2023 Sea Otter Finds (Part 3)
In his third and final report from the 2023 Sea Otter Classic in California, Evan Christenson rounds up one more medley of noteworthy new products and fascinating people who caught his eye. He also shares a little about his freshly Baja-battered Surly that was on display and a broader reflection on the event. Find it all here…
Sea Otter always ends with a bang and fades with a fizzle. Saturday is the best part. The energy is high, and the whole show walks up the hill for slalom finals. But, come Sunday—especially this year with the fog, rain, and hangovers—the whole show slumps into a daze. Marketing managers sluff their pitches on autopilot. Booths are completely packed up before some people finish their second cup of coffee. I meander aimlessly and shelter under the tents that let me in. These are the things I remember from the past two days.
Cal Poly Bike Builders
I met the Cal Poly SLO Bike Builders club students (@cpbikebuilders) out at Sea Otter to race and hang out and procrastinate homework. Colin was showing off his homemade swing bike (the most fun bike I rode all week, hands down), and the students also had their tandem mountain bike, still hot from the welding stand.
The building process began on Monday, and Colin and Kevin had a combined 100 hours of work put in this week to get it ready to race by Sunday. They borrowed parts from a demo bike at the shop where Kevin works and had to rebuild it before the shop re-opened on Monday. They missed their start by 15 minutes and still finished second. And Colin has an 18-page paper due that he hasn’t even started yet.
Cal Poly provides a shop and all the tooling (they have a CNC mill and machined the seat post collars and stem as well) to the club, and the students pass down their knowledge every year. In total, they’ve built around 60-70 bikes in the nine years the club has been running. Colin has built eight bikes himself and teaches most of the frame building now. He’s in his last year of school, and I asked him if he’s going to build bikes professionally after he graduates. He laughs it off. “Once you start doing hobbies for money, it ruins the fun.”
5DEV is a huge manufacturing and machining business based in San Diego. A couple of years ago, some mountain biker employees started making bike parts on their off time, and now it’s really turned into something. 5DEV is getting a lot of traction in the bike industry, and it’s becoming a full-time branch of the company. They’re coming out with new products and have a designated bike department.
No one in the company has worked in the bike industry before, so they’re trying new things and having fun along the way, including giving out 500 chainrings for free over the weekend. They were showing off their new machined titanium cranks and chainrings, which are expected to retail at around $1,500 for just the cranks.
Hope and Wolf Tooth were both showing off their new dropper levers. Hope’s lever is made from six individually machined parts, is fully adjustable and color customizable, and will cost around $90-$100.
Wolf Tooth Components launched its new lever last Thursday. It’s designed to be more adjustable, is fully sealed, and a new oval cam design is supposed to make the lever throw more consistent. It costs $70 and is available now. They were also showing off their self-bleeding dropper post, which looked rather nice.
I stopped by the Gates booth, where they talked me through the chainless future of transportation and showed off some interesting products. Gates is a multi-billion dollar company, making belts for grocery stores, car engines, and HVAC systems and factories. Cycling is a small operation for them, yet they’re still all-in. They see the belt as a better way to transmit power to the rear hub.
The team let me ride a couple of bikes (including that unbelievably fast electric motorcycle), and I was pretty impressed. This year, at the Taipei Bike Show, new competitors finally announced 11mm pitch belts, which means the industry is starting to take notice. Chris from Gates said they have a lot of new and exciting stuff on the horizon.
Panaracer had some new colorways on display. They’re now making the legendary Gravelking tire in orange and teal, with the classic tan wall or black wall combinations still available as well.
Fat Bike America
I met Michael from FatBikeAmerica.com, who is fat biking around the United States. He’s riding the lower 48 on a fat bike and sticking to the highways. He’s picked up over $300 in loose change on the roads in the 4,000 miles he’s ridden the last year. He was trawling around looking for sponsors and was very excited at the prospect of some free stuff for his adventure. He said he’s riding the fat bike because “No one else is doing it.”
Bombtrack had their new Beyond Ti frame set built up with a dynamo and lights and out on display. It’s available now and costs 3,000 euros. They also had their interesting-looking Monroe Cargo bike on display, which is now available in size Large.
Chris McNally and ORNOT led a short ride into the hills to paint. We all rode as a group and settled into a ridge to watch the racers go by and paint Northern California’s rolling hills. It was a beautifully tranquil moment and a nice escape from the show’s chaos for a bit. I was impressed by everyone’s work and especially by just how nice it felt to draw again.
While we were all sitting there, enjoying the quiet, watching the grass ripple in the wind and the light clouds hum along the sky, a racer on the climb below us screamed out, “WHAT THE FUCK, I HATE THIS!”
No Sea Otter Classic would be complete without a couple of chainsaws and airhorns and a whole lot of beer and some really good racing. Slalom is the highlight of the weekend, and as the show shuts down and moves onto the hill, we all got a little wild. Kirt Voreis jumped onto his recumbent, and it was just silly watching two grown men ride those things down the course. What a great idea.
My Bike and Some Parting Thoughts
Surly was cool enough to have my Baja bike on display. I left the mud on it and the old tortillas in the panniers, and it sat out for all to admire the re-welded chainstay, the broken spoke, the beat-up saddle, and the dirty clothes on the handlebar roll. Surly said they got a ton of curiosity about the bike and the places it’s been. Apparently, someone from Brooks came over and made a fuss about having one of their saddles on display in this state. One show visitor was offended by the “Mountain biking is bad for society” written on my helmet too.
