Sea Otter Stories: Fear And Loathing In Laguna Seca

Cain Ramirez is the Co-Founder and CEO of Cowgirl Bike Courier. He has been designated by Cyclelicious as part of the less-than-one percent of transportation cyclists that identify as “Strong & Fearless”.

It started off as a joke.

Rich had just posted a press release for the Sea Otter Classic on Twitter. In it was mention of the Second Iteration of their infamous eMTB Race. I laughed. I don’t ride mountain bikes. Truth be told, I don’t particularly like mountain bikes, or mountain bike culture for that matter. Despite these preconceived notions, I’m a complete sucker for erratic and quirky cycling concepts.

I retweeted Rich’s post on Twitter without hesitation:

Never one to miss a beat, Rich sent an e-mail post-haste:

If you want to cover that ebike [sic] race […], we’ll need to act quickly. I’d say go ahead and register right away and request a bike right now, then we can talk about getting you a pass.

No need to threaten me with a good time Rich.

A week later I found myself in the heart of the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the Sea Otter Classic. Now in its twenty-seventh year, the Sea Otter Classic prides itself as “the world’s largest bicycle convention.” With over four hundred-and-fifty vendors and tens of thousands of attendees each year, I doubt anyone is in a hurry to try and dispute the claim.

Rich and I spent the first day shaking hands and catching up with cycling friends old and new, picking up schwag and business contacts along the way. Eventually, I made my way to the registration center to secure my spot in the eMTB race. Unlike the other races taking place that weekend, the eMTB was not UCI-certified. Meaning, instead of typical CAT 5/4/3/2/1/Pro/Masters classifications, you raced either according to your age category, or the catch all “Industry Open Challenge”.

As a professional bike messenger, I signed up for the latter. Surely, the only yahoos crazy enough to undertake such a race would be fellow messengers, and perhaps the occasional Brand Rep or Bike Mechanic…right?

As I had only registered on-site with less than 24 hours until race time, I still needed to acquire an actual eMTB to ride. Prior to attending the festival, I had e-mailed the main sponsor, Bosch, in hopes of reserving an actual bike to use for the race. Having not heard back from Bosch, I took to the festival, tracked down their booth, and was greeted by a beautiful full-suspension eCargo bike sitting in wait.

“Hey. I’m registered to ride the eMTB race tomorrow in the Industry Open category. Has anyone claimed that eCargo bike yet?”, I motioned to the rep.

The Bosch rep looked puzzled. “Let me check with the boss.” Minutes later, he returned with his supervisor in tow.

“We can’t loan out that particular model for racing, but there might be a eCargo bike you can use at another booth…”

Five minutes later, I had situated myself at the Yuba Bicycles booth.

For the record, Yuba does not produce anything remotely close to what could be considered a mountain bike. As noted in their motto, their focus is “Family Bikes, Carry Stuff by Bike, and Carry Kids by Bike.” In short, cargo bikes.

Conveniently enough, aside from owning a bike messenger service and moonlighting as Batman a mild-mannered journalist, I also happen to be the reigning South Bay Cargo Bike Champion; a title I share with Bike Pretty, and her son Baby Valentine. Riding an eCargo bike on a course designed for eMountain Bikes? No hesitation here.

“Bosch told me you guys have an eCargo Bike for testing. Would you be willing to loan it out to me for the eMTB race tomorrow?”

Kate, the Yuba Rep, blinked inquisitively. “Hell yeah! That’d be so sick! We can strip down our Spicy Curry model for you no problem. When do you need it by?”

A sly grin works its way across my face.

4:30pm, the next day.

“Sweet ride dude. Have fun out there.”

A gentlemen decked out in Oakleys and a full Team Bosch MTB skinsuit smiles and fist bumps his approval to me. I can’t shake the uncanny feeling that he’s part of an actual, sponsored, professional, mountain bike team.

