A star-studded field took on this year’s Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California.
With reigning world champion and Olympic gold medalist Nino Schurter of Switzerland in the professional men’s mountain bike races, the competition was as good as it gets at an event that has long been one of the biggest festivals for cycling in the United States.
Many of Durango’s top riders competed in last weekend’s event. Olympian Howard Grotts took to the course and came away with a third-place finish in the men’s professional cross country mountain bike race. He also added a third place result in short-track cross country. Three-time Olympian Todd Wells, 41, was right with Grotts, 24, in both races, as he placed fourth in XC and fifth in short-track.
“The Sea Otter is one of my favorite events of the year; it’s a celebration of everything cycling,” Wells said in an email to The Durango Herald. “I believe it’s been going on for nearly 25 years and is probably the biggest race/festival still around from the heyday of mountain biking, so there is plenty of history there.”
The event draws one of the best international fields in the U.S. along with the Leadville 100 or any world cup stops.
The international riders were tough this year, as Sam Gaze of New Zealand pushed Schurter in both races. Gaze claimed the win in short-track and was in good position in the XC race before a flat tire derailed his day. Schurter went on to claim the XC win in 1 hour, 25 minutes, 41 seconds. Anton Cooper, also of New Zealand, was second in the same time after losing the sprint against Schurter. Grotts crossed in 1:26:02, and Wells was another 30 seconds behind Grotts.
Wells said the courses this year were less technical than in years past. But, with limited obstacles, the racing was faster than ever.
“This year was the least technical course I think we’ve ever had at Sea Otter,” Wells said. “There were no tight corners, mud, ruts or corners to split things up, just a fast field and 30 yards of sand. That said, if anything, it made the racing harder.”
Gaze and Schurter took a gap on the field early, and the rest of the racers couldn’t catch up. Wells said the group averaged more than 21 mph the entire race, a pace he called crazy fast for mountain bikes.
“With the course being flat and open, there was tons of drafting and nobody wanted to do too much for fear of being dropped or too cooked for the finish,” he said. “We held the gap steady at 20 seconds for the entire 30-minute race but could never bring them back. I sprinted with (Geoff) Kabush and Howie for third but couldn’t come around them in the headwind finish straight and rolled across for fifth.”
Grotts and Wells hung with the lead group Saturday in XC. Gaze and Schurter again set a blazing pace, attacking each lap into the climb with a cross wind.
“Myself, Howie and Anton would either barely hang on or claw our way back on the rolling descent,” Wells said. “On lap six, Sam flatted on the downhill leaving Nino off the front and Anton close behind. Anton bridged and sprinted with Nino for the win. I rode with Howie until popping off at the top of the last climb and rolled in for fourth.”
Also representing Durango in the XC was Benjamin Sonntag (16th), Jacob Sacket (22nd), Daniel Johnson (29th), Payson McElveen (34th), Mike Sampson (37th), Rotem Ishay (40th), Stephan Davoust (42nd), Troy Wells (53rd) and young Keiran Eagen (66th) out of 109 riders.
Durango’s riders also fared well in short-track. Behind Grotts and Wells was Sonntag (12th), Troy Wells (20th), McElveen (22nd), Ishay (28th), Davoust (32nd), Sacket (35th), Sampson (37th), Johnson (40th) and Eagen (64th). 110 riders competed in short track.
May of those riders will look to build on that success in such a loaded field this weekend at the Whiskey Off-Road race in Prescott, Arizona. It is the first of three stops on the Epic Rides circuit and features a 50-mile XC race.
“It was awesome to ride with the world champ for a good portion of the race and landing on the podium both days with such a stacked field ticked the boxes I had set for the weekend,” Wells said. “I have the Whiskey 50, where they won’t be nearly as much drafting and quite a bit more climbing with much thinner air, can’t wait.”
The pro women’s races also featured Durango’s Ellen Campbell. She took 34th in pro XC in 1:27:15. That race was won by California’s Kate Courtney in 1:14:06. Campbell was 26th in short-track, a race won by Jenny Rissveds of Sweden. The short-track race also featured FLC alumna Sofia Gomez-Villafañe, who claimed a top 10 in eighth place. She was also ninth in XC.
Durango’s Steve Colford also competed in the XC Category 2, 60-plus men race. He finished second to California’s Bill DeWolf in 1:38:25.
Young Camryn Sippy also raced the Category 1 15-18 Women’s race. She finished ninth in 2:28:35, finishing 13:39 back of winner Gwendalyn Gibson of Ramona, California.