I was so proud to have a bike on display at the show. I answered questions all weekend about Baja and bike touring, and I think this may be the little bit of visibility some kid needs to try riding a bit further. I first went to Sea Otter 10 years ago, and back then, there was never a bike like this on display. If I had seen something like a big heavy, backroad-trundling fat bike, I wonder if the course of my life would have changed for the better sooner. Many people told me they want to ride Baja, and I told them all, “Then go do it.”
Being back at Sea Otter after Baja was both an intense culture shock and a gentle, familiar return to the States. The noise, the action, the buzzing freewheels, the wheelies, and the Pit Viper glasses are all so much. But the old friends, the routine check-ins, the familiarity of this show, and the rolling foothills on the coast feel so good to return to. “This is the Coachella of bikes,” someone said. They’re so right.
The bike industry is in a bit of a pinch right now. Road Bike Action Magazine and Electric Bike Action just folded, sending out their final edition two weeks ago. And they’re not alone. There was also a lot of talk about the Vista acquisition of Blackburn, Bell, and Giro. Apparently, half of their marketing and creative staff were laid off in one day. The employees I talked to were in a daze about the whole thing. Everything was going so well for them through the COVID boom, and everything came to a halt.
After 20 years working for different companies, one industry veteran I talked to has decided he’ll never work in the bike industry again. It’s too unsympathetic and only getting worse. Big corporations can take advantage of their employees, knowing they all just want to ride bikes at the end of the day.
So, we all came together for a beer in the booth, a smile, an art ride, and to scream at the guys on recumbents flying down slalom. There’s a feeling of community here, in the fields of Laguna Seca, woven together in between the pin flags and colored tens. Bronson and his girlfriend Ash were hanging out when Colin and Kevin showed up with medals around their necks. They started nerding out on each other’s bikes.
“Have you ever ridden a tandem?” I asked Bronson and Ash. “No! But we’ve always wanted to!” Ash replied. The two pairs swapped bikes, rode around the pits, giggled, laughed, and talked about what CNC software they use, their cutting processes, and geometry figures. For the bike nerd in all of us, Sea Otter—or bike week as I started calling it—is heaven.
We do a final toast at the Hudski booth as everyone packs up. I have us all toast to consumerism, this massive force that keeps this global industry upright. Everyone laughs, but Tree, the mechanic and overall good human, uses it as a platform. “That’s my issue with Sea Otter. There’s no real silliness here. Ultimately, we’re making toys, right? Toys that can also be used as tools, but toys nonetheless. I ride my bike to get around, but I put the goose and windmill on the handlebar because it makes me happy. I think there should be a parade, or more art. Something to engage with. You know how museums are getting more involved? That’s how it should be here too. It’s all just stuff to look at. Where’s the fun in that?”
Sea Otter is exciting. So much shiny and cool stuff to drool over. Those 5DEV cranks were incredible to hold and admire. But $1,500 for a set of cranks? When they said that price, no one scoffed. We’ve all collectively accepted that a set of cranks can be worth $1,500. And this is the stuff that gets the most traction at Sea Otter. So many people told they could never ride Baja—the time and the money and that stuff is the biggest barrier.
But with $1,500 you could ride the entire Baja Divide. You could buy one set of cranks and save 200 grams, or you could go and change your perspective on the world, learn about a new culture, explore your mind, and see what you’re capable of. Would you rather have another fancy bike hanging up in the garage to stare at after work or be out in the desert with a person you love, three days from resupply and with time to do nothing but enjoy the scenery?
That bike in the booth is my answer to it all. I bought that Surly second-hand for less than one set of titanium cranks, and it’s my only “functional” bike right now. That Surly has been the tool I’ve pedaled across Mexico with, and now, because of what it’s enabled me to do, I have an entirely new appreciation for a country I once had uninformed beliefs about.
The Surly is nothing special. It’s heavy and clunky, the paint is rubbed off, and the tires are sewn back together. Honestly, I find it kind of ugly. But the desert doesn’t care what you’re riding. The mountains, the ocean, and the animals don’t either. All the bicycles are the same in their basic form. You push your feet down, and they move you forward. Don’t fall for the marketing.
I’m headed back down to Mexico next month with this clunky Surly, and I’m excited to get it properly rolling again. Jerod Bourdeau, who I highlighted in part two of this series, invited me over to his garage to get the chainstay cleaned up. He cut the old one out, ground it away, and brazed in a whole new stay. Seeing the bike in its basic form, the steel under the paint, the vent holes opened up, and the TIG welds ground down showed just how simple it all really is.
Ten steel tubes make up this machine. Ten pieces that, when put together, are so much greater than their individual parts. A chainstay is just a small steel rod. But a chainstay transmits power and propels you forward. Nothing more. Don’t get caught up in the hydroforming, the paint, the shine, the material. Get caught up in the propelling itself.
A broken chainstay on the workbench is no better than a fancy chainstay hanging in the garage. A chainstay is best when it’s fulfilling its part of the greater purpose: propelling you forward, pushing you to a new horizon, showing you whatever is next. There is no transcendence in wireless shifting. It’s already out there, waiting for you to close the computer and go find it.
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