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Numerous Durangoans compete in Sea Otter Classic

It was the first race of the Lifetime Grand Prix series
Cole Paton stands left of second place on the podium after finishing fourth in the Fuego XL men's elite race in the Sea Otter Classic on Friday in Monterey, California. (Photo by Taylor Chase)

Many of Durango’s top off-road bike racers headed to Monterey, California this weekend for the Sea Otter Classic.

On Friday, some of the top off-road racers competed in the men’s elite and women’s elite Fuego XL race. This was the first race on the Lifetime Grand Prix circuit, which consists of seven events and a $300,000 prize purse.

The Fuego XL race was approximately a 70-mile race with 7,800 feet of elevation change done over two laps. It starts and finishes on the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca track.

Durango’s Cole Paton described Sea Otter as an old-style mountain bike race that was fast with some steep punches but smooth at the same time. Paton thought the course was interesting with some grippy and tacky parts and some washed-out parts that turned into sand. There was a mix of single-track, double-track and fire roads, according to Paton.

Paton finished fourth in the Fuego XL men’s elite race with a time of 4 hours and 1.59 minutes. Keegan Swenson won the race with a time of 4:00.15.

“It was good, a little bittersweet,” Paton said about his race. “I've been working so hard for this one and fourth place is always a hard place to be just one step off the podium. I'm really proud of how I rode and I executed the race super well and just left absolutely everything out there. I have no regrets.”

Durango's Cole Paton leads a group of riders during the 70-mile Fuego XL men's elite race during the Sea Otter Classic on Friday in Monterey, California. Paton finished fourth. (Photo by Joshua Strong)

Paton said he’s happy to put some good points on the board to start the Lifetime Grand Prix series. He said he’s planning on focusing on mountain bike races and the Grand Prix because it suits his background. Paton was happy with how his training in the winter helped prepare him for Sea Otter.

The top group in the men’s elite race stayed together for the first 3.5 hours, according to Paton. His goal was to maintain his position well in the group. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hang with Swenson’s final charge and couldn’t close the gap on the sandy climb and came across the finish line alone in fourth.

Paton’s next race is the Whiskey 50 in Prescott, Arizona next weekend.

Fellow Durango rider Payson McElveen finished seventh in the Sea Otter Fuego XL men’s elite race with a time of 4:03:02.

“Having a solid ride today and duking it out in the front group all race felt really good,” McElveen said. “Kind of got that monkey off my back a little bit.”

McElveen said Sea Otter has been a tough race for him, especially last year. He wasn’t able to finish the race last year with some health issues which he called one of the lowest points in his career.

Both Paton and McElveen said the Lifetime Grand Prix series has gotten more competitive with all the international riders coming in and times dropping.

McElveen said he felt more prepared this year with his move to Girona, Spain in the winter to train. His next race will be The Traka in Girona which is a 200-kilometer race and one of the biggest gravel races in the world, according to McElveen.

Durango’s Howard Grotts finished 10th in the men’s elite race with a 4:04:34. Durangoan Ryan Standish finished 28th with a 4:16:16.

In the women’s elite Fuego XL race, former Fort Lewis cyclist Sofia Gomez Villafane won the women’s elite race with a time of 4:42:23. Durango’s Sarah Sturm finished eighth with a time of 4:52:03. Michaela Thompson finished 13th with a time of 4:58:50.

The women raced the same course as the men.

Durango rider Ellen Campbell finished 19th in the women’s elite Fuego XL race with a time of 5:11:10.

“I feel pretty medium,” Campbell said. “I feel happy with most of my effort, but I definitely had some hard moments out there. It was the first race of this series, the Lifetime Grand Prix, so it's early in the season since it goes to October. It's definitely a good launchpad for the rest of the year.”

Campbell said she felt good during the first lap of the race in a group that was pushing each other. But she felt weird during the second lap and her pace dropped off, leading to her riding the second lap of the race alone.

The Durango resident said the field at Sea Otter keeps getting faster each year and she went eight minutes faster than last year despite not feeling well on the second lap.

Campbell is also heading to Prescott, Arizona for the Whiskey 50 next weekend.