From the starting point on the Laguna Seca Raceway, I take view of my surroundings. I’m smack dab in the center of a tight group of fully spec’d and decked out mountain bikers. Lycra. Performance-specific helmets and shades. Clipless pedals and shoes. This race was never a joke. And the term Industry Open was not to be taken lightly. I myself am outfitted in a San Jose Craft Fair t-shirt, shorts, Adidas Sambas, a borrowed helmet and some $10 shades; all the while mounting a Yuba Spicy Curry in curly kale green.

I am officially in over my head. And I have never been more stoked.

The stoke quickly turns to awe. At the front of the pack, stands a tall limber man, decked out in a Specialized Jersey whose aura shows dominance over all others. It’s not that he’s peacocking. It’s that everyone around him is visibly intimidated by his very presence.

As stated previously, when it comes to the MTB world, I know approximately Jack and Nothing. And Jack just left town. What I do know, is that the only reason you would ever even consider wearing the World Champion stripes on your jersey at any sort of race, professional or otherwise, would be if you had rightfully earned those stripes. Therefore, by process of elimination, I’ve determined that this man must be, or at the very least have at one point have been, the Peter Sagan of the professional mountain biking world.

But surely it can’t be the actual World Champion? And even if he was a past World Champ, maybe he’s became lax on his training? One glance at the man’s calves are all I need to set aside my doubt. They’re beautiful. As if Michelangelo himself had carved them from the finest marble specimen. Damn it all, he hasn’t even started flexing.

Damn it all straight to hell.

The countdown echoes across the field and the Peloton is off like a bat out of hell the moment the signal is given. I start spinning my twenty inch rear wheel and kick the eAssist to the highest level. Within seconds of our start, a poor unfortunate soul has already hit a mechanical, creating a huge backlog of confused riders who clearly have never handled a bicycle through traffic before. The Spicy Curry shows no hesitation, and allows me to swiftly carve through the crowd and begin up the first ascent. Not bad Yuba.

The initial incline threatens to sap our energy right from the start with its impending 14% grade. Before anyone is given the chance to prepare mentally, the red boundary tape pushes us off the tarmac and straight into the dirt. Despite the fact that I’m running large, smooth, commuter tires(Schwalbe Big Bens for those of you at home), the Spicy Curry doesn’t hesitate under the new terrain. “This isn’t so bad”, I think to myself. That’s when the Sand Trap makes its presence known.

Right at the base of the first large climb, the sand pit is laid out to claim the unworthy. Before my tire even touches the sand, a plethora of soft-bellied riders begin abandoning their bikes and whining about the terrain. “I didn’t sign up for this!” cries one. “What the hell man!” cries another.

I don’t have time for a Three Stooges reenactment. I dismount the Yuba, leap to its side, grab the handlebars, and start running it through the sand. With the e-motor, the bike must weigh in excess of 50 lbs, easily. No matter, as our sand run is completed quickly, and I’m back on the Spicy Curry and begin up the dirt hill trail within a moment’s notice.

Even with the e-assist at full throttle, physics won’t let me off the hook so easily. As the climb continues its steepness, I’m forced to downshift several gears. The battery goes from four bars to three. It’s clear that the application of this product was not meant for that of racing.

After a solid two minutes of climbing, my breathing becomes heavy and my mouth dry. The legs burn a little, but spinning a twenty inch wheel over nine-speed commuter cassette is a cardio workout I’m not used to. “It’s OK”, I tell myself. “The descent will be coming soon.” A hairpin turn and a solid descent later, I find myself facing yet into another brutal climb. Following another brief moment of suffering, I find myself at top of the Laguna Seca Raceway.

My heart skips a beat. I can see not only the rest of the race course from here, but all four-hundred and fifty Sea Otter vendors as well. How far have I climbed? And what the hell is waiting for me below?

