, and their initial reaction will tell you as much about themselves as it does about the event, which enters its 27th year next month.

What started out in 1991 as a mountain-bike race, held at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, has evolved into one of the largest gatherings of the two-wheeled tribe in North America.

Over the years, the Sea Otter Classic has offered almost every type of bicycle racing imaginable — cross-country, short-track, downhill, dual slalom, enduro, road, criterium, BMX, cyclocross, and gran fondos — to both professionals and amateurs. A reported 10,000 athletes participate over four days.

The hilly topography of the Laguna Seca Raceway and the surrounding former Army base Fort Ord is unique in that it offers quality terrain for every discipline of competitive cycling. (The area where the racetrack lies was once a lake, thus the Spanish name “dry lake.”)

Mountain bikers can enjoy miles of singletrack along the lush, rolling hills of the Fort Ord National Monument; road racers relish the opportunity to dive through the world famous “corkscrew,” regarded as one of the most challenging turns in motorsports due to the steep elevation drop as well as its blind crest and apex on the uphill approach.

The expansive venue for the Sea Otter Classic also opens itself to camping, and every year the site’s many campsites are filled with RVs, tents, coolers, and bikes.

The list of winners from Sea Otter events include dozens of world champions and Olympians, as well as Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, who took the cross-country title in 1998 and 1999, and won the Tour in 2011. Upon retirement, Evans returned to the Sea Otter to ride the gran fondo in 2015.

Other notable riders to take victories at the Sea Otter Classic include road stars such as Levi Leipheimer, Marianne Vos, and Kristin Armstrong, and mountain-bike stars Christoph Sauser, Rachel Atherton, Brian Lopes, and Roland Green.

In addition to racing, the Sea Otter Classic— which has been sponsored by SRAM since 1995 — doubles as an early season trade show, drawing bike brands from across the country to the expansive expo held on the infield of the Laguna Seca Raceway. Nearly 500 vendors, representing around 1000 brands, display new products and offer demos and samples as well as special show pricing.

With everything — autograph sessions, parties, and product demonstrations — happening in the expo area, there’s perhaps no event in the world that allows spectators and participants such close access to their cycling heroes.

Because the expo is held outdoors, on the Central Coast of California in April, weather at the Sea Otter is always a factor, ranging from sunny and hot to rainy and windy, and everything in between. Sea Otter veterans, and Monterey locals, will tell you to prepare for anything from summer to winter conditions.

Outside the race venue, there’s no shortage of things to do. Visible on a quick trip to Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, is the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as sea otters, the event’s namesake, floating along the coastal edge of the Pacific Ocean. To the north is Santa Cruz, and its world-class singletrack; to the south is the Pebble Beach golf course and the scenic vistas of the Big Sur coastline. To the east is Salinas Valley, which Steinbeck wrote about in several books, including “Of Mice and Men.” North of Salinas is San Jose, aka Silicon Valley, and the international airport which many Sea Otter participants use. (Monterey also has a regional airport, though there are few direct flights in and out.)

Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson (left) and three-time national cyclocross champion Tim Johnson (right) at the start of the 2013 Sea Otter Classic gran fondo.

The 2017 Sea Otter Classic will be held April 20-23. As a media partner with the event, staff from CyclingTips — as well as parent company, BikeExchange — will be on site, riding, taking photos, and chatting with riders and industry folks. If you see a CyclingTips or BikeExchange logo, please say hello! For more information visit SeaOtterClassic.com, and follow along on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


We asked former and current pro riders to send us their most memorable Sea Otter Classic experience. They’re presented here, in their own words.

Alison Dunlap: Sea Otter is one of the best events on the circuit, and some of my fondest memories come from that race. I did the Sea Otter Classic nine times, and won the overall four times. There is a lot of history and a lot of craziness from those days, but my most favorite memory is from 2004. I was racing on the Luna Pro Team with Katerina Nash and Shonny Vanlandingham. After two stage wins and a second in the time trial, I was wearing the leader’s jersey going into the final three-hour cross-country race. It was a great race with a lot of tactics, attacks, and crazy descending. The race finished with a lap of the big Laguna Seca raceway. Katerina and I were together along with five or six other women. I love tactical sprint finishes so I told Katerina to sit on my wheel for a leadout. I drilled it with 400 meters to go, and no one was able to come around. Katerina sprinted for her first cross country win! The picture from that finish is my absolute favorite because both of us had our arms raised in victory. It was so much fun helping her to her first win on such a big stage.

