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Sea Otter Classic - NE

USA, April 6-9, 2006

Sea Otter Classic mixes cross-country, gravity and road racing

By Steve Medcroft

Geoff Kabush and Liam Killeen in the 2005 Sea Otter
Photo ©: Rob O'Dea
Click for larger image

The Sea Otter Classic, Monterey, California's cycling festival and racing weekend, got underway Wednesday morning as more than 250 vendors claimed their expo spaces and dozens of pro road and mountain bike teams made camp, dirt jump and trials exhibitionists dialed in their workstations and event organizer's prepared for expected crowds of over 50,000.

Held on the Laguna Seca Recreation Area (home of the Laguna-Seca auto raceway), the event is traditionally the launching pad of both the 2006 U.S. mountain-bike season and an opportunity for the cycling industry to release its newest product lines.

Mountain bike stage race

Pro mountain bike racing begins Thursday with a sixty-minute Super XC; a multi-lap circuit race held on a mixture of dirt tracks and Laguna Seca raceway's famous corkscrew turns. Followed by a two-mile time trial on Friday, short track on Saturday, the MTB stage race (which will be scored as a points-bases omnium) culminates with the marquee pro cross country races on Sunday.

At last year's Sea Otter, Canadian Geoff Kabush (Maxxis/Turner) and Englishman Liam Killeen (Specialized) went one-two in Sunday cross-country race. Both went onto to success in 2005. Kabush pretty much dominates the U.S. scene while Killeen focused on international competition; scoring his first-ever world cup win in the marathon in Mont Sainte Anne, Quebec. The same pair have been making news already in 2006, although not for the same reasons.

For Killeen, his gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in early March followed by a podium (third place) at the World Cup opener in Curacao last weekend means that the twenty-three year old is hitting a comfortable stride in his development and is a serious threat for this weekend's race. Kabush, on the other hand, has struggled with an illness that has him in the uncomfortable position of not being able to throttle off the front of cross country races. The pair will not only face marathon world champion Thomas Frischknecht (Scott), Curacao winner Bart Brentjens (Giant), Ultimate Dirt Challenge winner and U.S. cyclo-cross national champion Todd Wells (GT/Hyundai), but a strong field of domestic racers including U.S. National Champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru/Gary Fisher), Jeremiah Bishop (Trek/VW) and early-season breakout Michael Broderick (Seven/Kenda).

The women's stage race is wide open. There are a number of pro mountain-bike teams with strong women racers attending Sea Otter, including the Trek, Subaru/Gary Fisher, the Luna Chix, Velo Bella/Kona and the Ford Cycling team.

Alison Sydor took the overall stage race in 2005 and is expected to defend. Power rider Shonny Vanlandingham, depending on her winter prep, should be a strong challenger on the power-formatted courses. The woman to watch though is Mary McConneloug. The Kenda/Seven sponsored rider took a winter away from cyclo-cross to build base fitness in Hawaii and has so far won the UCI E1-rated Ultimate Dirt Challenge in Rincon, Puerto Rico and earned a podium spot in Curacao.

Gravity Omnium

Four-cross action in 2005
Photo ©: Colin Meagher
Click for larger image

The full-faced helmet set have their own competition; a three-event Gravity Omnium. After qualifying runs on Friday, the competition get started with Dual Slalom on Saturday and wraps up with Downhill and Mountain Cross on Sunday.

Course designers announced in March that they sped-up the downhill run for 2006. Luna Chix team ambassador and former U.S. Downhill national champion Marla Streb said that "a light, short-travel bike will probably be the wisest choice, especially if there is some mud. In addition to the right bike, the winner will need superb jumping skills, an ascetic's aversion to brake dragging, and fitness especially on the short, steep, lung-busting uphill section."

With the downhill course modified for speed, riders who do well in mountain-cross and are fit already should be favored; a formula that leans towards Australians like Nathan Rennie, Mick Hannah, Sam Hill and defending omnium champion Jared Graves should be on form. Graves' main challenge is expected to come from world champion Fabien Barel but with Steve Peat in the mix, it's an open contest.

In the women's Omnium, mountain cross national and world champion Jill Kintner (GT) will face downhill world championship silver medallist Sabrina Jonnier (Iron horse) (current world champion Anne-Caroline Chaussen retired at the end of last season) among others.

NRC Road Race

Sea Otter's tradition of hosting a road stage race has been stalled; the road component of the 2006 event has been reduced to Saturday's single National Race Calendar circuit race. As usual, the circuit race will wind around the visually interesting Laguna Seca raceway, with its challenging 300-foot climb and high-speed Corkscrew downhill.

The Lipton, Cheerwine, Touchstone Climbing, Velo-Bella Kona, PABW Powered by Tibco, Colavita/Cooking Light, Webcor, McGuire, Victory Brewingare teams are all registered for the twenty-two-lap (50 mile) pro women's race.

BMC Racing Team, Cal Giant/Village Peddler, Pacific State Bank/Anderson Homes, Monex, Orbea, Healthnet, Jelly Belly, Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada, Team Spine, Team Rubicon, Team Successful Living Presented by Parkpre are all set up to compete in the thirty-one lap (70 mile) pro men's race.

Industry activities

Almost three-hundred members of the cycling business will give Sea Otter attendees the chance to view (and in some cases, buy) products. Shimano will be loading up selected pro mountain bikers with the recently-announced 2007 XTR MTB group and other planned media and dealer product releases - including a carbon two-niner from Orbea, the production version of Trek's 9.9 carbon hardtail and SRAM's expected announcement of its branding and technical details for its new road group, will fill the weekend.

Soggy skies

Conditions in Monterey have not been favorable to outdoor sporting; the area has been drenched by rainstorm after rainstorm. The loamy oceanfront soil drains pretty well though and the forecast calls for mostly-cloudy-but-with-the-threat-of-showers-type skies by Thursday so racers and spectators should pack the rain gear, but keep a backpack handy in case they don't need to use it.

Cyclingnews' staff will be on hand to bring you coverage of all the pro races and a look at the latest in technology and product.

2006 Sea Otter Classic events:

Race 1, Thursday, April 6, MTB stage race #1, Super XC
Race 2, Friday, April 7, MTB stage race #2, Time Trial
Race 3, Saturday, April 8, NRC road race
Race 4, Saturday, April 8, MTB stage race #3, Short Track
Race 5, Saturday, April 8, Gravity Omnium event #1, Dual Slalom
Race 6, Sunday, April 9, Gravity Omnium event #2, Downhill
Race 7, Sunday, April 9, MTB stage race #4, Cross Country
Race 8, Sunday, April 9, Gravity Omnium event #3, Mountain Cross