Pedal strike for one. Lots and lots of pedal strike. The Spicy Curry was spec’d with a very low bottom bracket, ideal for establishing a lower center of gravity when carrying heavy loads. Such a design is unheard of on any modern mountain bike. Anytime I make a sharp turn over the unforgiving terrain, I’m reminded me of this fact by the familiar, unwelcome sound of pedal grinding on stone. Not only is the sound unsettling, but it also serves to complete ruin any rhythm I may try to achieve while descending.

When the trail is clear, the Spicy Curry handles like a champion. Even without the eAssist, the extra mass of the cargo bike makes descending simple; sometimes too simple. Each time the speed of a descent over muddy terrain compensates my handling, the mechanical disc brake system brings me back from the brink. While the complete lack of suspension means that I feel every shock, bump, and obstacle in my path, the sheer joy of descending down a switchback dirt trail outweighs any and all discomfort. Even when I’m forced to dismount due to short bursts of jagged rock, the smile never leaves my face.

Quite possibly the only thing better than bombing down the green hills of Laguna Seca is the sheer heckling from the crowd. All along the descent, spectators are lined up on the edge of the course boundaries, jeering and cheering the whole way.

“Yo Spicy Curry!”
“What the hell is that thing?”
“Hey man, I think you’ve got the wrong bike!”
“You’ve lost your cargo!”
“Where’s the beer man?”
“Go Spicy Curry Go!”

Even more satisfying than the heckling, is the confused looks of the photographers attempting to catch a shot of the action. Dumbfounded, confused, some even straight joyous, the idea of tackling this course was already lunacy in and of itself. On an eCargo Bike? Not even an afterthought. I pedal as fast as the stubby rear wheel will allow me past the paparazzi; grinning like an idiot the whole way.

After a thorough trouncing on the descent, I make my last hairpin turn back onto the raceway. I see the giant tire arch above me, signifying the return to the beginning of the course and beam. How many racers have looked upon the monument with the same joy I have? How many legends have I shared this race course with? The experience is pure bliss.

My bliss however is very short lived. The boundary tape leads away from the track, and straight into a gravel pit. From what I’ve heard, the purpose of the gravel pit is to allow car racers a place to pull into and lose speed should they lose control of their vehicle. For us, it’s one last test of our mettle before returning to the starting line.

The Spicy Curry and I make our last stand. Though I do my best to book it across, this cargo bike was not intended to be a gravel grinder. Coupled with the fact I’m running slick tires without any real grip; I feel my rear wheel begin to drift as the bike sinks further into the gravel, the mismatched wheel size finally working against me.

Almost wiping out, I catch myself and power slide into a corner, coming to a full stop. Just a bit further, I tell myself. Just a bit further. After another minute of slipping and sliding, I find myself back at the start, greeted by cheers. I’m nowhere near the front. I didn’t keep count of the number of people who passed me. Hell, I’m probably competing for DFL. That being said, the crowd is going wild for the idiot on the Spicy Curry. I wave at the spectators as I pass through the home stretch. Win or lose; I’ve done the impossible. Now I just need to do it three more times.

By the time I start my 2nd lap, I notice the battery is already at half-mast. There’s no way the battery can make it the entire race, and there’s no way I can do the initial climb without it. On a properly spec’d gravel bike? Sure. Pushing a 14% grade on a stock eCargo bike with no assist? Not a chance in hell.

The Spicy Curry and I make our run of the course once more, being heckled and jeered by the spectators the whole while. With the course fresh under my legs, everything becomes infinitely easier the second time around. The Spicy Curry roars out of the final hairpin, through the Giant Tire arch, and back onto the gravel. No fear. No quarter. The gravel is conquered beneath the slick tires of the cargo bike, and just as we hit the tarmac again, it hits me.

The battery has given out. I am now running on my own power.

I sigh. We had a good run, the Spicy Curry and I. Together, we accomplished history as the first ever eCargo bike participant in any sort of eMTB race. Two out of four laps. A DNF. I pedal with all my might into the pit at the entrance; retiring any chance of finishing the race.

