Friday, April 21, 2017

Welcome to Enduro!

Looking around at all the beefy bikes with plush travel, I felt like I had brought a knife to a gun fight. I adjusted my cloth knee sleeves, nervously tugged at the bottom of my tight-fitting pocketed cycling jersey so it would reach the top of my baggies, and tried to ignore the butterflies as I glanced again at the rocky drop leading into Stage #3... Lord, let me make it through this alive...

So THIS is enduro.

If you are a fat-tire enthusiast, a part-time racing weekend warrior like me who is forever addicted to hanging with the cycling community, let me invite you in to explore this exploding sector of mountain biking with me. I've done some cool stuff on the bike, but never before have I experienced the thrills of enduro. Until now.

And if you're thinking, "That looks like fun" followed by some hesitation that starts with "but" (I don't have the right bike, I don't have technical skills, I'm not fast, I don't even know what this is!) then keep reading. I hope by the end of this to convince you to grab your bike and sign up with me!

So what exactly is enduro? Check it out:
Enduro 101
Training Tips

And if you're on Facebook, try stalking these groups:
Texas Gravity Enduro
Enduro Life

Since experience is the best teacher, and the rad dudes of Kodiak Tough were hosting the Sansom Shred in my own backyard of Fort Worth, Texas, I decided to take the plunge. This article is a compilation of the basics of enduro, as well as some beginner racer notes. If you're already convinced (and get annoyed by long-winded race reports) then skip to the end and get signed up already!

1) The bike: The ideal amount of travel seems to be 150mm-160mm. You may find some bikes with more, some with less, depending on the rider and the terrain. If you are in the market like I am, my suggestion would be to start with the brands your local bike shops carry or can get, and do a few test rides. (If you need a good shop, check out Bicycles Inc.) Read reviews, talk to folks, and remember "the best bike for enduro racing is the one you already own" (Enduro 101). 

2) Gear: Apparently protection is paramount when you are flying through the forest. Full-face helmets (which I hear are required at some venues), knee and elbow pads, and baggy shorts made of thick material are the norm. Is all this really necessary? I figure if the guys and gals who do this stuff regularly have it on, a bumbling beginner should, too. For the Sansom race, I had to piecemeal my outfit together; top half XC (regular helmet and cycling jersey, no elbow pads), bottom half enduro-fakie (legit baggies with some soft-shell knee pads). Will I have all the correct gear next time I line up? Yes.

3) What is the race format? Again, I reference the "Enduro 101" article for explanation of the timed stages. Or check out Wikipedia. The timing aspect, by far, is where I needed first-hand experience to understand how to train and prepare in order to compete. Keep in mind the stage recap coming up is only one day and one race worth of information. Some races are multi-day races with 3-5 stages per day. It all depends on the race venue.

Resting up between rounds
Sansom had 5 different stages. I didn't read the online race details carefully or I would have known we were racing each of them TWICE, completing 10 stages for the day.

Although I rode from stage to stage solo in order to gather my thoughts and make mental notes, I know the camaraderie among riders transferring together from one stage to the next is a big part of the attractive vibe surrounding enduro.

4) Pre-Ride: I had every intention of pre-riding the course the day before the race like you do in cross-country, but didn't. I pre-rode the morning of, giving myself about an hour to rest before the pre-race meeting. By the time I had finished pre-riding, my bike computer registered over an hour of ride time. This didn't even count the steep hike-a-bike section I ascended three times just in the pre-ride! (By the end of the day, I had hiked the pitch 9 times.) At the end of the whole race, I had over 3 hours and 25 miles of ride time. Mental note: pre-ride as much as possible the day before, and hit one or two of the trickiest sections the morning of in order to keep the legs as fresh as possible.

5) Sansom Shred Stage Recap:

*For a sweet visual tour, complete with useful commentary of the stages, check out pro rider and podium winner Richard Drew's YouTube video.

Stage #1 had a steep and loose entry into the trees, followed by a tricky switch-back section of the Sansom trail. The addition of a wooden ramp at the start sort of threw me for a loop. I opted to go around, not wanting to christen the day with a wreck. It was interesting to note the differences between an enduro start and a cross-country start. At these races, riders begin each stage one at at time, in approximately 30 second waves. There is no race official to say “3-2-1, go!” You simply line up your wheel at the starting tape, and pedal when your mind is right.
Racers line up at Stage #1 during the first round. This was the only time I had to wait in line for any length of time.
Not all sections are rocks and jumps.
Stage #2 was the longest and included some uphill. On the second go-round of the same stage, my legs were sluggish and my lack of training was woefully exposed. (I was +:12 on the second split. Compare this to the other splits of  -:03, +:01, +:02:, +:01.) Mental note: Do NOT underestimate the fitness aspect of enduro.

Do you have to be a decent technical rider to score well? Sure. But you can't be lacking in speed or endurance if you want to compete at the highest level. In cross country and endurance, time gaps are oftentimes born on the climbs. For enduro, being able to handle the short inclines and hammer the flats is critical.

Stage #3... The one that made race director Bryan Fawley remind everyone to "gear up." It started with the parking lot drop-off that was creating mixed emotions inside of me. Thank goodness for the B-line. For those of you contemplating signing up for a race, pay close attention to this: You don't have to ride every crazy feature. For the gnarliest of gnars, there is usually an alternate line. (And if there is not, it's perfectly okay to jump off your bike). The A-line was the drop, the B-line an easy go around. I took the B-line. It cost me seconds for sure, but it was worth it to keep the bike and body together.

