LAGUNA SECA — Working at a bike shop might not seem like a smooth career transition after playing college football. But it works well for Mark Marquez.
Marquez, 35, a former defensive back for Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., is the general manager of Epicenter Cycling. The regional retailer opened its last location in the summer of 2020 on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey.
The accomplished endurance athlete has also just completed several days of riding at the Sea Otter Classic – the four-day cycling festival in the Laguna Seca recreation area – including the Fuego XC 80. It was a new ultra-marathon event covering 50 miles and 5,700 feet of climbing during the two-lap course.
It was also the start of the first Life Time Grand Prix, a national series of invitational events featuring different off-road cycling disciplines. An open field, age-rated athletes and 30 professional men and 30 women will compete.
Pros are required to participate in five of six events for the entire series prize pool. Series organizers received more than 200 applications for 60 positions. The men’s group includes Peter Stetina, 34, of Santa Rosa, a two-time Tour de France finalist who left road cycling after the 2019 season. Katrina Nash, 44, a veteran Czech rider who excelled on the international circuit of mountain biking for nearly two decades, is one of the women.
“They are world-class athletes from incredible backgrounds,” said Marquez, who took up cycling when injury ended his football career. “I’m just lucky to be on the starting line with these guys, some of whom have competed on the world stage for years. Their stamina level and fitness is simply top notch and they are just pure class, good runners.
Marquez bought a bike after hearing his best friend’s enthusiasm after buying his first road bike.
The latter’s athletic participation ended and the appreciation of his endurance sport began. Marquez was talented and returned to Lindenwood University to compete on its cycling team. He competed in the Sea Otter Classic for years.
“I bought my first road bike in 2008 and fell in love and the rest is history,” Marquez said. “I went back to my college and got to race in Division 1. It was awesome. I like how it made me feel. I like the environment, the atmosphere. I never looked back.
The Grand Prix, which comes as cycling’s popularity continues to shift from on-road to off-road preferences, has been creeping in for several years. It starts with $250,000 in overall series prizes, split evenly between the male and female pros. Individual events may also offer professional scholarships.
All events will be broadcast live. The events will also have lifestyle stands where athletes, all of whom have new trading cards, will mingle with cycling fans. The big screen television will broadcast the races.
It’s all organized by Life Time Fitness, the Minnesota-based international events and lifestyle company that purchased the Sea Otter Classic last year.
Life Time owns and operates more than 200 sporting events and believes it can make the Grand Prix Series a spectator-friendly circuit. Mazda, the former title sponsor of Laguna Seca Raceway, began a multi-year commitment as title sponsor of the new series last year.
“It’s great to be on the starting line and gaining experience with these guys,” said Marquez, who moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Carmel Valley in 2013. of them come off the road.But once they get off the road, it’s hard to give up.
“Cycling is truly a way of life. People have developed habits. It’s good for the soul and hard to give up. They were looking for other avenues and turned to off-road and fell in love with cycling again.
Stetina, who rode the Tour of California for several years and spent a decade as the top international road cyclist, hosted the new series. It’s a refreshing new chapter in his long career.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” said Stetina, who also owns a residence in Lake Tahoe. “I can be me without shame. It’s about being a person racing a bike instead of a racing cyclist who happens to be a human.
“I think I would be one of the hopeful suitors. Everyone is going to have strengths and weaknesses. It’s kind of about defending your weaknesses and using and playing with your strengths. This one is pure MTB. I’m a bit on my back here from the gravel, pure endurance (race) stuff to come.
The new series is also rare among professional athletes. Pros and amateurs compete together, a scenario put forward by the organizers. It is the growth of a sport in which road cycling, its former most prominent disciple, is in decline. There are few national road races left.
“The Life Time Grand Prix is really the entry point into a kind of league in North America,” said Michelle Duffy, the company’s director of brand and content strategy. “I don’t think that exists, especially in several disciplines.
“Yeah, it’s six events, it’s 60 athletes and there’s a quarter million prize purse and it’s really brilliant. But we’re also investing heavily in the content around it because we want to reduce this barrier to entry and increase the number of people who can participate in sport.
The remaining five events in the series: 200 mile UNBOUND Gravel at Emporia, Kansas (200 miles), June 4; 70 Mile Crusher in the Tushar (70 Mile) at Beaver, Utah on July 9; Leadville Trail MTB (100 miles), Leadville, Colorado, August 13; Chequamegon MTB (40 miles), Cable, Wis., Sept. 17; Big Sugar Gravel (100 miles), Bentonville, Arkansas, Oct. 22.
For Sea Otter Classic race schedules and results, visit https://www.seaotterclassic.com/