Touted as a modern-day Ringling Bros. production, the Sea Otter Classics organizers do their best to make the event entertaining "even if you're seriously plagued by the short-attention-span syndrome of 2000."
With mountain, road, trails and downhill competitions, plus a huge spectator pavilion area, the choices were numerous. The best entertainment, fittingly, came in the final cross-country stage of the mountain bike race.
Picture-perfect weather graced the Laguna Seca Recreation Area on California's Monterey Coast for the first two days of the Classic held March 17 - 19 but the skies didn't hold for the final. After sunshine for the dirt criterium and time-trial stages, the Pacific Coast gave the international field a chilly send-off.
Howling winds and cool temperatures greeted racers as they lined up for the deciding final stage, which had shaped up to be a very close general classification battle between Michael Rasmussen (Haro-Lee Dungarees) and Bas Van Dooren (Be-One) on the mens side, and Laurence Leboucher (GT) and Marga Fullana (Subaru-Specialized) on the womens.
As the women took off on the windswept course, it quickly became apparent that only the strong would survive. Former world champion Leboucher had a distinct advantage when teammate Alison Dunlap joined her at the front, with only challenger Fullana able to hang on. The three-way battle was almost a forgone conclusion, given road-sprinter Dunlap's prowess at race tactics.
Just the week before, Dunlap who is candidate for both the U.S. road and mountain bike teams at the Sydney Olympics had won the Redlands Classic road stage race, which gave Fullana long odds for breaking away to gain back G.C. time from Leboucher.
"My job was to help Laurence and make sure she didn't have any problems," Dunlap said. "She had to be fresh and ready to go if Marga became aggressive."
Sure enough, Dunlap played her role to perfection by keeping the pace high along the rolling emerald green hills over Monterey Bay. As the threesome entered the Laguna Seca track for the finishing sprint, Fullana went from far away trying to surprise the duo, but couldn't hold off Dunlap in the sprint, who gave GT its third win in three days with her stage-three victory.
Coming into the final day, one scant second separated reigning world champion Rasmussen from the up-and-coming Van Dooren.
The impish Van Dooren had shown that he was one of the strongest riders in the field in the preceding two days, and as the race rocketed off into the stiff headwinds, he didn't hesitate to crack his own whip.
Van Dooren motored away solo early on in the 34-mile race, and didn't flinch too much from the challenging wind. Rasmussen, on the other hand, struggled to a seventh-place finish, dropping him to third in the final standings.
"It's nice to win, but it was hard today in the wind," Van Dooren said. "It's tough when you're tiny like me."
Bart Brentjens (Subaru-Specialized) rode an inspired race, at one point closing to within 10 seconds of Van Dooren, and finished second. The 1996 defending Olympic gold medalist showed that he is headed for good form again, after several off years.
In the downhill, Australian Nathan Rennie topped Volvo-Cannnondales Brian Lopes by 0.7 second. Unbeatable Anne Caroline Chausson grabbed a huge seven-second win over Elke Brutsaert (Schwinn-Toyota) on the womens side.
The show will hit the road north for the mountain-bike World Cup season opener in Napa next weekend.
Sea Otter Classic
March 17 - 19 (three-stage race)
Final general classification standings
1. Bas Van Dooren (Be-One)
2. Bart Brentjens (Suburu-Specialized)
3. Michael Rasmussen (Haro-Lee Dungarees)
4. Roland Green (GT)
5. Thomas Frischknecht (Ritchey)
6. Ryder Hesjedal (Gary Fisher-Saab)
7. Pavel Tcherkassov (Gary Fisher-Saab)
8. Chris Sheppard (Haro-Lee Dungarees)
9. Rune Hoydahl (Giant)
10. Geoff Kabush (Kona)
1. Laurence Leboucher, (GT)
2. Marga Fullana (Suburu-Specialized)
3. Mary Grigson (Gary Fisher-Saab)
4. Hedda Zu Putlitz (Be-One)
5. Jimena Florit (RLX-Polo Sport)
6. Alison Dunlap (GT)
7. Chrissy Redden (Gary Fisher-Saab)
8. Alla Epifanova (Volvo-Cannondale)
9. Chantal Daucourt (Trek-Volkswagen)
10. Alison Sydor (Volvo-Cannondale)