This year would be my first trip back to Sea Otter in two years, and my first time as a Pro. I basically got my start in racing at Sea Otter, and it's kind of funny to look back at my XC results (and categories)...
2006 - Sport Clydesdale Class - 13th
2008 - Expert Clydesdale Class - 1st
2009 - Cat 1 25-29 - 3rd
2010 - Cat 1 25-29 - 1st
Last year I was all set to go race and had been training hard since November, but then the week of the event this happened and I made the very easy choice to skip Sea Otter and take care of Jen. That event changed our lives, but also my whole outlook on racing. Prior to that event, and looking back all the way to the last time I was at Sea Otter in 2010, I was way too focused on racing and was not even fun to be around the days leading up to a race or especially on race day. Jen called it "race mode" and my friend Brian, who I stayed with in 2010, called me "the intimidator," probably because I showed no emotion. Over the course of the last year I've worked to change my attitude, be more approachable, and make racing fun. So Jen and I set off after work Thursday looking forward to a fun weekend with great weather and friends at this year's Otter.
We were so blessed to be staying with our friends Brian and Bri again this year who are such fantastic hosts. Plus, they live right across the street from the track... can't ask for any better accommodations!
Friday - Short Track:
I had left myself plenty of time to get my Highball ready in the morning and the rear brake was giving me a ton of problems. I thought I had it all worked out and turning without really dragging, but when I came back to it and rolled it over to the car it was dragging even worse and sounding horrible. I think it changed once the temps heated up. Brian helped me get it rolling without too much resistance but it just sounded absolutely horrible. The sun was out and cookin' up temps in the mid 80's to 90 by the time our race was set to start at noon. I've never really done well at Short Track, it's just not my thing. I do better at longer races, and 20 minutes plus 3 laps of an 1/8th mile (?) course is, well, not long. 59 guys lined up and we started clean, for the first 100 ft or so. Then we had an off camber right turn with ruts to start a climb. I knew there would be problems here and it would be just pure luck if I got through it clean. I didn't. Someone washed out in front of me and then we were running. The field got strung out immediately and I was way in the back. I caught back up at the top of the climb and then on the traverse across the top I took an alternate line in the grass and over some rocks to make a pass and then took as many deep breaths as possible on the short downhill.
I made the hairpin turn and stood up to hammer back to the line to do it all again. I lost a couple spots on the climb as my rear brake was making tons of racket and the shifting was even jumping around. Just not a good day.
I was actually wishing I had ridden the Tallboy, not because of the issues the Highball was having, but because there was actually some rough pedaling where I would have been faster since we weren't actually on "trails." Since I wasn't having a great race at all and I know I didn't have the umph to really make any passes stick I didn't push overly hard in order to save a bit for the XC the next day. I lasted a little under 10 minutes before getting pulled, to finish 49th of 58. And that's all I have to say about that.
After short track I set off for a pre-ride of the XC course. Yes, in the middle of the day in the heat, the day before a race, and it would take a couple hours. It may not have been wise, but the course had changed quite a bit since I raced here last I felt it was more important to inspect it and recover/rehydrate after than to race blind. I made sure to keep a steady intake of Hammer HEED, Gel, and Perpetuem to not get depleted of anything. With the warm up, short track race, and pre-ride I got in close to 3.5 hours of riding in on Friday and got some pink skin to go with it. In the evening I finally got the brake and shifting issues all figured out and the Highball was dialed for XC.
Saturday - Cross Country:
I woke up with legs that were a little fatigued so I went for a spin first thing. Just a half hour, but it did the trick to help loosen everything back up. After breakfast, some stretching and final bike and fueling prep I went back up to the track and began my warmup. It was getting really hot out on the track. To the point where I was beginning to wonder if I'd be better off staying cool in the shade somewhere rather than riding around in the sun. I decided to keep moving to make sure my legs were ready to go and keep chuggin' fluids. I felt ready as the time approached and I rolled up to staging with 88 other guys.
