The 2009 Sea Otter Classic – Day One

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We’re here at the Sea Otter Classic, the kickoff event for the cycling season – at least the “official” part of the season, the racing and product launch part. Many of you probably never stopped riding in the winter, nor did we. But hey, this event is interesting and a lot of fun, with something for pretty much everyone on two (or one, or three) wheels.

This year, the weather has been unusually nice – no rain, no gale force winds. (Well, at least the wind died down after Wednesday’s debacle of trying to set up camp with everything blowing away.) The expo area was already drawing a decent crowd on Thursday, a nice mix of local enthusiasts, international pros, and groms cruising around popping little jumps on 20” bikes. This event is sort of like Interbike for the masses with a full complement of exhibition booths and demo bikes that anyone can try.

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Wandering from our home base at the Dirt Rag booth, we first encountered Chris Sugai of Niner Bikes showing off an impressively colorful display of the new Niner rigid carbon forks. A year and four months of development have yielded a uniquely-shaped fork that is almost stupid-light at 550g, yet has passed lengthy stress tests at both Niner and RockShox’s labs with flying… er, colors. It’s made completely of carbon except for a steel “sandwich” of plates to protect the dropout. Despite it’s almost aero appearance, it seems like something that would be right at home on a 29er singlespeed for a wicked-light and fast ride.

The question of where the fork is made (China) led to a discussion of the state of global parts manufacturing. The fact is that facilities to make quality carbon parts just don’t exist here in the States. To mitigate one big problem with overseas manufacturing – industrial pollution, Chris and Co. have done what they can to work with a factory that uses more environmentally friendly practices, such as water reclamation and solvent-reducing painting methods. Of course bike-making is not dead here in the U.S., although Cannondale’s imminent factory closing strikes a blow; instead it has shifted back to the small-scale and individual builders, as testified by the NAHBS and the explosion of regional handmade bicycle shows.

Next we wandered to the WTB booth. We’ve got some stuff from them on tap to test. But I also spotted a guy that looked familiar… turns out it was Bobby McMullen, the WTB-sponsored rider who happens to be legally blind. (See issue #122 for an interview with him.) He was at Sea Otter to race, of course, but also to meet folks and promote an independently-made film about him from Poison Oak Productions, called The Way Bobby Sees It. It was a pleasure to meet him, and hopefully we’ll get to catch him out on the course later.

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Further on down the row of booths, we spotted Pittsburgh ex-pat Mike Rainey at the Commencal booth. He was there to show off prototypes of the carbon-fiber version of the Meta 5.5. The frame looked pretty sweet, offering the same 140mm of travel as the aluminum version but weighing under 5lbs. Mike also told us about the Absolut SX slopestyle bike, developed in part with help from their “Young Guns,” two teenage Commencal riders who had been “crushing” the regular dual slalom bikes and needed something beefier. The Absolut’s rear end pivots around the bottom bracket, and thus can work with either a deraileur or as a sisinglespeed, and it will come complete with both types of dropouts.

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Mike regaled us with tales of an event Commencal put on late last summer at Angel Fire resort in New Mexico – a 12-hour downhill race. This sounded like a crazy amount of fun. Racers could choose from three courses – easy, medium and hard – and their times were started from the moment they got on the lift. Mike said this made for a tense ride up, but then an explosion of that tension out on the course. Apparently times actually got faster once it got dark and the riders couldn’t see the rocks. The event wasn’t publicized for the first run, but Mike says they hope to do it bigger this year.

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After this we went in search of some refreshments, but on the way found some really unusual and cool-looking street bikes. I stood there puzzling over the stylized logo on the bikes’ tubes, trying to figure out what it said, but then the builder handed me a business card – he is Matthew Rodriguez, and his brand is Shortyfatz. This frame had a beautiful raw-plus-clearcoat finish. Also displayed were several long-n-low cruisers (in the background) with many-spoked wheels, and a couple of singlespeed/fixie street bikes, all with “pointy” downtubes resembling those of big ol’ motorcycle frames made to support a giant engine.

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On some of these bikes and in this up-close display, Eric’s sharp eye spotted a unique eccentric bottom bracket by Phil Wood with a smaller diameter, which is made for use with a half-link chain, and thus smaller and lighter than its full-link cousin.

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Toward the end of the day we wandered to the Control Tech booth and saw this cool new carbon crank for a 2×9 set-up. (I’ve long been a fan of the 2×9.) Its two chainrings are a regular 94mm bolt circle diameter, but its spindle is an elongated triangle shape, which should eliminate the problem of stripping splines on a round spindle. Jason Rico, doing double-booth duty, also showed us some slick wheels from relatively unknown maker A-Class. They are diving right in to the 650B size, and also had a nice-looking high end mountain wheelset, the BXD-1, with scandium-alloy rims and aluminum disc rotors.

For Friday, it looks like I’ll get to do a bit of riding with none other than Cedric Gracia. Whew, maybe I better find a full-face helmet and some pads…  In the next couple of days we’ll hopefully get to demo the new carbon version of the Santa Cruz Blur, and some new bikes from Specialized. We’ve also been speculating about the possibility of actually participating in a race. I’m sure we’d get our doors blown off by all these fit people who live in perpetual sunshine, but it would be nice to experience another main attraction. Oh, how we suffer for you readers!

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Here is Maurice (DR’s Big Cheese) with the special inflation forces from Genuine Innovations, Marty Mares (president of the company) and Michael Drabousky (communications director). Bigwigs have fun too in the bike industry.

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