Throughout its two decades, Sea Otter Classic organizers have regularly amended the scope of cycling disciplines offered while trying to appease a diverse group riders — top-level pros to weekend age-group athletes
A top-level international pro stage race was short-lived and BMX racing, now an Olympic sport, was jettisoned. Perhaps the most unique event was a mountain bike criterium held along Cannery Row.
The 20th edition of the Festival of Cycling began Thursday at Laguna Seca Recreation Area, organizers again tweaked the four-day itinerary.
This year, event standards like circuit races around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the always-anticipated pro men’s and women’s cross country, will return with a vast selected of youth, age group and professional events.
But for the first time the usually name “gran fondo” will be added to the schedule a one of three new events.
In addition to collegiate divisions and a Ride With A Pro equipment demo rides, gran fondo events will further a growing national trend based on a European tradition.
Gran fondo is Italian for “great endurance” — although the translation isn’t exact. An in France, the events are called “cyclosportives.”
By any name, the concept is simple. A gran fondo is a long-distance, mass-participation ride open to riders of all abilities. In Europe, pro riders or celebrity athletes often start with recreational riders.
“They’re everywhere in Europe,” said pro Taylor Tolleson, the former Monterey Peninsula pro now living in Aptos and recovering his serious injuries from a motorcycle accident last July. “It funny, everyone starts together and then they often pretty quickly become a race.”
Gran fondos feature aid stations stocked with sponsors’ refreshments as well as post-event raffles and festive elebration. Gran fondos technically aren’t races nor are they necessarily timed, although entrants pay a fee.
Yet, while promoted as fitness rides and often with charity components, gran fondos become races for some participants.
Sea Otter Classic organizers have been considering the gran fondo for a while, according to Jeannie Pruitt-Retamoso, the event’s director of operations.
An estimated 1,000 cyclists have registered for the three gran fondo distances — , 30, 45 and 95 miles. All of the divisions will begin at 7 a.m Saturday at the Sea Otter Bridge at the raceway and all of the division will include one timed hill section of the course.
(Registration is still open on the Sea Otter web site, www.seaotterclassic.com)
“When a sponsor (Specialized) mentioned it to us it all just seemed to work together well,” said Pruitt-Retamoso. “There’s been a tremendous amount of interest in all of the distances.”
Like other cycling industry sponsors, Specialized sponsors other gran fondo events. Promoters around the country now offer gran fondo series.
Levi Leipheimer, the three-time defending Tour of California titlist who won last year’s pro road race at the Sea Otter Classic, initiated a gran fondo event last October near his Santa Rosa residence as cycling and animal charity fundraiser. The veteran Tour de France rider was subsequently named Santa Rosa’s businessperson of the year.
The Sea Otter Classic’s gran fondo is scheduled as the weekend opener but third third day of competition and the festival’s other major attraction, its expansive vendor expo.
While Lagun Seca was open for registration and camping Wednesday, competition begins at 8 a.m. Thursday with women’s dual slalom practice and ends at 4 p.m. with men’s master’s criterium division.
In addition to the criterium, road and circuit race will comprise the road schedule and downhill, super D, dual slalom, cross country and short track will be offered in mountain biking.