I wasn't expecting any sort of call-up but after about 30 or so names I heard mine... but I was in the back and couldn't make my way through and then everyone just all rolled up at once while they were still calling names. It was a little weird when that happened, but I ended up with a decent position in the center about 4 rows back and most importantly in the shade! The start position isn't as important at Sea Otter because we start on the Laguna Seca track and it doesn't funnel down right away. After the national anthem and with a cheering crowd the gun went off.
So now we're on the wide open race track; 89 guys on mountain bikes with wide handlebars, powerful and touchy disc brakes, knobby tires, and way too much adrenaline who don't really know how to road race. Sound like a bad idea? Yeah, it was pretty scary. Even though all those knobbies on the pavement created the coolest sound. We'd fan out wide on the straight away and then everyone would close way down in the corner trying to hit the apex, a few tires skid around me as I lean over in the turn making sure not to overlap the wheel in front of me. I'm white knuckled and my arms are stiff trying to hold my position as the guy next to me leans on my elbow. Ok, first corner is done. The hairpin turn starts a little climb for us, but the leaders take the inside pavement which is narrower (the pit road exit) and some guys slide a bit on the dirt to the side but since we start to climb it slows down and mellows out. We crest and head down the front stretch at 30mph with the group completely fanned out because nobody wants to pull. We bunch back up in the right hand 90 degree turn and a BMC rider almost goes down up front. That could have been really bad. But we made it through and the road craziness is over now that we have a steady climb up to where we exit the track through a 12ft (approx.) gap in the concrete wall. At this point is the first choke of the course and I don't know what happened up front but we stopped and everyone was running through here and it was a total cluster. My pedal gets caught up in someone's front wheel, I was able to yank it out without any damage and remount to give chase. Towards the back of the pack now I stand up and hammer the first short climb and pass quite a few guys by the top. I crested the top and kept the cranks turning on the long downhill and take the rutted line on the right side. Guys are coasting on the left and I can't figure out why, but I'm turning the pedals at 44mph and I pass at least 5 guys on that first descent. The course stays on this ridge line fire road for about 2.5 miles with a couple pretty steep but short climbs. The final one is really steep and of course I end up having to dismount and run up because the guys in my way can't get it done. It's really frustrating to be able to ride something easily in my pre-ride but be forced to get off during the race because of traffic.
One more downhill and I know the singletrack is coming so I try go get by as many as possible, passing a couple more on a gravely corner before turning into the fun stuff. As I expected, my progress is impeded on the singletrack and I just know the front is getting stretched out even more. There's nowhere to pass so I just sit in and relax as we cruise the sandy corners and I have a little fun drifting and finding some good flow. We finish the decent and I, along with a couple others, pass the roadblock racer as we start the next switchback climb. We pick up the pace a little bit but I feel like I could go faster. We're on singletrack here and there are a couple places where I could force a pass, but our pace is just fast enough that I don't think I could have made a move quick enough to make it stick. I looked for a couple places and almost washed out on the inside of a corner once as I hit a rut I didn't see trying to cut the corner a bit much. We crest the top of that climb, about 6 miles into the race and begin another ridge line gravel road. I have no idea what place I'm in but I just keep looking ahead and picking off as many as I can. I get to the first "caution" spot which is a blind downhill full of ruts. As I approach I see a cloud of dust and a course marshal waiving us to the right side. When I crest I see a rider getting up from a crash on the left and the guy in front of me takes a line a little more to the center. I stay loose and to the right, cross over a couple ruts, let off the brakes and make the pass. No big deal and I set my sights on the next guy. We get a little bit of singletrack on a gradual descent which culminates in a 50ft "sand dune" drop onto a dirt road which is pretty fun.
