[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in April, 2007.]
It started as a suggestion from a bike shop owner. Now the Sea Otter Classic--in its 17th year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, California--is the largest cycling event of its kind in the world.
As partners in an event management company in 1991, Frank Yohannan and Lou Rudolph were looking for a project.
"We happened to be in Joselyn's (Bicycles) and the owner said, 'You guys should put on a bike racing event,' " said Yohannan, the event's president. Joselyn's, a Monterey biking institution, was owned by Gabe Arcoleo at the time, said Yohannan.
Yohannan and Rudolph ran with the idea, and within the year put on what was then known as the Laguna Seca Challenge.
About 350 people competed that first year, although only 150 showed up to watch. There were no vendors, said Yohannan, "just us scrambling around."
Since then the challenge has grown into a major event. By the time this year's four-day event wraps up Sunday, some 50,000 people are expected to have watched 9,000 athletes compete.
"There was no way we could have predicted that the Sea Otter Classic could have grown to what it is today," said Yohannan. "It's grown steadily every year." The name of the event was changed in 1993.
Rudolph is no longer involved, but others have joined the team. Approximately 450 volunteers and 55 Sea Otter employees will be on the job this year.
Yohannan said that the event has grown in more ways than just the number of athletes and fans. Participation with local outreach programs and nonprofit groups continues to grow. With 300 exhibitors, the event also features world cycling's largest trade show.
Hitching a ride on the mountain biking wave
The Classic's success has a lot to do with timing, said Yohannan.
"Mountain biking was really going into a growth spurt," he said, "so we came along at a good time."
What sets the Sea Otter apart is that it features mountain bike and road bike competitions, the competitive field is not limited to professionals -- participants will range from Olympic-level cyclists to 5-year-olds -- and men and women compete, Yohannan said. The Tour de France and Tour of California, Yohannan pointed out, are strictly professional road cycling events for men.