Posted by Editor on 03/25/02
Sea Otter Classic - the Road Story
The Sea Otter Classic is a fascinating, frustrating event, unique in the cycling world. 8,500 competitors, 11,000 race starters and a total of 50,000 people all in one place - Laguna Seca Recreational Area.
Laguna Seca is well known to motorcycle racing fans, due to the international level race track, however, local bike riders are also aware that there are thousands of acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management - similar to our National Parks) land available for their riding. There are also kilometres of paved roads, with wicked climbs and descents, all closed to motorized vehicles. All of this cycling wonderland is within a few kilometres of Monterey and the Pacific Ocean.
At Sea Otter you can race road (4 stages), mountain bike (4 stages), Downhill or Biker 'Cross. You can also participate in recreational rides or just cruise the largest bike expo in North America - Bike Porn at its best.
The downside? With all this stuff going on, there are bound to be problems. Unfortunately, the biggest problem seems to be results, which causes this writer extreme stress and very long days. (One newbie from VeloNews was heard raging "How can they do this?" The standard answer: Hey, it's Sea Otter...)
This report is broken into two parts - road and mountain. Canadians dominated both.
This a tale of complete dominance - on the one hand by a team, on the other by a single rider. In the women's race, Saturn seems to have solved their greatest problem - Genevieve Jeanson of Team Rona - by wearing her down; eventually putting fellow Quebecer Lyne Bessette into the leader's jersey. On the men's side, Prime Alliance's Chris Horner proved that his form at Redlands a week ago was no fluke, as he answered any and all challenges to his lead.
The four stage road race began with a time trial, a grueling 27.3 kilometre loop that was all climbing and descending. As expected, Jeanson blew away the competition in the women's race, finishing 1:27 in front of US time trial champion Kim Bruckner (Saturn), and 1:34 ahead of Bessette. Jeanson shaved over a minute off last year's course record, set by 2001 overall winner Anna Millward (Saturn), who was absent due to injury this year. In the men's race, David Zabriskie of US Postal surprised many, including himself, by finishing 13 seconds ahead of Horner and 17 seconds in front of Canadian time trial champion Eric Wohlberg (Saturn).
Jeanson said the time trial was "hard; a fun course, but very hard. All the climbing gets you in the legs. I did my all in the race. Maybe with a 54 I could have gone a little faster on the downhill, but it was the best I could do."
Zabriskie had not been quite so sanguine about his chances. "I wasn't expecting to win this morning, so it feels really good. I started conservative to save for the final climb."
Barely two hours after finishing the time trial, the riders were back in the saddle, this time for a crowd-pleasing sprint through the Cannery Row district of Monterey. The Saturn women immediately went on the attack, forcing Jeanson and her teammates to chase down a never-ending series of breakaways. As the laps ticked away in the 38.5 kilometre stage, the torrid pace took its toll, with less than 20 avoiding the ignominity of being lapped. Eventually, Saturn managed to shake Judith Arndt loose and she was joined by Canadian Nicole Demars (Bianchi USA) and Katrina Berger (Cannondale USA) in the closing laps of the stage. Berger shot through the final corners in the lead, managing to hold off Demars at the line.
Bessette explained that Saturn was on track after two stages: "Our team had a great day today. We knew that (Genevieve) would be the strongest in the time trial, but our plan was to make her team chase really hard in the criterium, and gain some time back. We have three riders in great shape for tomorrow."
The 77 kilometre men's race started just as fast, with Prime Alliance, Saturn, Mercury, Navigators and 7 Up/Nutra Fig all taking turns at the front. The pace was too high for anything to stick, until Horner took charge, taking 4 other riders clear with him as he opened up a 20 second gap on the peloton. It proved a testament to his fitness that it took the combined might of the Saturn and Postal Service teams nearly half the race to reel him in.
Once the break was back in the fold, the stage was set for a sprint finish, although Mark Walters (Navigators) nearly pulled off an upset with a daring attack at 3 laps to go, which was only pulled back in the final half lap. 'Flash Gordon' Fraser (Mercury) charged by Walters just before the final two corners, and easily held off Greg Henderson (7 Up/Nutra Fig) and Walters to notch up his fourth victory of the season.
"The team was so busy covering Horner and the other breaks that I didn't get the support for the finish that I usually get. But I had super legs all race, and felt really good, so it was no problem coming across to Mark Walters. I've got 4 wins this year so far, so I'm back to my 2000 level."
However, to paraphrase a famous quotation, "the past is prologue".
The Fort Ord road race stage blew apart the race, as expected. Chris Horner continued his dominance in the men's field, winning the stage and making it all but impossible for anyone to challenge him. The women's race witnessed a major upset, with race leader Jeanson succumbing to the constant attacks of Bessette's Saturn squad. Canadian Sue Palmer-Komar (Talgos America) won the stage, but Bessette's third place was enough to move her into the overall leader's jersey.
The 30.5 kilometre Fort Ord circuit is an unrelenting series of climbs and descents, gradually winnowing down the field of riders until only the best contenders are left. Stage one winner Jeanson came into the race with a lead of nearly a minute and a half, but she knew it would not be enough and attacked early into the rain-shortened four lap race. Bessette and her teammates didn't panic, and steadily chased her down, catching the young Quebec rider by the halfway point.
