Racing happens at the Sea Otter Classic. And it matters to those who compete, no question. The Expo happens at Sea Otter, as well. And it means a ton to the manufacturers who display their goods there, as well as their customers. Overall, the event delivers a four-day experience that, in the context of modern U.S. cycling has been unsurpassed for attendance and experience for quite some time. But the event’s true value is this: It’s the first big gathering of the U.S. cycling tribe each year.
Founded in 1991, the Sea Otter quickly grew into an event of international significance in terms of mountain bike competition, during an amazing period of growth in mountain bike participation. In those earlier years, slotting neatly into the schedule between the season-opening Cactus Cup in Scottsdale, AZ, and the first round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Napa, California, the Sea Otter mostly drew sponsors and competitors and racing fans to the Laguna Seca Raceway (Monterey, California) venue, everyone looking to either fine-tune their fitness or at least show off their new team colors and equipment. Held in March, each year, those early events were known for their muddy conditions as much as the exceptional levels of competition.
Times change, and so has the Otter. The cross country disciplines still carry the day at Laguna Seca, but cross country isn’t what it once was to mountain biking. Adapting to the market, over the years, the Sea Otter has added downhill and enduro and road events and, as importantly, has stood by its slalom racing format, even as the rest of mountain biking messed around with the good-on-paper, useless-in-reality 4-cross format. At one point, Sea Otter even had running and roller blade events, if I remember correctly.
For the most part, good sense has prevailed in the management of the event. Roller blading is gone. A Gran Fondo has been added. Cyclocross and e-Bike races are more questionable current additions. But the most important shift was to move Sea Otter to April.
The move to April, in terms of weather conditions, has been so successful that there is an entire generation of bike industry employees and racers that have never experienced a rainy Sea Otter. What used to be a Gore-Tex® mandatory event, has gone to a Gore-Tex® just-in-case event. Where attendees used to complain about tiptoeing through soggy mud, grass and left-behind crap from migrating geese, now the only concerns are occasional wind, dust and remembering your sunscreen.
What’s been consistent, and even continues to grow, despite changes in racing and bike industry business cycles, is attendance. Like I said, the true value of Sea Otter is that it’s the first big gathering of the cycling tribe in the U.S. each spring. Compared to the late-season fatigue associated with many of the indoor, end-of-summer trade shows, the Sea Otter, being outdoors in generally good weather, with plenty of room for riding bikes, carries an undeniable energy and optimism. Imagine a giant high school reunion, if you actually liked all of the people you went to high school with. For that, I’ll always be grateful to the organizers and the operations team, to the founders and the sponsors, and to everyone who attends and makes Sea Otter great. It’s about the people. If you’re attending, come by and introduce yourself at the GORE® booth (#864). And if you can’t attend this year, think about it for next year.
If you do attend, beyond immersing yourself in the tribe, make note:
The Corkscrew turn on the Laguna Seca Raceway is world famous for a reason. And the screens on your phone/laptop/gaming system/television don’t do it justice. Whether on a bike, in a rental car or with one of the on-site driving schools, it’s a must-experience stretch of pavement.
If the calamari food truck is in the food court, that’s all you need to know.
If you can’t have a good time with your mates at The Crown and Anchor in Monterey proper, then you’ve gathered with the wrong tribe.
Find an old-timer that can show you the original XC race course format. That’s still the best iteration.
Grab a beer and do not miss slalom finals.
As you enter the venue, watch out for the downhill kids crossing the road between the campgrounds and the race course.
The SRAM signs are chained in place for a reason.
Mind those signs that warn you of unexploded ordnance at Fort Ord.
There are lots of good restaurants in Monterey. None of them are on the wharf. Seek authentic Mexican food.
If you’re on a road bike? Ride the 17-Mile Drive, descend into Carmel, head inland and come over Laureles Grade to the Laguna Seca race venue. Save some energy for the last climb. Really.
Hope to see you out there.