Center of Gravity- Enduro Mountain Bike Racing on the Rise

Photos by Jay Dash

A faint beam of light filters through the thick canopy and strikes a plume of dust as tiny fragments of earth diffuse through the air. A sole rider emerges from the forest and straightlines a rocky slope at top speed just before shutting it down and banking a hard left-hand berm into an open meadow. Legs cranking and lungs burning, the rider surmounts the final obstacle and crosses the finish line in front of his home crowd. A quick glance at the timer reveals that he’s taken the stage victory. In cross-country or downhill racing, this would be the end of the event, but for the Enduro racer, the challenge has only just begun.

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Mountain biking has been a mainstay in Utah since the sport was in its infancy. During the late 1980’s, knobby tires were crudely slapped on rigid steel frames as cyclists began finding out that the rock-strewn steep terrain of our state was prime for off-road riding. The evolution in bike designs, geometries, and components over these last three decades has been phenomenal and the momentum continues to build.  Proving grounds like Moab, Virgin, Green River, and the Wasatch Range challenge even the hardiest competitors and remain world-class venues for all forms of riding. As the new era of equipment tackles trails around the world, a new genre of racing is making its mark on Utah.

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Prologue:

Long before the E-word crossed the pond and arrived on our doorstep in a nicely wrapped package, the sport was a gritty, grassroots-racing format garnering attention throughout Europe. French riders are credited with popularizing the sport during the late 90’s and putting on the first organized stage races in the rugged terrain of the Alps. The original events were focused on technically challenging timed descents coupled with untimed “transfer” sections where riders climbed (or used chairlifts) to the top of the next stage. The lowest cumulative descent time determined the winner. As the format continued to progress and gain traction across France, Italy, and Germany, it mutated into a variety of different events. By the early 2000’s, there was a wide spectrum of races being called Enduro and they attracted riders from various disciplines. Although the specifics of each event differed, the timed descents were the unifying factor. This format also meant that top downhill riders couldn’t just come and smash courses on long travel bikes due to the inevitable pedaling and climbing. Conversely, cross-country athletes had to start riding more formidable bikes as not to destroy their superlight machines in the technical rock gardens. The underlying principle was that these races were fun and brought together riders from differing backgrounds to test their skills on a fresh venue.

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Stage 1:

The Enduro train was picking up steam and its popularity in Europe made it an attractive format for race promoters in the States. More North American athletes were coming back from Europe and wanting to compete in this type of race. A watershed event occurred with the first organized event in 2011. The Oregon Enduro Series (formally the Oregon Super-D Series) brought together like-minded individuals and it helped to shape the direction of this type of racing in our country. The coinciding proliferation of longer travel bikes and slacker geometries allowed for more aggressive line choices and faster cornering. Manufacturers began testing their new designs on the fabled trails of Utah and throughout the Rockies as they continued to dial in the next generation of bikes. Machines that could do it all were the new primary focus of sales and marketing techniques. Carbon-fiber frames, 1x drive trains, plush shocks, and dropper seat posts became commonplace on the showroom floors of bike shops across the country. It quickly became apparent that a new breed of rider was being cultivated and that the sport was developing a following in the USA.

“We really wanted to increase participation in this format and get a larger stage that would showcase the best riders, the best terrain, and the best events,” says Devon Lyons, co-founder of the Oregon Enduro Series. Along with series co-founder Brandon Ontiveros, the pair had a vision for a multi-stop tour that would span the continent. They soon joined forces with Darren Kinnaird of Crankworx Whistler and Bob Holmes of Winter Park, Colorado. The North American Enduro Tour (NAET) was born in 2011 combining three world-class venues that hosted events for riders of all disciplines and abilities.

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The competitive atmosphere surrounding each tour stop highlighted the fitness and technical skill of participants and provided an opportunity for the host locations to show off their terrain. “It is a for athletes/by athletes series that relies on passionate people doing incredible things with minimal resources,” says Lyons. He likens the events to a traditional stage race with all the logistical challenges and legwork needed to pull it off, only it is done in the woods with very small production crews and limited budgets. At the close of the 2011 season it was clear that the Enduro format of mountain bike racing was here to stay. The pump was primed and the prospect of future events across the country became evident.

Scott Enduro Cup presented by Gopro/JDASH

Transfer

2012 was a transformative year for the sport. The success of the inaugural season of the NAET served as a catalyst to propel the genre to new heights. Bike technology was ramping up even further and interest in Enduro was widespread. Professional mountain biker Ali Goulet saw the increased growth as a potential to create his own event and bring more riders into the fold. His industry ties with Bell allowed him to gain support for a race based at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah. The vision for the Wasatch Enduro presented Goulet with myriad challenges and allowed him to develop new relationships with unlikely suspects. He reached out to the land managers in the area and addressed their concerns by assuring that the event would also promote trail stewardship and bolster the local cycling community. Working with the folks at Canyons Resort and Basin Recreation for trail selection, logistics, and race promotion became quite the endeavor. “We just kept dreaming a little bigger and it all came together. Our event also became a stop on the NAET that year,” says Goulet. His goals came to fruition on race day with an impressive turnout of riders from all backgrounds. The weather was perfect and the course was in prime shape. Goulet even had the opportunity to switch roles and participate in the event, a luxury rarely afforded to race promoters.