Thomas Frischknecht: It was a short-track race in the late 90s. The race was on the hill side, close to the start-finish area for the cross-country and short-track races today. There was a big mud hole a few meters before the finish line. Riding straight through loaded up a lot of mud, so everybody detoured around the mud hole. The last-lap bell was ringing and I chose to dismount, run straight through, and get back on the bike to get a little gap on the others throughout the last lap. This was the winning move, I thought, as I crossed the finish line first — only the others continued riding when I had stopped. I didn’t get it. What I was hearing was the last-lap bell of the road criterium, just parallel to our short-track race. Even though I was strong that day, I was the loser of the day.

Tina Pic: I can say that there is no comparable thrill than dropping off that corkscrew — no course,  nowhere, not ever. Being a sprinter, I’d have to say that torturous climb is almost worth the pain and suffering to get to zoom down the other side, although 14 times might be a little excessive. My favorite was the year they did the time trial starting at the top of the corkscrew and ended it before you had to climb back up again. Bring that back please! I did get relegated; seems I jumped off the block a wee bit too early. It was probably the gravity of the drop-off pulling me off the ramp. I think the coolest thing about Sea Otter is that there are so many events going on at one time. And kudos to those mountain bikers that would do all of them. All the mountain-bike races and then the road races intermixed — so impressive. I believe it was called the Iron Otter. What a great venue and great courses with such an amazing festival to complete a really fun, long-running top notch race.

Todd Wells (left) and Burry Stander, 2009 Sea Otter Classic.

Todd Wells: In 2009, Burry Stander and I had just switched from the GT team to Specialized. It was when we still had the STXC on the dual-slalom hill, it was super bumpy, hot, and had quite a bit of climbing. I was racing a 29er for the first time and we rode off the front together with me taking the win and Burry coming in second. It was a great way to kick off the season before starting the World Cup. In 2016 , I had another great Sea Otter. I had just joined the SRAM-TLD-Scott team and it was one of the first few races with my new teammate Russell Finsterwald. I had a disappointing STXC the previous day, but in the cross-country race I somehow found myself in the lead group of three midway through. The race came down to a sprint and I am normally a mediocre sprinter at best. I got onto the track in first position and lead it out all the way to the finish narrowly grabbing my first win for the team.

Alison Powers: I have good memories from the Sea Otter Classic. In 2012 I won all four races [circuit race, criterium, road race, time trial]. In 2010 I won the circuit race, and raced the short track and cross-country. In the 2012 road race, I had two teammates in a break of four. They were not working because I was the yellow jersey. With about 8km to go, Loren Rowney attacked and bridged to the breakaway — with me on her wheel getting a free ride. As soon as we caught the break on the finishing climb, I attacked. I won the race solo — an uphill finish — and teammate Olivia Dillon was second. That race had some of the best tactics I have ever been able to execute, and as a team, we were perfect.

Georgia Gould: My best Sea Otter memory was in 2006, my first year on Luna. I was racing in the Super XC and had made the select group of second through tenth. Gunn-Rita Dahle was solo off the front, and I was racing with legends like Alison Sydor, Jimena Florit, Mary McConneloug, Katerina Nash, and Sue Haywood. I knew that, worst-case scenario, I would get tenth, which would be my best finish in such a big race. It was going to be a nine-rider sprint finish, and though I knew nothing about road racing or tactics, I figured I would try to be a good teammate and give my fellow Luna racer a lead out. I told Jimena to jump on my wheel and I sprinted as hard as I could — so hard that she couldn’t come around and I ended up finishing third by accident! It was my first major result, and a reminder that you never know what you are capable of.