I hadn't quite caught up to the next two riders yet which means I have a flat dirt road section where I'm all alone. I take on a dose of Hammer Gel and continue to drink. This valley is pretty hot but I try not to loose any ground to the guys behind me who might be working together to catch back up. Then comes the Trail 82 singletrack climb which is about a mile long and a fairly steep slog. There's shade in the beginning but about 1/4 of the way up it's just a trail in the bushes with dead air and I'm cookin'. I keep the pace but after a little bit I can feel I'm totally overheating and beginning to get chills. I back it off a little and take on as much fluid as I can stomach. I'm still not feeling great and begin to wonder if I'm going to be one convulsing on the side of the trail soon. Normally I handle heat very well but this was such a drastic temperature change from what I'm use to in less than a week (after the race I heard someone say their Garmin recorded 106 degrees here). I finally crested and turn into a slight breeze at the top so I fully unzip the jersey and keep going. I start to feel better and then I get passed so I match the attack and stay on his wheel down to the road crossing as we catch another small group containing fellow Norcal racer Will Curtis. I'm able to pass everyone in this group and make it stick by the top before a short decent. There's an off camber left turn that I made with a drift and my left foot out. I don't get clipped in before a bermed right turn which opens into a good size water bar which of course had a camera man and a crowd saying "Boost IT!!!!" I'm not fully clipped in but the cheers and cowbells made me do it anyways. I hit the jump and tweak out the bike for show, open jersey flapping, and while in the air realize I'm going to land in a rut. Thankfully it wasn't a deep one but my front tire landed with an objectionable "BAARRRPPP!" Thankfully I'm running WTB TCS Nano's and the bead held strong without any air loss. Still not clipped in I drift the next left hander which set me up perfectly to pass a rider on the right side of the next rutted downhill as I let go of the brakes and hit 28mph at the bottom.
Here begins another dirt road section of a little over a mile. I get passed back by that guy from the last downhill but I'm ok with it and sit in his draft for a bit. We climb up to the "Three Sisters" ridge and I'm feeling pretty good as I catch up to Cody Kaiser after the second climb. About then, Barry Wicks comes blowing by (he had been off to the side with a mechanical early on). I tried, and so did Cody, to stay on his wheel but we couldn't. That was humbling, but I keep on giving the best I've got. It's a little under an hour into the race now and my hamstrings and inner thighs begin to cramp on the climbs. Just as I finish off the rest of my bottle, I see Brian stationed perfectly for an exchange. He hands me a nearly full bottle of water and I was SO needing it! Some goes on my head and back and I chug down as much as I can before the next turn. We're descending on road now as I pass Cody, Menso de Jong and another rider at the base before turning up the twisty Goat Trail climb. Rejuvenated by having water again I'm standing on the pedals and hammering. I also have no choice but to stand because if I try to climb seated my hammies will cramp! I make a couple passes and catch up to a group of three or four which included Jim Hewett (winner of last weeks Napa Valley Dirt Classic). I sit in and recover a second before seeing an opportunity to attack on a steep climb. I go for it with a little momentum and Jim's gears slip, causing the rider behind him to check up and swerve into my path. I check up but my wheel is overlapping the other guy's back wheel and I'm loosing my balance... "go go go GO GO!" I holler but he doesn't go quick enough and I have to dismount... dang. I finally get back on and the group comes back together and I take the next climb to pass them all, just before the final decent on the Goat Trail and I'm able to put in a little gap. I'm totally spent though as I hit the false flat but try to hold my gap before hitting the road. The final climb back has a few steep rollers but overall is a steady slog which normally I can hammer pretty hard. Not this time though as the hammies just want to cramp. And from my efforts on the Goat Trail when I stand up the quads didn't really like that either. I glance over my shoulder after a corner and I see Jim coming. I keep the power down as much as I can and pass maybe three more riders before the second to last climb when Jim goes by. I match him up to the crest of that one but couldn't hold it up the last one. We get a little bit of fun singletrack descent as we're almost back to the track and I try to stay smooth and recover for one final finish sprint. I almost blow a corner and slide into a ditch but saved it with inches to spare. Jim is about 4 seconds up as we hit the track but the gap holds and I roll across the line in 38th place.
I finished in 1:24:14 and was 9 minutes and 56 seconds back from the winner Geoff Kabush. I'm really happy with my effort though and feel I gave it everything I had. I was happy to be done and in one piece after a crazy first Sea Otter Pro XC.
