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Posted by Editoress on 04/6/06
Sea Otter Classic
The 16th annual Sea Otter Classic opened today under sunny skies and on muddy courses. The Bay area has been receiving record rainfall throughout March, and there have been numerous mudslides in the area, so the prognosis did not look good. However, the day dawned with blue skies and, although the ground remains soggy and the circuit was full of mud bogs to grab wheels of unwary riders, everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) proved once again why she is the number one ranked rider in the world with a decisive victory in the women's race, while Jean Christoph Peraud (Orbea) was the unexpected winner in the men's race, riding away from top stars such as Bart Brentjens (Giant), Liam Killeen (Specialized), Jose Hermida and Ralph Naef (both Multivan Merida).
The format of the Sea Otter mountain bike stage race has changed for this year, from a regular time classification to a points omnium. The format is straightforward: if there are 120 starters, first place gets 120 points, second 119, etc. For each stage entered (and finished) a rider gets points, so it is worth sprinting even for 20th place. The final cross-country stage is also a UCI-sanctioned race, so riders can enter just that stage and win or place in that race based on time - clear?
Today's stage is the Super XC; sort of a cross between a short track and a cross-country. The 5 kilometre circuit was half pavement (on the Laguna Seca race track) and half off-road, with the start/finish on pavement, and the riders raced for 60 minutes, plus a final lap. The offroad section featured some chicanes, and short power climb and an off-camber descent. The kicker was the mud. All the recent rain has left the ground literally oozing with water, and the offroad portion quickly turned into a muddy quagmire, with mud-filled holes which brought riders to a halt.
Dahle made her usual fast start in the women's race, and only Kiara Bisaro (Gearsracing.com) was able to stay with her by the halfway point of the first lap. Bisaro hung on for another lap before dropping back to join the chase group which was forming behind.
"I had no expectations coming into this stage; I only arrived last night and I hadn't ridden the course. So I was a little surprised at how well I was going, and how I was able to stay with (Dahle). But once I dropped back, and was stuck in the middle, it made sense to wait for the other riders. Really, I did much better than I expected today!"
While Dahle steadily extended her lead over the rest of the field, a tactical race was developing among the nine riders in the chase group. Among that group was Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects), the defending champion.
"To be honest, I didn't feel that good today, so I focussed on staying with the group for the first part of the race. By the last lap I was feeling more comfortable. It was very demanding through the singletrack and all the muddy switchbacks - you had to pedal as hard as you could all the way around, which made it a lot more physically demanding than last year. I just tried to stay in good position and pick good lines, because every little bit of energy you could save was that much more for the end.
In the last lap there were two or three very good attacks, because they (the other riders) knew that I was the fastest sprinter. It was to my advantage to let others chase and let it come down to a sprint."
It did come to a sprint, and Sydor easily outkicked the other riders remaining in the group to take second, ahead of Georgia Gloud (Luna), Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Gary Fisher) and Bisaro.
Dahle, competing at her first Sea Otter since 2000, agreed that the circuit was hard. "This was awful, very difficult and completely the opposite of last weekend (at the World Cup opener in Curacao, which she won). But that is part of being a mountain biker.
I didn't change my strategy; it's the way I normally race - always to be at the limit. I knew that I wasn't completely fresh after Curacao, but it was the same for everyone, and I know that i am in good shape.
But, I definitely took it easier in the mud, because it would be easy to go down, or get bad chainsuck. However, I was still out of control in some corners, and the course was a surprise to me on the first lap because I had not done any practice!"
The men raced for the same amount of time, and ended up completing six laps to the women's five. Peraud, the current European Champion attacked on the first lap, taking American cyclo-cross champion Todd Wells (GT) and Ralph Naef (Multivan Merida) with him. While the three did take turns leading, it was Peraud doing the majority of the work, finally dropping his two breakaway companions just before they were caught by a star-studded chase group containing World Cup stars Brentjens, Killeen and Hermida (plus Wells, Naef and Australian Chris Jongewaard).
The leaders were catching stragglers, so Brentjens was unaware that Peraud was still away and thought he was sprinting for the win instead of second, easily outdistancing Jongewaard and raising his arm in the air as he crossed the line. Ironically, Peraud didn't realize that the race was over, and that he had won, and powered through the finish line ready to do another lap, while his team frantically screamed at him to stop.
"I didn't know he was out there - he was so far in front that we could not see him. So, I made a mistake there, oops! But it was a good win for him, Peraud is not so famous as some other riders, but he is a very good rider and it is not too surprising that he could win here.
"It was very dangerous out there, there were so many holes under the mud that it was easy to crash and I went down twice. Plus, this type of riding is very hard on the body and it will be harder to recover for tomorrow."
Peraud for his part had not planned to be out in front all race. "In the World Cup last week I did not ride so good, it was too hot, and so I came here worried about my condition. I did not plan to be at the front, but I looked back in one of the technical sections and I had a gap, so I kept going. Actually, it is better to ride in the mud for me, more like France is at this time of year. And I think not having attention on me helped also."
The top Canadian finisher was Max Plaxton (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) in 13th, riding in his first international race of the season, followed by Kris Sneddon (Kona) in 19th.
- Specialized's Sabine Spitz didn't arrive until late last night from Curacao, after a delay in Miami left her sitting on the plane for extra hours. She also didn't get a chance to pre-ride the course or try out her new pink bike.
- Trish Sinclair (Scott) was having her own similar difficulties. "My bike never arrived. I'd like to thank the guys at Shimano for instantly coming to my rescue last night, along with the Scott guys. They stayed up all night after taking a demo bike and stealing parts from everywhere. They were awesome."
- Brentjens was supposed to be racing on the new Shimano XTR 2007 kit, however he said before the start: "it's too dirty, so I will just use my old bike."
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