Carl Decker: It was one of the really muddy years, around 2000 or so. The race was the pro men’s short track. Short track was a newer discipline at the time and the courses often had much bigger hills than current STXC tracks do, as well as the occasional jump section on some tracks — a fruitless attempt to lure gravity racers into the fields. The track at Sea Otter that year had a pretty lippy double and a wedge jump to flat on the final descent. Most people were braking, but there were some great passes on the double when those few of us that were jumping it would catch the braking riders. On the final lap, I was racing toward a good result and sent the final wedge jump prior to the final corner bigger than I had before. Upon landing, my Morati titanium crank arm broke off at the pedal. I thought I just came out of the pedal, but couldn’t find it (it was stuck to the bottom of my shoe) and looked down to realize what had happened while rounding the last turn. The last 40 flat meters to the line was so sodden and muddy that when I got off to run, I passed the two guys I had been duking it out with who were pedaling through the mire. All with that Speedplay pedal and Ti crank end still stuck to my shoe.

Adam Craig: The spring of 2001 was the first time I left the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs on something other than a National Team-funded flight. Instead, as a tender 19-year old, I loaded up my 1993 Ford Escort station wagon and pointed it west, on my own terms, to the Sea Otter Classic. My first stop was in Grand Junction, Colorado, to meet up with “Rad Ross” Schnell for a couple days of riding before we caravanned across The Loneliest Highway in America to California. Upon arrival at Laguna Seca, we set up camp (me in the Escort, he in his van, which had a stove, thankfully) and set about getting ready to race for the weekend. I was in decent shape from a winter of hard training, but the road trip had centered me a bit and I was in a good place for racing my heart out. The time trial and short track went well enough, but they were really just to get me warmed up for the main event, Sunday’s two-lap cross-country race. After a good night’s sleep, with just the right amount of rear seat recline, I got a lucky start and settled into the top 20, among all of the European World Cup stars I’d been reading about in magazines. Just where I knew I needed to be. Eventually the best in the world broke into smaller groups, but I noticed that I wasn’t seeing any Americans around, and realized I was representing our country in the mix. I think I finished 19th, while Roland Green won narrowly over Bart Brentjens. It was pretty exciting to have that breakthrough, giving my budding career real hope going into the season. Sea Otter is always good for that.

From left: Geoff Kabush, Roland Green, Ryder Hesjedal, 2003 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: Tom Moran.
Geoff Kabush, 2005 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: John Gibson.

Geoff Kabush: I have so many memories to choose from Sea Otter. Redemption in 2005 is one of them. Throughout much of my career I battled riders who cheated, and at times it was hard not to get frustrated. In the 2004 Sea Otter XC I was in a battle all the way to the final climb with Filip Meirhaeghe. I used all my skills and tactics but in the end I wasn’t able to overcome. I finished second and had serious doubts about Filip and the legitimacy of his victory; sure enough he tested positive for EPO later that year. Frustration over these stolen moments spurred the “Dopers Suck” movement shortly after, with my friend Brandon Dwight initially making some T-shirts expressing that sentiment. In 2005, I returned to Sea Otter motivated with the memory and loss in 2004 still fresh in my mind. Again I was in the battle for the win and this time I was able to finally take my first victory at Sea Otter on the iconic Laguna Seca racetrack. As a statement regarding my loss in 2004, and to make clear how I felt about drugs in sport, I unveiled a Dopers Suck shirt as I took to the podium. It was a gratifying to finally take the big win and important for me to use the moment to express my support for clean sport.

Katie Compton: The year was 2007 and it was my first time racing the Sea Otter Classic. I had good form and was coming off my first successful cyclocross worlds and decided to only race the short track since I wasn’t doing enough mountain-bike training yet. We got to the venue and it was wet, rainy, and cold for California. The course was super slippery, but really fun, too. I had the perfect setup with cross tubulars (mud tread) glued up on a set of carbon wheels, and my new 29er. It turned out to be the perfect bike for the day. I started towards the back of a stacked field but moved up quickly and found myself at the front after a lap or two. I had good legs but more importantly, I could rail the downhill parts of the course and carry speed into the ups with the big wheels and solid tread. Not too many tactics were involved minus skills and horsepower, and I ended up winning the race off the front. It was definitely a great first experience and a happy memory of racing at Sea Otter.

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