By now you might have noticed the new jersey... I'm very excited to now be racing for the new Santa Cruz / Fox Racing Shox team and representing a great group of sponsors. This is a great group of extremely talented riders of "All Mountain" ability and I feel extremely privileged to be welcomed aboard. The jersey is on loan from new teammate Aaron Bradford who unfortunately broke his collar bone in DH practice on Friday.
Best part about finishing a race!
Sunday - Fun Day:
Greeted by dense fog Sunday morning I set off with Brian for a tour of the Fort Ord fun trails that I've never had the chance to ride. We had a blast ripping around for about 90 minutes when he had to get stationed on the course to provide a feed for Brianne who was on her way to winning her Cat 2 XC race. I finished off my ride on the long climb back of the xc course, encouraging all the cat 2's giving it their best and cheering on the riders I knew. That's one of the things I love about Sea Otter is that I'm surrounded by so many people I know and everyone's just stoked to be riding and racing their bikes.
A High Five for Avery Morin grabbing 3rd in the Cat 2 15-18 XC (she's 14!)
Later Jen and I went down to Cannery Row in Monterey for brunch. Where I powered down an omelette, the rest of her crepe, and most of two HUGE mango-coconut-granola pancakes before spending some time in the Monterey Bay Aquarium where she got freaked out by the jellies and giant octopus... but cute penguins made up for it.
Pacific Union College in Angwin, CA puts on this race each year, usually the Sunday before Sea Otter which makes for a great bike set-up test and final fitness gauge. It's a super fun course, winding through the trees and steep slopes of Howell Mountain and has the two infamous features; the "whoop-de-doo's" and the painful climb out of the Pope Valley to finish off the race.
The week prior I came down with something, a cold I guess, or just a lot of fatigue. Either way I was not able to ride Wednesday through Friday, trying to get better asap. Conveniently that also coincided with rain storms, cold and hail. So I didn't feel TOO bad. Saturday morning I discovered the bottom bracket on my Highball was seized! I hadn't ridden it in about 2 weeks and hadn't checked it. I took it down to Folsom Bike and while they didn't have an XTR BB in stock, my buddy Eddie was able to clean and re-pack it to get it ready for Sunday. While he was doing that, I was on the Tallboy for most of the morning coaching a new client on MTB skills which is always rejuvenating and helps give me my riding "stoke" back. I really get encouraged to help others who are so motivated and to be able to see real progress. I got in a couple hours of riding at my pace before and after our session, but was out for about 5 total. Legs felt ok after that, but Sunday morning I could tell they were a little fatigued.
So a long warm-up was in order. I mounted up on the Highball with now turning cranks (although they seemed to have a little extra resistance) and a sweet custom fender I made from a 2 liter bottle and started spinning around. After about 45 minutes, there was still a little soreness in the hammies, and my heart rate was decent so I was as ready as I was going to be.
There's always a tough crowd that shows up for this race, and this year was no exception. Jim Hewitt, Kevin Smallman, Cody Kaiser, Michael Hosey, and the usual current and alumni kids of the Whole Athlete development program to name a few on the Pro line. Then there's always the Cat 1 fasties chasing us down like Brian Butler and Krishna Dole that start only a couple minutes back. On the line, I turn to Kevin and say "I despise this start! Ugh" and his reply of, "Yeah I'm not looking forward to this... it's one of the most painful starts in Norcal" I'm in complete agreement with. The gun goes off and we're sprinting up the pavement for about 200yds, a pretty decent incline too, before getting about 5 breathes worth of fairly level singletrack before turning up a gradual incline again. Then after a hairpin it gets steeper until we get to the run-up which is quite slick this year after a week's worth of rain and hail. At this point, being the absolutely horrible starter I am, I'm bringing up the rear of the pros and a lead group is about 10 seconds up I think.