Palmer-Komar was a member of the group that caught and passed Jeanson, and she then launched an attack off the front of the race with New Zealand national champion Karen Bockel, ironically a member of Jeanson's team. Bockel and Palmer-Komar built up a 30 second lead on Bessette, and Palmer-Komar further benefited from a late race crash by Bockel that assured her the stage victory. Jeanson had, for her, a very bad day, dropping from first to sixth.
Sue Palmer-Komar: "Once there was a gap on Genevieve (Jeanson), I worked with Lyne's team to maintain the gap. I hesitated in the early part of the race, during the rain, but when it cleared up I felt better and was riding really strong. I held back a bit in the final turn that led out onto the (finishing circuit), which is where Karen crashed."
Lyne Bessette explained that everything went according to plan, "Team tactics won today. My team is so strong and deep that when Jeanson attacked we were able to bring her back as a team and then attack until she was dropped."
The six lap men's race became a chess match, with Horner's team forcing rival teams to dance to their tune. After an early breakaway containing Horner's teammate Danny Pate gained a minute plus on the field, race leader David Zabriskie's U.S. Postal squad, and defending champion Trent Klasna's Saturn team, were forced to expend their energies chasing down the leaders. Horner received an easy ride as the field splintered and eventually shattered behind him.
Once the leaders were caught, Horner attacked again and opened up a gap with Henk Vogels (Mercury), eventually dropping Vogels to solo in for the stage victory, and take over the lead from Zabriskie. Vogels held on for second place and Saturn's Soren Petersen took third. The difficulty of the race can be attested to by the fact that only 85 of 142 starters crossed the finish line.
Horner crowed "My team just did everything right for me today. I told them that we needed to get Danny (Pate) into the break so that we don't have to chase. We did exactly what we needed to do."
The road stage race portion of the Sea Otter Classic concluded on Saturday with the Laguna Seca circuit race. While the overall standings had been pretty much decided after the road race, there was still a final stage to be won, and many riders hungry for a spot on the winners podium. To no one's surprise, Chris Horner (Prime Alliance) and Lyne Bessette (Saturn) retained their titles at the end of the stage, with Bessette adding a final stage victory to her list of accomplishments. Mark McCormack (Saturn) was the winner of the men's final stage, after a last lap breakaway caught everyone by surprise.
Bessette's biggest rival in the women's race may have had a bad day in the road race, however, she was expected to mount a strong effort in the final 13 lap, 46.5 kilometre stage, and she did not disappoint. After Katrina Berger (Cannondale USA) attacked, Jeanson followed, shadowed by the ever vigilant Bessette. Jeanson and Bessette soon dropped Berger, and never looked back, turning it into a two woman race. At the finish line, Bessette let Jeanson lead out the sprint, before swinging around her in the final 200 feet to take the stage. Kimberly Bruckner (Saturn) soloed in for third. Overall, Bessette won the Sea Otter title, followed by team mate Bruckner, with road race winner Susan Palmer-Komar (Talgo America) holding onto her third place position.
Lyne Bessette explained "today I was going for the stage win because my team has not won any stages so far in the race. I am really, really happy to win here, because this is the first time I have ever won this race."
Jeanson was reflective after her frustrating loss: "My team was super here, we rode very well, very hard. Yesterday, in the road race, I rode too much with my heart, and not enough with my head. Saturn (Bessette's team) is so strong that I have to ride wiser." However, will wiser be enough, or is Jeanson doomed to win the battles and lose the wars against superior forces?
In the men's 72 kilometre, 20 lap event, Horner's Prime Alliance team went to the front of the pack early on, and set a pace that discouraged any breakaway efforts. One rider did manage to get clear of the pack for approximately half the race - Kirk O'Bee of the Navigators squad. O'Bee's effort was ultimately doomed, but he did last long enough to pick up sufficient lap bonus points to take over the Green Jersey of the Sprint Points leader.
Navigators ruined a potential stage win, according to both Horner and Fraser, by hassling the race leader back in the peloton.
"I warned them", said a visibly annoyed Horner after the race. "I told that if they didn't quit it I would chase Kirk down."
Fraser echoed his former team mate's comments. "There is a certain race etiquette; you respect the yellow jersey. They were out there hassling him, not giving him proper space in the pack. You just don't do that, it's not right. So Chris went to the front and towed the pack up to O'Bee."
Once O'Bee was caught, everyone began setting up for a sprint finish. McCormack, not a sprinter, caught everyone off guard when he made a bold move on the final climb, with less then two miles remaining in the race. The unexpectedness of his move led to its success, and he was able to freewheel across the line 50 feet in front of the charging pack, led home by stage 2 winner Gord Fraser (Mercury) and Oleg Grishkine (Navigators).
"We didn't have a sprinter, because we lost our man Jay Sweet earlier." said McCormack. "I discussed the plan with Harm (Jansen, his team mate), and we both thought it might work. Luckily, it did."
Fraser agreed. "My team was on the front of the race all day, working to keep it together for the finish. Unfortunately, Mark attacked on the last climb and got too big a gap for us to bring back before the finish. We did everything we could to win the stage, but Mark was very smart."
Chris Horner summed up how his new team rode: "The team was so great today - they rode at the front to keep the pace up and discourage anything from happening. Mark made a good move at the right time. Everyone was tired and he just punched it over the top. The win is our second in two weeks, and it just shows that the team is coming together perfectly."
Tomorrow the mountain bike story.
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