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April 15, 2004

Santa Cruz County Sentinel


Meredith Obendorfer remembers the pain of always being picked last for grade school sports teams.

“I was slow. I never learned how to push past the burn,” recalled the 26-year-old Santa Cruz resident. “I refused to do anything athletic.”

Obendorfer bought her first bicycle during her senior year at UC Santa Cruz. It sat in her backyard for two years until the tires rotted. With encouragement from friends and some new tires, she ventured onto campus mountain bike trails, and discovered the joy of riding narrow, dirt paths called singletrack.

“I am a pro at crashing,” joked Obendorfer, a trim Seagate employee who kicked her 10-year cigarette habit to increase cycling fitness. “I always have a bruise or poison oak on me. That’s part of the experience.”

After a year and half of riding, she plunged into cross-country mountain bike racing in 2004, thanks to the support of the Velo Bellas, an all-women’s bicycling team headquartered in Monterey.

“An epiphany moment” was how Obendorfer described her online discovery of the Velo Bellas at www.velobella.org.

“I wanted to find girls with a dedicated interest in cycling,” said Obendorfer, who joined the group in November. “The emphasis is on fun as opposed to winning with the Velo Bellas. Racing beginner, you are still an important part of the team.”

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Team manager Sabine Dukes, who co-founded the team in 2001 with Laura Sanchez, agreed that “the sense of fun” is central to the team. “We do a lot of silly things,” said Dukes, who also works full time at Granite Construction. “The fun mood is apparent in the jersey design (black, pink and turquoise) and accessories including hats, wigs, and costumes we wear at some races.”

This weekend, Obendorfer and her Velo Bella teammates will be among scores of Santa Cruz residents attending one of the country’s largest bicycling events, the 14th annual Sea Otter Classic in Monterey. Organizers expect 50,000 spectators and 10,000 athletes to register for 199 events scheduled today through Sunday.

Held at the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sea Otter is a four-day festival featuring road and mountain bike races for both amateurs and professionals. There are also recreational road and mountain bike rides for families plus an industry expo. New this year are a 50-mile mountain bike tour and a revamped 100-mile century course.

Novice racers like Obendorfer will be riding the same trails as veteran athletes like former world champion Alison Dunlap and Todd Wells, who are both vying for spots on the U.S. Olympic mountain bike team for the Athens Games in August. Current world champion, the legendary Thomas Frischknecht of Switzerland, will also compete in mountain biking at Sea Otter.

“I am nervous,” said Obendorfer, about her 18-mile cross-country race on Sunday. She has previewed the hilly, flower-studded course. “I have been training for it.”

No matter what happens at the race, she will have the full support of the colorful Velo Bellas who will have a Sea Otter booth decorated with a unicycle, pink bicycle, soap bubbles and volunteers ready to spread the gospel of the all- women’s team.

The Bella membership has mushroomed from six riders to 109 racers in only three years. With the largest concentration of racers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and the Bay Area, the group’s reach is rapidly expanding to Colorado, Georgia, Virginia and even New Zealand. The team also embraces a wide range of talent: there are women who have never done a single bike race, and there are those who are professional bike racers in the road, cyclo-cross and mountain bike disciplines.

Santa Cruz resident Jen Chapman, a member of the Velo Bellas, is working toward achieving professional status in road biking. She aims for strong finishes in 30 races through September.

“It’s all about what you can push yourself to do,” said Chapman, 30, who formerly raced on an all-men’s team. “I was recruited to the Velo Bella team. The Bellas welcome both new and experienced riders. It is fun and positive, yet competitive. The expectation is that at a race you want to work your hardest.”

For her Sea Otter race, Obendorfer had originally focused on a single goal: to not come in last place in the beginner category. Now, with the support of the Velo Bellas and her training, she aims higher: “I want to be in the top 50 percent of my field.”

Even if that doesn’t happen, Obendorfer knows this much: “No matter how you’ve placed, there’s the feeling of accomplishment you get afterward.”

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