Reflections on Sea Otter 2022: An Inconvenient Truth
Following his days spent covering the 2022 Sea Otter Classic, Evan Christenson put together this candid reflection on his first behind-the-scenes experience, an examination of his ongoing transition from racer to bikepacking tourist, and some hopes for the future of diversity and inclusivity in cycling. Find his thoughts and a gallery of assorted photos here…
That’s another Sea Otter done and dusted for me. My fourth time attending and my first one behind the fences. It’s weird, still novel, even, to feel so far removed from a racing scene I was so invested in for years. That scene has become full of noise: new names, new strategies, new training programs, brands, events, and a seemingly new focus to it all. I don’t miss bike racing, and being back within its presence only makes me feel more sure about having walked away from it.
I feel like I finally found something that really resonates with me. Bikepacking, adventure, photography, people, nature, and the overlap of them all is where I finally feel like myself. It’s the first place I’ve ever been where I don’t look around and wonder about what else is out there. And in a world full of possibilities, I feel like that’s all I can hope for: to be completely within a moment, not left wondering about what else it could have been.
This year’s Sea Otter was much more electric than years past. People were hugging, laughing, and smiling endlessly. The past few days felt shockingly post-pandemic, and I really hope we don’t see any surges in COVID cases because of it. Seeing dozens of old friends, teammates, and old coworkers was exciting, and it was so nice to catch up and finally hug again. But this event also served as a litmus test for the state of the bike industry. About 80% of those in attendance were white men. The bike industry has a lot more work to do to bring people into this sport, and bike companies seem—for the most part—okay sitting on the sidelines and cashing in on the COVID wave. I heard whispers from an employee of one of the biggest bike companies in the world, who told me, “The supply thing is all fucked, we’re still greedy as all hell, and the CEO doesn’t give a shit about anyone.”
Bikepacking is a sport that should be open to everyone. The barriers for entry are already too high, and I don’t agree with big companies profiting off of its increase and not re-investing in community. The corporate cycling industry’s incessant marketing has led to an idealized image of adventure, but you don’t need the newest tech announced this week to ride your bike into the wilderness. You don’t need the lightest, techiest clothes to be comfortable. You don’t need a lighter tent, a slightly more optimized saddlebag, and a 4mm wider tire to ride your bike further than you ever have before. To find new limits, to explore your community, to feel freedom, you need little more than a klunker and a backpack. New bikes are exciting. Sea Otter is exciting. But I worry Sea Otter is also focused on the wrong message. We don’t need to be selling ever-fancier bikes to the same old people. We need to get more people on bikes that work and provide them with the resources to enjoy them.
Nevertheless, despite the hectic last two years for the bike industry and the world at large, there we all were. Most people were funneled neatly into their category of cycling, and yet, despite our “differences” we were still laughing together, bonding, riding each other’s bikes, asking questions, comparing notes, smiling, lying in the sun, doing wheelies, and petting dogs. The way it should be. I hate the marginalizing part of corporate cycling culture, and I don’t care what category of cyclist you are. I care that you ride a bike, you get outside, you look around and you understand our impact on the world around us because of it.
As much as I felt divided by categorical boundaries this week, I felt united by the larger power of the bicycle. I felt connected to the guys on tall bikes, to Christian on his Bowhead handcycle, to Tec Gnar and his artwork, to Calvin and his passion for teaching new mechanics old techniques, and to everyone else slowly rolling their bike around the pit. The bicycle has the ability to change the world. It already has. And now we just need to get more people on them.
So, Sea Otter, thank you for letting me peer into the crystal ball of the future of bike tech. I’m excited to ride a 3D printed wireless e-bike drop shipped from the other side of the world, but I also want to focus on where we’re at right now. Because of COVID, we have a huge opportunity to change its values. And I know I’m a hopeless idealist, but maybe we can start to make bike production more sustainable, do it closer to home, build things that solve problems rather than create them, invest in community, and ride bikes not for status or likes but simply because it’s what we all love to do.
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