Trip Report: Kevin Girkins on Sea Otter

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By Kevin Girkins

As a professional bike racer, you know that there will be highs and there will be lows. Sometimes you’re just waiting for things to crumble around you because it’s been going way too well to continue at this rate.

After spending five days in the cycling paradise of Boulder, Colorado, with amazing hosts on the sunny side of the mountain, I was kind of expecting our luck to run out upon arrival in California. And it almost did at first. The plan was to fly into San Francisco and ride with “Enve and Co” roughly 120 miles down to Monterey, CA, where Sea Otter is and has been held for many years. Having never been, I, of course, did as little planning as possible. Upon arrival we headed to a friend’s house and tried to get a little sleep before starting the next leg of our trip. Colin and I woke up at roughly 5 am and tried our best to throw together a little breakfast before taking off to catch the ferry. But we weren’t going to make it easy on ourselves. We threw two weeks worth of luggage and clothing into our bike bags (Post Carry Co), pulled out the nifty backpack straps and figured this was a good time to test their versatility along with the strength of our seat posts. We are kitted up riding in the morning darkness through downtown San Francisco, and our bags are so wide we can’t see behind us. Four miles to cover, lots of iconic steep SF hills and about 15 minutes to make the boat. Did we make it on time? Of course not. It was stupid to think we could. Luckily for us there was another one in 30 minutes and we’d still get there on time for the ride, and even more importantly (for me) there was an open Blue Bottle coffee shop right next to the harbor.

The next ferry was caught and the awe began with the sunrise over the bay bridge, Alcatraz viewing and all of Marin County which was just pure magic; and we’d only been awake for a couple of hours.

Once we reached the other side we continued to look gumby with our big bike bags on our backs, but against all odds we made it to the ride with time to spare. As soon as we arrived, the full experience of Sea Otter was beginning to take place, and what was in store for us started to finally settle in. The plan was to have 12 people on the ride, but another 6 people for support and film. Everyone was there for a reason. And on the clock. It was bound to be a lot of fun, but I didn’t want to be the reason this wasn’t a success. Which kinda set the tone for the next four days.
Turns out the ride was another bit of pure magic for the 2nd time in one day. Except it lasted for 150 miles. We rode the winding coastline with a blazing tailwind and a day full of sunshine. Upon our, of course, late arrival there was a press meeting concerning the wheels we had just started putting to use a few days before. Again, everybody here was on the clock. Though lucky for me my part was pretty easy and there was catering – my third pure magic moment of the day.

The city of Monterey is coastal and I wouldn’t necessarily call it sleepy, but it seems to be, let’s say quaint. Obviously the sea otters are a main attraction, but besides that the city seems to thrive on annual tourism, either via the 1 coastal highway or different events during the year like this one. The race track itself is about 10 miles out of downtown so its perfect riding distance for a warm up depending on where you stay. Or so we thought.

We woke up Thursday morning extra early because for some confounded reason the pro race was to start at 9 am on the first day of the expo. So we found a decent breakfast spot and headed up to the track – keyword “up.” Who would’ve guessed there’s a lot of climbing if you move from the coast up to the hills of coastal California? Once we arrived (a little bit more worn out that we expected) it was show time. We were in the middle of an enormous cycling circus with thousands of people and hundreds of workers, all of which had no idea where you’re supposed to go for race info and numbers. Which let’s be honest, is not of big concern to them, racing is just a sideshow to the show. Once we completely circled the event, which is at least a couple miles around we finally figured out where to get numbers and registration check-in. At this point we easily had less than 30 minutes to spare, and this is what they call “the race before the race.”

Needless to say we made it on time. This is not good policy to reward our tardy behavior. But to add more negative reinforcement we went and won the race too. Now keeping in mind the race itself is happening right next door to a one-weekend epicenter of bicycle marketing, you could say our partners/sponsors were pretty stoked. In reality there was little celebration at 10 am on a Thursday morning, but being a team with about 8 different partners attending the show it’s nice to walk by the booths and when they ask “how’d it go this morning” you can immediately put a big smile on their face. That is literally what our job is and we did it before the show even started. It’s a good feeling when you’re in hour-one of a 4-day festival centered around your job and you’ve already succeeded. Those magic moments.

Though most of the racing here is on smooth tarmac, we had a lot on our plates due to our reliance on commuting for transportation. Equipment choice was clutch to making this campaign a successful one. Most teams travel with a small caravan to supply the riders and construct an environment that is totally based around the racing. I’ve been on those teams. But Meteor Giordana does things differently – we personally hand taped up our brand new AR wheels from Enve and slapped on the Specialized Turbo tires and packed our bags. We ran the exact same stuff for about 2 weeks of training and 4 different categories of racing – gravel, road, circuit and crit. For most teams with the support I mentioned above, this would have created a logistical nightmare of tire, wheel and bike selection that would require staffing and mechanical help. Lucky us we just ran the shit we brought, which was pretty awesome – not shit at all!

As the day went on the wind picked up and the sandbags came out. This is a very nice miniature city, but it is still just a tent city. So when the 20+ mph winds come through and vendor displays are getting knocked over the jackets get put on. But the show continues. Sunny California wasn’t giving the warmest of welcomes to the cycling industry, but Sierra Nevada was there (like they have been for years) to support our community and certainly keep my spirits high. I like beer.

One thing to keep in mind is that this show is engineered to keep people moving around. At noon there is a raffle at the Clif Bar tent, 2 pm there is a ride with Ibis, and don’t miss the dual slalom prelims happening up the hill at 3 pm. Don’t walk while looking at your phone, or you’ll be hit by one of the thousand grommets riding wheelies through a crowd of foot traffic. Do you need a sample of our new gu flavor? Who doesn’t want a free pair of shades if I sign up for this email list? And it goes on…

Then finally when you’re all worn out the exodus begins and it’s time to find your way 10 miles back to town, and in our case that meant pedaling back to find dinner and some more beer to help the nerves calm down. If you work in the industry you already know just how much standing and talking to thousands of people can wear you out, but now it’s time to complain about it to your co-workers over some warm food/cold drink. As a bike racer who just finished a race with success I was mentally pretty eager to go out and have a good time, but legs don’t always agree. I was the opposite of someone that actually had to work the show. Mentally amped, physically drained. I might as well have just been another worn out expo vendor at this point.

Over the next few days things ran on a similar rhythm of waking up early, getting to the show and racing the best we could. The expo faces got a little more tired, the shoes got a little dirtier, but the energy and smiles stayed the same. Somehow. I would grab some lunch at one of the food trucks and try to sit down by myself in between races and visits to different tents. The constant energy was intoxicating. And tiring. I consider myself to be an extrovert in many ways, but still needed to find time to be alone.

Finally, when the long weekend had come to a close it was time to pack up. I got to see firsthand the tents come down, and I have to say it’s pretty impressive how quickly and well-organized it all went down and shipped out. Being a vendor at these shows is not easy, and to have people come by your tent and hear about your brand is the goal. But when it’s all said and done I don’t think any of these people wanted to talk bikes until next year – this lifestyle can certainly be mentally and physically draining.

A friend from Roka said he would give me a ride out of town, and leaving the Laguna Seca raceway you crest over a tall hill that gives you a full scope of the entire event below you. I felt relieved the weekend was over, but was already making plans for my brother and I to come back next year. This small secluded little place is a beautiful mecca of bicycle love and growth for the industry, and if you’ve never been you’re missing out on a special time of community for this silly sport we all love.