The Sea Otter Classic is one of the oldest and biggest mountain bike races in the country. It’s also a four day festival drawing in over 50,000 cycling fans to participate in almost all forms of bike racing, visit venders show casing their latest gear, and spend time with each other talking about the sport they love.
With the industry and sponsor presence, deeper fields, and more spectators than we normally see all year it’s always a personal and team goal to perform well there. I’ve had pretty good success the last two years, taking 3rd in 2010, and 2nd in 2011. My pre-season goal included another podium, but with a stacked field including two-time defending Sea Otter Champ, Platinum teammate, Bobby Langin, two-time defending National Champ Russell Kappius, and several other National and Sea Otter medalists, I knew just making the top three would require a great effort.
With temps in 90’s I chose to stay in the shade as long as possible, giving up a front row place, and hoping I could make up places on the wide open mile and a half of paved track. True to form Bobby was pinning at the front as soon as the gun went off, with Russell, multi-time Otter medalist, Dermot Carroll, and National medalist Den Satake in hot pursuit. I quickly worked my way into the top five as nervous races weaved and pushed to try and get into Bobby’s slipstream. As the track turned up so did the pace and I put in a hard effort to take the lead as hit the dirt. The sound of carnage told me there was some kind of pile-up behind me, but I didn’t look back and knowing I’d be able to recover on the first long descent, gave it all I had for the next several minutes.
By the time we hit the descent Russell and Den were the only one’s still there, with Bobby leading the chase group, and Dermot, a victim of the pile-up. Needing to recover, I let the other two take the lead down the descent and then followed wheels for the next mile. I attacked again on the short steep climbs before the first long single track descent and was able to get a small gap on Russell, but Den counter-attacked and was first to enter the single track. The last two years I was also in a group of three at this point, with Bobby’s superior descending skills all but deciding the race as he just rode away. Determined to not let Den get away, I was ready to take a few risks, but after four or five turns he was running back up the trail to retrieve his ejected water bottle. In the lead again, it was time to stay off the breaks and flow the twisting sandy descent while I recovered from my hard start.
To my surprise nobody closed on me and I put in another hard effort on the subsequent 3 min climb, passing several stragglers from the previous group. I crested the climb and was now on a fast, gravel covered, fire road with no one else in sight. I’d seen a few bad incidences here in year’s past, with people have to pick gravel out of their skin after going down, but I was solo off the front at Sea Otter and needed to keep the pace high. Now into the only real technical part of the course, a rolling, rutted, off-camber single track, my stomach was feeling the combination of the heat, effort, or too much food, and I had no choice, but to slow down long enough to leave some of it by the trailside. Then as I hit the steep sandy chute, Den came by on my right, blew right through the gravel landing area, and into the bushes on the other side. He recovered quickly and it was now a two man race.
He sat on my wheel as climbed a long fire road into the wind, but my legs and now empty stomach were feeling fine so I kept the pace high. After a few more ups and down it was clear Den was slightly faster on the descent, but I was able to quickly catch back on as soon as we started climbing and could easily match his pace. With no one else in sight and beginning to feel the first twinges of leg cramps I was content to sit on his wheel for the climbs and try to hydrate. I’d played this same game last year with Dermot as we battled for 2nd and 3rd and was confident in my ability to successfully attack on the 20 min final climb. I’ve done a lot of 2 x 20 min. threshold work the last few years and it’s definitely my strong suite. Sure enough, just like Dermot last year, Den got a good gap on the final descent, but I reacquired him quickly when the trail turned up and at the first opportunity to pass, I went by, and picked up the pace. Den didn’t respond and I soon had a substantial gap. There was a lot of traffic on the skinny trail through the trees, requiring a lot of surging to pass, but Den would likely have as much trouble getting through it as me.
Once the single track turned to fire road and passing was no longer an issue, I settled into diesel mode, and tried to hold LT pace for the roughly 10 min. climb to the top. There’s always a good head wind on this climb, but this year it was actually welcome as it made the heat a bit more bearable. Shortly after making the turn to the finish loop I looked back for the first time. Nobody else had made the turn yet, meaning I had at least a couple of minute lead. With only two minutes of descending to the finish, a wave of emotion hit me; I was actually going to win Sea Otter! I fought to get my concentration back as there were still a couple of tricky sections to clear, but didn’t even try to hold back to huge smile on my face.
I crossed the line in 1 hr 31 min, almost the same time as last year, but considering the heat and the physical issues I felt mid-race, it was a significant improvement. Den came in 2nd, just over three min back, with Russell 3rd, another min back. Bobby was 4th, a great finish for the proud Champ considering he hasn’t been able to race much the last couple of years. After being 3rd and then 2nd the last two years, felt so great to take that last step to top of the podium. One small step for a man, one giant leap for a bike racer.