The A drop was off the back of this bricked pavilion.
After the A/B entry, the stage didn't get much easier. In my pre-ride, I came to a fast halt at the brink of a steep and wide section of cascading rocks covered by loose sketch. Two guys were off their bikes scouting the line. I didn't feel comfortable clipping back in from a dead stop at the top, only to avalanche thirty feet down the trail, cursing my fake knee pads in between bounces off the caliche rubble. So I walked two tiered sections down, remounted, and slowly dipped my 29-inch wheel off the last short ledge. I squinted back up at the lines. Left side, left side, right side, middle (drop!). I wasn't sure if I could ride the whole descent come game time or not.

The sage advice I heard from the legendary endurance phenom, Rebecca Rusch, came flooding back to me as I contemplated my decision. "You won't win the race on the downhills, but you sure can lose it." She was referring to the power-line descent of the Leadville 100. There was more truth to her statement on this day than I anticipated. If I got out of control at any point and crashed, then, well, I would be slower.

It was a conversation with another racer, Skye Wedgeworth (who won the amateur division on a hardtail I should add), that gave me the confidence to go for it. Mental note: Confer with other riders in between stages if they are willing. And I think they usually are. 

The last drop on Stage #3. A dropper seat post sure would come in handy here. Photo credit: Kazey Bunch Photography
 A smattering of rowdy on-lookers were perched along the edges of stage 3.

"Slopes are steeper than they appear." Photo credit: Duane Ronan
Mental note: Don't listen to every heckler's advice.

Bolstered by Skye's words of "You can ride this," I rolled down the incline with confidence, going through my mental conversation with intense focus. In the seconds it took to get down, I kept hearing an emphatically loud voice interrupting my zen.

I was trying to decipher if it was good or bad, friendly or foe. Weight back, heels down, far left. Can I make this? Yes, I think I caAAN....Whew! Ok, go right... GET OFF YOUR FRONT BRAKES! Easy on the brakes! What? No, I'm fine. Ok, made - GET OFF YOUR FRONT BRAKE!! - it down that. Ignore him. Almost down. One last drop, you've already done this once. Weight baaAAKK, Nice! Aahhh, thank God, I'm down. Who was that guy?

I generally tune people out when I'm in the zone and thus decided not to GET OFF MY FRONT BRAKE just because someone who may or may not be a decent rider said so. But the crowds at races are generally amicable (even if the spirited encouragement is fueled by free beer). So during the transfer to Stage #4, I contemplated the advice namely because I had heard it before: if you grab the front brake too hard at the wrong time, you'll be kissing the dirt. Or rock.

Since the day was all about learning, I decided I would test it out the second go around. Right in the middle of the steepness, I slightly released the tension on my right brake lever. Immediately, my back wheel started to fishtail. Mental note: Ask someone about this.

FWMBA trail builders packing the jump on Stage #5 weeks prior to the race.
Stage #4 and #5 were just plain fun. They were flowy and fast with jumps and included one of my favorite sections of trail in the metroplex, the dam drop. Stage #5 began with a wooden ramp jump (which I tested out in pre-ride), then a little picnic table area drop. My 100mm cross country rig handled both fine, but each of the trail features left me wanting for more.

6) Timing: If everyone is racing single file, beginning stages at their own discretion, then how the heck do you know who is ahead? In XC and endurance, it’s fairly simple. You all start together. If someone is ahead of you, they are ahead of you. If someone is behind you, they are behind you. Not so in enduro. You are all racing the clock, so you have no idea where you stand until the halfway point when you “dip your chip” and let the clock keeper download your first round times. Or until the end when everyone is done. If you are a Strava junkie (I know, some of you just rolled your eyes), then think of the race as a bunch of Strava segments spread out, and you're after the crown!
Kate Castro, Nic Cronkhite, Brenda Andress
Nic Cronkhite had a great day on the bike and took the top podium spot. She, as well as Kate Castro, were incredibly helpful all day answering my constant questions. ("Is it okay to stop at my car during the race? How long should I rest between rounds?" etc.)

Every single time I do a race report (or have a conversation in general), I get wrapped up in the details. I could go on and on about the day: what the transitions were like, how the weather was hot and I drank a ton and still peed yellow. Mental note: Wrap this thing up...

Hopefully, you are as stoked as I am to jump into the enduro scene. Get online and read about it, join a discussion group, talk to the folks at your bike shop. Best yet, get to a race and start making your own mental notes. I promise there will be friendly racers to help you. If you are still a little nervous, then I encourage you to attend a race as a spectator and feel the enduro vibes in person.

Ready to race next weekend?
(April 29-30)
Dino Enduro in Glen Rose, Texas

Want to race next month?
 Southern Enduro Series.

Check this sight for updates next fall.
Texas Enduro Cup

Want to travel around the nation and race?
IMBA National Enduro Series

Want to (get sponsored, go pro, then) race around the world?
Enduro World Series

Thanks for reading! See ya on the trail.

Pre-ride selfie at the top of Sansom trail, near the Stage #1 entry point. I definitely need a full-face helmet to cover this mug.
Thanks for the photo Ritu Dube!

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