Despite the defeat, I am filled with pride. Against all odds, the Spicy Curry and I went the distance. In a course where all the odds were stacked against us, we defied the norm and proved that the rider is never limited by the bike, rather, the bike can only be limited by the rider.

I shoot down the hill from the racetrack, back to the vendors, and make my way back to the Yuba Bicycles booth. Upon arrival, I’m greeted by cheering from the the Yuba team.

“How did it go?”
“Did you have fun?”
“What was it like?”

I relay to them my story, downfalls, highlights, and everything in between. How the initial climb sapped both my breath and the battery’s life. About pedal striking all the way down the hill straight into rocky terrain. About peeling out on the gravel. About how amazing the entire experience was, even with the battery dying halfway through the race.

“Ah crap,” muses Kate. “We had been using the bike as a demo piece through the day before you picked it up. Sorry about that!”

We all laugh and rejoice. The Spicy Curry had served its purpose and then some.

“You might want to check the wheels though.”, I mention. “I heard some spokes pinging; not sure if the wheels are true anymore.”

Benoit, the owner and creator of Yuba scoffs. “Just field testing mate. She’ll be fine.”

It was in the moment I realized what Benoit knew the whole time. Of course the Yuba was fine. The bike was designed to haul the most precious cargo of all; children. The Spicy Curry would never fail, no matter what was thrown at it. It was designed not only to protect its rider, but those that mattered most to them.

What a beautiful design. And what an amazing mind behind it.

Kate helped me grab my stuff and swap out bikes. “Congratulations, you’re now sponsored by Yuba! One of one of the Yuba Bicycles Race Team.” We laugh. My legs were dead. My body dehydrated. And yet, a better time could not possibly be had.

To those who completed all four laps, just wait ‘til next year. I’ll be bringing proper MTB tires, a fully charged Spicy Curry, and a renewed desire to crush you all under my twenty-inch wheel.

Victory
“Because after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure.” ~Tim Krabbé, The Rider

10 thoughts on “Sea Otter Stories: Fear And Loathing In Laguna Seca”

  1. Would love to know who the author of this guest post is. As someone who rides heavy touring bikes with slick tires on all sorts of unpaved roads and trails, I found a lot to relate to!

  2. Fantastic retelling… such a joy to read!

    I witnessed a young mother recently riding up a local (very, very steep hill) with her 3-4 year old on the back and panniers full of goods — and she was riding WITHOUT the electric assist. I wanted to stop at the top of the hill and wait for her to ask how she does it, but unfortunately I was on a schedule and couldn’t wait. I was thoroughly impressed though… just as I’m impressed with anyone who would enter a MTB race on a Yuba cargo. Kudos!

  3. Cain, that was a treat to read! Thanks for embracing your race and sharing it with us all. See you next year!

  4. Really enjoyed this too, Cain. I won’t miss watching that eMTB race next year! Your story reminded me of a friend’s tale of toting his young daughter on the back of his bike in Marin one day, dressed in his usual attire, like you. Just before they reached a steep hill, a group of guys in slick kits came speeding up seemingly out of nowhere. He decided to show them, and he did. His daughter twisted around, laughing and waving while Daddy beat those guys to the top.

  5. Now I want to haul my Stokemonkey equipped Mundo down to challenge you. How many of us do you think it would take for them to add “Insane Cargo Bikers” as a category? Also, have you done Disaster Relief Trials? Most fun I’ve had racing ever (and I’m a cyclocross nut when I’m not hauling my kids or cargo.)

  6. I’d be willing to put some effort into making a Cargo Bike Field for next year.

    Never did DRT. Work has this funny way of keeping me from competing more often.

  7. If you ride a spicy curry in next years race, you totally gotta put something on the cargo rack, just for the inherent humor factor.
    Stuffed teddy bear, (empty) case of beer, not sure it matters, pretty much anything would be hilarious. 😀

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