Photos: Adam Newman
The Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, is the first massive, U.S.-based bicycle industry trade show of the season and, over the years, has become a noteworthy venue for professional racing and organized rides. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably an event covering it at Sea Otter, from official gran fondos and cyclocross events to downhill races and pumptrack competitions.
But there’s one event that doesn’t require a racing license. In fact, “no visible Lycra” is a hard-and-fast rule for participants. On Friday afternoon, the famed 2.2-mile track of the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca was cleared of Spandex, pace cars and camera motos so that a motley crew of little more than 70 people—all of them wearing obligatory business attire—could take to that hallowed tarmac and race 11 miles on folding bikes in the Brompton World Championship.
This is the tenth year of the Brompton World Championship race series, which has qualifying events in 15 countries leading up to the final race in London. Until I started this job seven months ago, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of folding bikes. As of the day before the race, I had never even laid my hands on one. But I signed up, anyway, and “raced” with enthusiasts from 11 states and two other countries on a borrowed, six-speed Brompton Black Edition in Lagoon Blue that was fresh off a display stand. I was wearing socks with sandals, a mangled purple necktie and $18 worth of Goodwill suiting.
These races feature a le mans-style start. Participants line up their folded Bromptons (other folding bikes aren’t allowed) and, when the gun goes off, sprint out to their machines and unfurl them. I hadn’t quite figured out the finger twirling motion that regular riders apparently master for faster unfolding and securing action. That left me in the dust, and I had to bolt off the line toward the first hill, where I started catching everyone disadvantaged on two-speed bikes. The widely spaced six-speed gearing was perfect for the event, and I was hugely grateful to have those extra options to get me up the steeps.
Laguna Seca is famous in car racing circles for a lot of things, including the Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a tight, left-right S-bend that drops you three stories with an 18 percent grade between the two turns. I can’t imagine what it’s like in a car at mach-chicken. On a bike, even when you’re approaching the blind crest of the steep, climbing straightaway at a mere five miles per hour, dropping into the Corkscrew is—for lack of a more elegant phrase—a frickin’ blast. Tucking in to pin it on the descent down the Corkscrew and being cheered on by the camping section at Sea Otter was a jubilant experience I won’t soon forget.
Bromptons are amazing machines, but their towering posts and 16-inch wheels mean they aren’t the most confidence inspiring bicycles for ripping around corners at high speeds while being buffeted by strong crosswinds. The narrow bars and unique geometry means they aren’t great for hammering out of the saddle, either. And yet, my Brompton was joyously awkward to race, and all those features make a folding bike seem like very comfortable city transport.
Somehow, I finished third female out of twenty-something women. I have a deep-seated disregard for formalized racing, despite having actually done my fair share of it across several disciplines, but never have I earned a medal or stood on a podium (side note: I still haven’t stood on a podium because I missed the Brompton award ceremony). When a coworker called me a “sandbagger,” I took it as a compliment.
The male and female winners were Peter Yaskauskas from New York and Karen Loutzenheiser of California, both of whom will be flown to London to compete in the World Championship Final this summer. Yaskauskas was hard to miss in red shorts and bright-blue clipless Sidi road bike shoes. He was riding a red, two-speed Brompton with a homemade carbon fiber seatpost and bullhorn bars with bar-end brake levers. He added a custom, 60-tooth chainring and a two-speed hub with 12- and 16-tooth cogs.
“It has two speeds: easy and fast,” he said, following the elusive win he had been chasing for four years.
I don’t know that I’m going to rush out and purchase a made-in-the-UK Brompton, or any folding bike, but I now understand their value. And, I get to check “race at Laguna Seca” off my bucket list.
A huge thanks to the U.S. Brompton team for loaning me a bike and letting me race!