The overall reaction after the final stage was positive and all parties involved were excited to have pulled off such an amazing competition. The closing ceremonies awarded the winners and the party lasted well into the evening. Prizes were doled out and the raffle generated over $1,500 that was donated to the Mountain Trails Foundation. With a successful event in his pocket and all stakeholders happy, Goulet started to dream even bigger and he soon began putting together the pieces for the next season of racing.

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Stage 2

Capitalizing on the success of the sport across the globe, racers and promoters found it easy to generate interest in developing an international series that would showcase the talents of top riders on the world’s most formidable tracks. The Enduro World Series (EWS) was the brainchild of the Enduro Mountain Biking Assocaiton (EMBA) and its board members Fred Glo, Enrico Guala, Chris Ball and Darren Kinnaird. 2013 marked the inaugural year of the EWS and the explosion of Enduro reached a planetary scale. Seven events spanning multiple continents became the all-consuming focus of the race organizers and it became a benchmark for which all future races would aspire to reach. Upper echelon riders were tried, tested, and beat down by the rugged terrain on the volcanoes of Chile and the rooted forests of Scotland. For those looking to achieve the pinnacle of the sport, this was the place to do it. However, for many riders in the USA, there was still the need for continuing race development on home soil.

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The Scott Enduro Cup represented an iteration of the future of series racing in North America. Cut from the same cloth as the NAET, the Scott Enduro Cup became an intermountain mini-series that gave riders opportunities to hone their skills and progress through the ranks. The series began in the spring of 2013 after Goulet approached Mountain Sports International (MSI) about creating a three-stop race. MSI had proven its strengths as a multi-faceted event production and experiential marketing company through its successful Subaru Freeride Series, and Goulet felt they could help push the competition to the next level

The tour stops that season stretched from Moab to Sun Valley to Park City while encompassing a wide spectrum of technical terrain and ripping single track. Riders off all abilities were encouraged to participate and multiple categories were set up within each race. During each event, competitors were timed during descents, but not on the climbs between stages. However, each transfer section had a time limit that racers were required to meet in order to avoid a penalty against their descents. Times were aggregated across the stages of each race (3-6 stages) and then points were assigned based on the lowest times. These points accrued over the course of the three races during a season and an overall series champion was crowed at the culminating event at Canyons Resort.

The marked growth in attendance and stellar overall experience enjoyed by each participant has kept the series in the public eye. The NAET even decided to keep the Sun Valley race as a tour stop where riders can earn points for that larger series. Other stops on the NAET range from Colorado, to Oregon, to British Columbia and represent a multitude of exciting terrain that attracts great people who produce lasting memories.

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“I believe that this particular format is gaining popularity because it closely resembles how most of us ride in our free time with our friends.  Everyone hangs out together in the morning before the race starts, a group rides out to the trailhead/ race start, and then everyone rides as hard as possible downhill.  At the bottom, everyone is usually laughing and out of breath,” says Ben Nelson, race director for the Scott Enduro Cup. His involvement with the series has helped the events progress year after year and develop unique courses that excite and challenge riders. He credits his relationships with land managers like the BLM, USFS, and various trail organizations as the backbone of the success of the program.

Keeping an eye toward progression, Nelson and Goulet have worked to offer races on different venues throughout the years. This year’s Moab stop sold out in record time after they announced it was taking place on the newly minted trails at Klondike Bluffs. The riding that went down was all time and the party-like atmosphere surrounding the event kept everyone’s spirits high. The next stop travels to Idaho and partners with the Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival. The set up at this location is a two-day stage race that challenges riders to the utmost during the day, but provides a festive environment each evening with live music, cold beer, and delicious food. For the finale, the series will return to the precipitous mountainsides of Canyons Resort and offer competitors the true on-mountain experience. Utilizing resort infrastructure will enable the course developers to show case their handy work and deliver and amazing experience for everyone in attendance.

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Podium

At the publication of this article, 2015 has already seen some incredible racing around the world as more participants get into the sport. The EWS is now the flagship series, but many competitors on that circuit use races on the NAET as training. Quality talent is also being recognized and refined on smaller series like the Oregon Enduro Series and the Scott Enduro Cup. Although there is no official points accrual structure for moving from series to series, each event has its own unique character that makes it a desirable destination for riders of every ilk. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what Enduro ‘is’. It is hard to put definitive rules around the format and it should be left open for interpretation,” say Goulet. His peers echo his sentiments across the globe as they all agree that although the competitive element is important, its success really draws from the free spirited roots of the sport. It should also be noted that although many top athletes have access to the latest tech, most riders could compete on bikes they already own. Those mid-travel all-mountain bikes that proliferate the trails these days are the perfect machines to get out on and try something new.

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While the future of the genre is still unclear, many agree that it will only continue to grow and entice more people to enter the sport. Larger governing bodies like USA Cycling are taking notice and have incorporated an Enduro event at this year’s National Championships in Mammoth, California. Which could mean that perhaps one day UCI will get on board and make it part of the World Cup. Whatever happens on the grand scale, organizers like Goulet, Lyons, and Nelson will continue striving to produce high quality races with an emphasis on good times. After all, mountain biking is fun, so why not create events that take people to beautiful places around the world and have them enjoy the best trails while continuing to strengthen the community?

Scott Enduro Cup presented by Gopro/JDASH

For more information on participating in your first event, visit NAETmtb.com and Endurocupmtb.com for full race rules and scheduling. Also be sure to swing by the final stop of the Scott Enduro Cup being held at Canyons Resort on August 15.

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