The Sea Otter Classic is the closest it gets to a home race for me. I have been attending this event since 2009, before biking and racing became what they mean to me today. It always has a special vibe with the entire cycling community coming together for 4 days of racing, camaraderie and tradeshows. I remember being inspired as a kid seeing such riders as Todd Wells, Burry Stander and Adam Craig rip the XC course.
This event has grown to mean so much to me, particularly since I started my career at Specialized in 2015. Not only is it a prominent race on the calendar, but it’s a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues from across different brands. It is a unique venue producing high caliber racing and providing an opportunity to meet new people and keep up to date on the latest products.
The Sea Otter XC race is known for its cold, early morning start on the famous Laguna Seca Raceway.
I knew it was going to be a fast start with only about 1K between the start line and the first section of singletrack which included a tough sandy corner. With this in mind, I started my warmup early to make sure I had a front row start. I rolled around the track and tested out lines in the sand section while doing my usual progressions to threshold and quick sprints to wake up the legs and get the mind ready for battle. I lined up next to Keegan and Finsty (which ended up being a nice bit of foreshadowing for the day) and focused on getting a good start to enter the singletrack in top position. The countdown began and not even the start vehicle was ready for the speed of our start!
I managed to get through the sand clean and into the singletrack with the rest of the MTB contingent; first goal accomplished. From there, I focused on recovering as much as possible on the descents, knowing that the climb out of Couch Canyon would be our opportunity to form the lead group for the day.
Once we made it up the last climb, called Hurl Hill due to its steep gradient, we had a strong lead group of 7 riders who worked together and took turns on the front. We stayed like this for the rest of the first lap, taking turns and pushing a good tempo, making it difficult for anyone to bridge the gap.
I knew the attacks were going to happen in lap 2, so I made a move up the group before we hit the singletrack. However, I was pushed into the barriers by an overly zealous rider and had to settle for slotting into 5th. Keegan made an attack off the front on the climb out of Couch Canyon and the rider who connected with me couldn’t respond. I was able to overtake, but now had a 15s gap to make up. I knew I had to bridge the gap if I wanted to be in contention for the win, so I put my head down and got to work.
By the time we got over Hurl Hill for the second time, I had closed the gap to about 5s. I kept rolling over the top to the open fireroad section knowing I had to make up the 5s before the next descent. I made it to the lead group just before the descent and started to settle into recovery mode. Once we had established the lead group of three (Keegan, Finsty and I), we worked well together and took turns on the front. I feel we all knew it would come down to the last climb to the finish and were happy to work together until that point; all three of us wanting a positive start to the Lifetime Grand Prix series.
My legs started to come around after a bit of rolling with the group and we made it to the bottom of the climb together. Unfortunately, my earlier effort started to bite, and my left leg began to cramp up. I made the call to nurse it a bit and aim for a third place finish rather than risk falling further back and losing overall points.
With a big switch in training towards more volume and a step away from traditional XC racing in 2022, I didn’t know what to expect. To be able to roll with the best riders in the US and feel strong was a huge confidence boost. To do it at my “home” race with my Wife, brother and brother-in-law watching was a huge moment. Not to mention my mum watching from England on the live feed. Beyond excited to get the Lifetime Grand Prix off on such a good foot. Can’t wait for the new challenges and racing ahead!