The Sea Otter Classic is the world’s largest cycling festival, taking over the Laguna Seca Mazda Raceway for four days every year since 1990. There are dozens of bicycling races: everything from Criterium to Cross-Country, Downhill Mountain Biking to the newly added E-Biking. Thousands of people flock to this beautiful area near Monterey, California to celebrate two wheels in motion, as I did today on April 20, 2017 for fun in the sun on Day 1 of the festivities.
Today was my third year racing at the Sea Otter Classic in the Open Women’s Enduro Mountain Bike race. For anyone unfamiliar with what “Enduro” is, it’s basically a category of racing that combines downhill and cross-country trails, which are divided into timed laps. Your cumulative time ranks you, so you can relax a bit on the untimed transfer sections in between the laps. It’s about 15 total miles. I’ve only done one race where we were timed consecutively from start-to-finish, the Santa Cruz Old Cabin Classic, and it felt like a lot more pressure to keep going. I like the format of the Enduro better so far. Today was my fourth race ever, and it definitely felt like the best!
I arrived around 7:30 a.m., and checked in for my racing bib and wristband. There was a heavy drizzle, but tons of excitement in the air. Probably every bicycling and mountain biking company in the world have booths set up in the pit of the raceway; bikes of all kinds are going every which way; enticing aromas are brewing at the food tents. By about 7:50, I proceeded to practice the Downhill Course (Stage 1), along with hundreds of other riders, literally. With a 9:18 a.m. race-time, I figured I had plenty of time. The line moved at a snail’s pace, however, taking about 45 minutes to get to the start. I had a great practice lap, and took advantage of the shuttle back up to the start. By the time I made it up to the top of the Downhill Course, though, it was 9:22! I lined up at the end of my group, with only about six girls left to go in front of me; I barely made it on time. And I didn’t have time to practice the Dual Slalom course.
The rest of my ride was full of flow and grace; no falls or close-calls. I pushed my speed, but maintained good control. I enjoyed myself more, appreciating the ubiquitous wildflowers and birds. It was much better than the first year I rode in 2015, when I made all kinds of rookie mistakes. I practiced the Dual-Slalom three times in the morning before the race, thinking it was the Downhill course. By the time I realized the race was starting, I had to hurry over to the actual downhill course, having never ridden it. I rode it too fast and ate it face-first on the downhill. Although I was bleeding a little and had a dirty face, I was fine, so I continued riding. I got off-course, however, and rode the Dual Slalom again (the fourth time that morning), before riding stages 2 and 3. I fell on a sandpit section of the second stage, but was okay. By the time I got to the Dual Slalom lap that actually counted, it was my fifth time doing it that day, and clearly an advantage. I rode it in 56 seconds, not bad compared to others. This proved one of the most obvious lessons: the more you practice a course, the better you’ll do.
In 2016, I raced again, and did better; I felt more familiar with the course, and had returned to practice riding the trails of Fort Ord National Monument all of two times. My rank went up a little (I was 36 out of 48), but mostly I was happy I didn’t fall! I enjoyed the experience a lot more, knowing a little more of what to expect.
This year, I specifically trained on the sandy trails of Bear Mountain, near my house in Ben Lomond. The topography is quite similar to Fort Ord, with lots of variations of sandstone – everything from pits of beach sand to tacky, grippy, compacted sand. I don’t typically ride there often, but it’s been a great place to work on my skills in the sand. However, nothing compares to riding the actual location, and I probably should’ve made time to preride the course this year. Nothing compares to practicing the actual trails; duh! I wish we’d have more mountain bike races on the trails of Santa Cruz, where I am at home. I know I’d do better than I did in this race. Although I’d still like to improve, I went up in rank this year, improving by 33 seconds from last year (15:45 compared to 16:18, cumulative times); a 7% percentile improvement in overall rank. I’ll take it!
Why am I trying to race at all? Self-edification. Growth and improvement are important to me. I love a good challenge, physically and mentally. Setting a goal and working toward it motivates me and keeps me excited about life. I also feel like I have some unfinished business in the realm of competitive sports. It’s a long story, but after years of playing many childhood sports, I stopped playing competitive sports in the eighth grade (yes, I regret that! Especially quitting soccer). By the time I tried to get back into it as a Junior in high-school, I was too far behind compared to my peers to make Varsity-level. Although I’ve always been athletic and active, I have a hunger for more winning, more success athletically. Being a sponsored, competitive athlete is something I’ve always dreamed of.
I like the mental challenge of a race; in fact, that is probably the biggest challenge for me. I’ve done some running races, too, and I can get distracted, either by external stimuli (other people), or internal (self-doubt; comparing myself to others). I know I’m a good athlete, and I want to learn how to be a pillar of grace under the pressure of competition; to tune out the background noise. I want to learn to perform at my fullest potential, despite what other people are doing, or the obstacle of crowded pathways resembling the old Atari video-game Frogger. Yes, I’d like to prove myself as well; ego is part of it. But it comes from a place of unfulfilled dreams, that resonates with me on a deep, emotional level. Athleticism is part of my identity, and to be recognized for it someday would be awesome. I have a flame lit under me that, instead of needing to be extinguished, needs to burn and glow.
I try to keep a few things in mind during a ride, summarized with the letters A-G: Awareness, Balance, Confidence, Determination, Endurance, Flow, and Grace.
Each word embodies an essential quality for a successful ride, in my opinion. Total awareness is everything; without it, riding is plain dangerous. Balance is key, not just for physically shifting your weight, but for balancing effort, approach, and expectations. Confidence is what you get from all those rides over the years; it’s the muscle-memory of instinct. It’s sure-footedness, committed action. Determination is my trait; tenacious K. Endurance is the obvious one to see you through the long, hard climbs when your muscles are tight. Flow is the secret code that unlocks the beauty of the whole experience; it connects everything together into positive, forward momentum. Grace is the blend of all these traits, where skill and intention combine for a smooth ride; it’s being a courteous, conscientious rider.
Ultimately, it’s a lot of fun to go for a ride in a beautiful place with a bunch of cool people. I loved talking with other competitors and hearing their stories. We all shared a good, hearty laugh watching a pair of Wild Turkeys gobble in unison. Meandering through the booths after the race, warm sunshine on my face, watching the pros ride the pump tracks was a total highlight (names are on the Rider’s chalkboard in one of the pics).
It’s inspiring being around so many others who share the same passion. I love being part of the mountain biking community – an outdoorsy, thrill-seeking, and fun-loving crew of people, all trying to push themselves to their very best. I can’t wait for next year!