The first couple miles are on some fire roads and grassy double track that have a few power sapping wet spots but overall the course is in decent shape. I get to the "whoop-de-doos" (three gigantic rocky rollers) and charge down the hill of the first one, pedaling in and no brakes, absorbing the rocks to maintain maximum momentum up the first rocky roller. Pre-shift, stand, aim for the rocks which is the place of historically good traction only to find they're super slick and covered in moss! The back tire immediately slips out and I'm running. The crowd that usually gathers there cheers me on and one guy says all the white rocks are slick. Yeah... NOW I know! I make it through the next two rollers, only aiming for the dirt this time and the new WTB Moto 1.9 tires dig in and hook up great. But even after that on the next mile or so of trail the hardpack and rocks are still very slick and even just riding along straight the back tire slips and slides making me think I have a flat. I couldn't wait to get into the singletrack!
Finally the fun stuff. Tight, twisty, leafy and needle loam covered dirt ran beneath my tires as I caught and passed a couple riders. I got stuck behind one guy for quite a while, much longer than I should have but I wasn't feeling super aggressive to put out the effort to force a pass. I should have though, it's a race, but I just didn't have the fire yet. I eventually passed him on a tight turn he couldn't navigate, and being a bit frustrated I finally got some fire and wanted to put the gap on him quickly which I did. After one of the steep climbs I came around a corner to find Will Curtis on the side with some sort of chain problem. Bummer. His Whole Athlete buddy Tony was stopped to help him too.
I caught a couple more guys, the old guys of the pro class who still manage to start faster than me! And passed them just as Tony came blowing by. Crazy kids. I stepped it up and was able to keep up until a short climb where he just left me... impressive. I stayed in "Diesel mode" riding by myself just chuggin' along and enjoying riding my bike. The descent down into the Pope Valley was not too slick thankfully but had some pretty serious ruts to navigate. The Moto's kept great traction and I got through it all clean and began the dreaded climb back out. The first pitch was slick and I didn't have enough momentum so I had to run it. The second one came and I just didn't have the fire to push it and felt running would be just as fast so I dismounted about half way up. I was frustrated because I normally ride that one. The last and longest one came, with great traction and I cleaned it all which I'm very happy about. It was about an hour and fifteen minutes into the race and I was just starting to feel good, and feel like I'm racing. I get back up to the main fire roads and a course marshall says "Almost to the top! Just about 100 ft to go!" Yeah, for that climb! Then there's more to come... about a mile or so of steady fire road that has a deceiving incline to it which you can loose a lot of time on if you don't charging.
I came around a corner and saw a glimpse of a rider that looked like fellow Folsom Bike rider Jared Kessler who's been crushing the early season road races in prep for mid season Super D's and Enduro's. So I keep the diesel chuggin' and I'm about 5 seconds back from him when we hit the airport plateau and pass Kevin Smallman who's pedaling with just his right leg. As I pass I see his left crank arm in his back pocket... dang. Turns out he snapped a BB30 spindle! Crazy. One more small incline and I sprint to catch Jared and hit my highest HR of the year so far (181!) and then sit in behind him. It's a gradual descent down to the track and I knew I couldn't drop him there. I stay right on his wheel, getting roosted with mud and we finally hit the track. One lap of pavement, against a guy who's been learning a lot of road tactics lately and I know is a great sprinter. I have to time my move right. Mid-way through the back stretch I have a run... I know I shouldn't go but I do. I shift and stand up to lay down as much power as I can and we enter the final turn. I protect the inside and glance back, he's still there but a bike length back. He's getting a run in my draft. I stand up again and let finish the corner out on the left of center and glance over my right shoulder expecting him to be there but he went left! Dangit! I'm giving it all I can as he's coming by on the left and that white chalk line finally comes... I throw the bike forward and it's over! That was pretty rad. Sprint finishes never happen in MTB races so I'm excited about the finish regardless of who got it. We were racing for 5th overall and I thought he had me at the line, but the scorekeepers saw it differently and gave me the spot, finishing 4th in Pro and 5th overall (Michael Hosey was up there but racing Single Speed).
I'm a bit frustrated with my lack of motivation at the start and for the first hour. I need to figure out how to get a fire going sooner... or just start doing 50 & 100 milers!
I am happy about my super-awesome custom fender though! I didn't have a spec of mud on my face until I got roosted by Jared.