The Life Time Sea Otter Classic Fuego is the first race of a six-event Grand Prix with a prize pool of $250,000. | Outside

The Sea Otter Classic officially started in 1993, almost 30 years ago, but it was born two years earlier when – before it was renamed – the event was called the Laguna Seca Challenge.

In the decades since, Sea Otter has grown into a phenomenon, and in 2019 had over 70,000 participants and 9,000 athletes. We can say that it has become the first cycling festival on the planet.

And its evolution continues: Last summer, fitness company Life Time — which owns more than 150 “sports resort destinations,” according to the company’s website — bought the rights to Sea Otter, and it became the largest of several sporting events the company has acquired. during the last years.

At first glance, you might think that’s not a good thing: a company has purchased an event loved both locally and throughout the cycling community around the world. But when looking from another vantage point – where the rubber touches the road (or perhaps the track in most cases) – the view is quite different.

It’s because Life Time is trying to elevate the event to another level. While the first Sea Otter Classic under Life Time ownership took place last fall, it was a small affair. The event historically happened in the spring, but due to Covid it was canceled in 2020, and in 2021 it was pushed back to October to allow for a scaled down version.

But Sea Otter is now back in its traditional place on the calendar and fully accelerated, perhaps more than ever.

In an effort to promote off-road cycling, Life Time launched a Grand Prix – six different races, with separate competitions for men and women, each pitting 30 competitors against other pros and the course. Those who do well will share $250,000 in prize money, split equally between men and women.

It’s a good faith effort to make off-road cycling what it’s never been before, a true spectator sport. And to facilitate that, the company will film the showpiece event – the first race of the six-race Grand Prix – an 80-kilometre run dubbed Fuego, over two 40-kilometre loops on the former Fort Ord property.

There will be fixed cameras. There will be videographers on ATVs and motorcycles with cameras, and there will be drones. There might even be helicopters, but it’s still in the air (pun intended).

The goal, says Life Time president of media and events Kimo Seymour, is to create a Grand Prix season docuseries that will hopefully be picked up by a streaming platform. Seymour estimates the project will be complete by December.

“It’s new territory,” says Seymour. “I don’t know if anyone has tried this or done it successfully in the United States”

The concept of a successful Grand Prix goes beyond the course. Seymour says a key requirement is for athletes to mingle with fans — Life Time wants audiences to feel invested in the runners.

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One such athlete is Alex Wild, who lives in San Jose and works and is sponsored by Specialized, a Morgan Hill-based bicycle company. For Wild, one thing that makes this year unique is that it’s “the first time there’s been a series for so many different types of racing.”

Apparently, the Life Time Grand Prix has three mountain bike races and three gravel bike races (the Fuego being one of the first), but in reality it’s harder to define. This variety, says Wild, is what makes it intriguing.

“You could probably justify using four different bikes at these events. It’s interesting,” says Wild, adding – for the gearheads there – “You might also be interested in gear.

Given he has a full-time job, Wild could be at a disadvantage in this year’s Grand Prix, but pro rider Sarah Sturm – a privateer – isn’t so sure. She says Wild is on his game. That being said, she adds, “That’s an anomaly.”

Sturm, who lives in Durango, Colorado, is thrilled that the Grand Prix series as a whole includes both mountain bike and gravel bike racing. Some riders specialize in one or the other, so the series challenges the talent spectrum.

The Fuego 80k will be the first race of the Life Time Grand Prix, but it will not be closed to amateurs. “Anyone who wants to throw their leg over a bike can line up right next to the pros,” says Seymour. “But they usually don’t hang out with the pros for very long.”

This verifies. Sturm, when explaining how she got to the top level, says, “I happen to be very good at doing it for a long time and suffering.”

Sturm and Wild want to see the sport become a spectacle. And Seymour seems to be on the same page – he wants to make off-road cycling a spectator sport, and thinks it can and should be one.

“I make it a personal mission to make this happen,” he says.

Wiley C. Thompson