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Sea Otter Classic Mountain Bike Races - 1
Monterey, California, USA, April 16-19, 2009
By Sue George
The Sea Otter Classic returns to the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, for four days over a long weekend. The annual festival includes mountain bike and road races, fun rides and exhibits from the companies in the cycling industry.
As one of the most prestigious races on the American domestic mountain bike race circuit, the gravity and cross country competitions always draw some of the nation's best talents. In addition, the strong presence of many elite team sponsors at the associated expo means many of the best riders in the world also attend. This year is no exception as several reigning World Champions like gravity racers Gee Atherton and Melissa Buhl and cross country's Christoph Sauser will be on hand.
Fresh off last weekend's UCI World Cup opener in South Africa, racers like Atherton, Buhl, Sauser and Greg Minnaar will have to overcome some serious jetlag and possibly some post-race fatigue after going full throttle on another continent less than a week ago.
If you have time to watch just one competition and you want to encounter the most stars, the downhill will be the event to attend. 102 men and 22 women are pre-registered to compete on the 0.93-mile course on Sunday. In previous years, racers have rated the course as not particularly technical and without a significant amount of elevation drop relative to many of the courses on the international circuit. Expect winning times between two and two and a half minutes.
There are a dozen men who could win, so a tight race is expected. Among them are Greg Minnaar, World Champion Gee Atherton , Sam Hill and Mick Hannah. Minnaar is fresh off his hometown World Cup win last weekend, when Hannah qualified fastest and took second, proving to the world that he is back at the top after a year off from racing.
Minnaar won last year ahead of Chris Kovarik, Justin Leov, Steve Peat and Nathan Rennie. Kovarik and Peat are not pre-registered, but Leov and Rennie are signed up to return.
Dan Atherton, Josh Bryceland, Eric Carter, Mitchell Delf, Brendon Fairclough, Cedric Gracia, Andrew Neethling, Jared Rando and Kevin Aiello are some of the others who make the start list read like a list of who's who in the downhill world.
Melissa Buhl will be back to defend her 2008 women's win. While last year's runner-up Fionn Griffiths and Sabrina Jonnier are not on the pre-registered list, Buhl will more than have her work cut out for her as she goes up against last weekend's World Cup downhill winner Tracy Moseley. Look out also for strong challenges from Claire Buchar and Mio Suemasa.
World Champion Rachel Atherton will be notably absent from the competition as she recovers from a severe shoulder injury sustained this winter in a training collision with a pickup truck.
Spring is the season of many cross country World Cups, and while there is no direct conflict for this weekend, many cross country racers are choosing not to make the trip from the South African World Cup last weekend to Sea Otter this weekend and then to next weekend's World Cup in Offenburg, Germany. Three continents in three weekends are enough to tire out the most travel-seasoned pro.
That said, a few racers have shown that they are not afraid to fill up their passports with a few more stamps. World Champion Christoph Sauser and his Specialized Factory Team mate Burry Stander are the absolute favorites going into Sunday's race. They will be helped by fellow teammate Todd Wells.
"Now I am heading to California for the Sea Otter Classic," said Sauser on his blog before hopping on the airplane to cross the Atlantic. "This is not ideal with so much traveling, time zones and busy schedule during the event, but I am positive that I can improve my fourth place one week later in Offenburg, Germany."
Last weekend in South Africa, Stander and Sauser finished third and fourth respectively and neither of the men who beat them - Julien Absalon and winner Jose Antonio Hermida - will be in California.
A whole host of domestic contenders, representing all the strongest domestic teams, will get their chance to prove themselves against the international talent, but Sea Otter is also a place where the stars of the future get a chance to do well and get noticed. Serving as round two in the US ProXCT series and as round four in the US Kenda Cup West, a host of talented, aspiring riders will be looking to prove themselves. A whopping 145 men and 43 women are pre-registered.
On the domestic pro team front, the Sho-Air / Specialized team has been one of the strongest thus far in the US Cup series and their leader, Sid Taberlay finished third here in 2008. He'll be supported by Sam Jurekovic, Max Plaxton and Manual Prado as part of the team with numbers on its side and plenty of California racing experience.
For Gary Fisher / Subaru, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Sam Schultz could log a top three finish. Schultz was second in 2008 behind Miguel Martinez, who was recently removed from his Felt International Team and is not expected to be racing this weekend.
National short track and marathon champion Jeremiah Bishop (Monavie / Cannondale) and Andy Schultz (Kenda / Tomac) will be there to mix up the action, and Kona will field Ryan Trebon and Eric Tonkin.
Long-time superstars Tinker Juarez and Ned Overend will be there, too.
In the women's race, the question to ask is "Which Luna racer is likely to win?" Catharine Pendrel, Georgia Gould, Katerina Nash and Chloe Forsman will make a powerful squad proven to be capable of working over the competition.
Last year's winner Kelli Emmett (Giant) will no doubt put up a good fight, but another favorite Lea Davison will be absent as she is away in Europe racing on the road in the Spring Classics.
Subaru / Gary Fisher will send World Cup racers Heather Irmiger and Willow Koerber to take on the Luna women. Look out also for endurance star Rebecca Rusch (Specialized Factory), Under 23 Pan Am champion Emily Batty (Trek), Kathy Sherwin and Wendy Simms. Elite racers will contest two laps each on the 19-mile course made up of fireroads and often dusty, loose single and doubletrack.
Adam Craig, Barry Wicks, Kris Sneddon and Mary McConneloug will not be in attendance.
Last year's winner Carl Decker (Giant) will return and is the favorite for the men's race on Friday, but watch out also for Ross Schnell. Last year's women's winner Davison will be absent, leaving the door open for fellow Giant racer Kelli Emmett to do battle with Jean Anne McKirdy and Rachel Lloyd. The latter has retired from 'cross racing and claims not to have been riding her bike, but that doesn't mean she won't be fast in the Super D.
Many of the same suspects from the cross country race will be the favorites in Saturday's short track although some will elect to save their legs for Sunday's cross country by sitting out Saturday's short track. 73 men and 28 women are pre-registered.
In the men's race, last year's winner Sam Schultz will return as will last year's runner up Ryan Trebon (Kona). No one quite knows what to expect of Trebon's fitness after he suffered injuries and crashes during the winter's cyclo-cross season, but if anyone can pull a strong short track and decimate his challengers, it's cyclo-crosser Trebon. However, the competition should be tougher this year in general with Sauser, Stander, JHK, national champion Bishop and Wells.
Katerina Nash (Luna) is the best bet for a win in the women's race. She excels in short track and is likely to do well as she comes back from a knee injury and short-lived retirement plans. On any given day, though, Nash might play team tactics with teammates Georgia Gould and Catharine Pendrel, giving either of them the chance to go for the win - especially if the others are busy marking Nash. Others to watch include Kelli Emmett (Giant), Emily Batty (Trek) and Subaru / Gary Fisher's Willow Koerber and Heather Irminger to name a few.
Look for many of the downhillers to contest the dual slalom on Saturday. Thus far 74 men and 14 women are registered.
Four cross World Champion Melissa Buhl is the hands-down favorite for the women's race, but Mio Suemasa has plenty of experience and could challenge Buhl.
In the men's race, last year's winner Greg Minnaar will be up against the likes of Michal Prokop, Dan Atherton, Gee Atherton, Marc Beaumont, Eric Carter and Jared Rando, which should make for an exciting evening of head-to-head racing.
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Images by Dave McElwaine/www.trailwatch.net