Sunday, May 22, 2016

UK Enduro Series vs British Enduro Series: Clash of the titans

You couldn't make it up. Within weeks of the demise of the once-popular UK Gravity Enduro series, not one but two new national enduro series are announced within days of each other: the British Enduro Series and, er, the British Enduro Series. Yes, not only do they have near-identical logos featuring the same bit of freebie clipart, they both launch under exactly the same name...

This was, I assume, just an unfortunate coincidence. Neil Delafield of Red Kite/Mondraker Enduro fame/infamy and Si Paton of UKDH fame/infamy must have been beavering away on their respective series for months (booking venues, negotiating with landowners, sweet-talking sponsors, building websites, hiring portaloos, making up rules, forgetting to order tape). And all credit to them both - organising just one race must be a massive undertaking.

Needless to say, though, the Twattersphere goes into overdrive. Misinformation rules, opinions polarise, war is declared. Who are you with - Little Hitler or the Rogue Cowboy? When the debate starts to trend higher than "Paris Hilton breaks fingernail", there are calls for the UN to intervene. But not even British Cycling are interested, despite all they've done for women's cycling.

A stand-off ensues. Who will back down on the name? Both sides claim to have got there first. Eventually the bigger man (literally, at least) breaks eye contact and backs down. And thus the British Enduro Series and the UK Enduro Series are born - two imaginatively named series for the price of one!
I should perhaps stress that the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my sponsors. Or even my own.

I also have something to declare beyond ten crates of vodka and half a dozen immigrants under a blanket in the boot. I ride for UK Enduro's own race team, and Neil Delafield is my friend. I don't work for FIFA, though, so I'd like to think I'm still capable of being impartial. Suck it and see.
Following this false start, the two series were at pains to project a unique identity, suggesting that they would be more complementary than direct competitors. While UKE was all talk of "riding with your mates", BES was busy announcing cash prizes. When UKE launched its hashtag #fortheriders, BES responded with #fortheracers. It seemed that one was about the taking part, and the other was about the winning.

But what would this mean in practice? Only one way to find out. Some poor sod would have to ride them both and report back. Hmm, spend two entire weekends messing around on bikes, or crack on with the DIY? After much soul-searching, I selflessly stepped up to the plate - but would I smash it?

Triscombe in a nutshell. 
Don't worry, this wasn't me. I was going too slowly to crash. Check out the dust.
Photo: Dan Wyre Photography.

Star date: 23-24 April 2016
Location: Triscombe, Somerset
Event: Rocky Mountain UK Enduro round 2
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Result: 19th vet

First impressions on Friday afternoon were not good. The Quantocks aren't the most imposing range of hills, more of a freak pimple on the arse of England. The venue might have looked like Hogwarts but was actually more real-world boarding school, with the heating set to absolute zero and rampant bum fun in the showers. And it was raining.

But it turned out to be a really fantastic event.

Having everyone eating, drinking and sleeping together in the old school made it a much more social occasion with a decent atmosphere both day and night. Less event village and more holiday village.

Nor was the rain a problem. Partly because it stopped, giving way to a weekend of non-stop sunshine. Also because the soil there is so absorbent they used to mine it for Pampers. Things were still a little greasy in practice, but we were treated to bone-dry race runs bar a couple of short fresh-cut sections of slippety-sloppety slapstick fun.

And the lack of elevation may even have been a good thing. The climbs were that much more manageable, and the stages were still a good length. While round 1 of the series (see my report here - no, go on, please do, it's had so few hits I don't know why I bothered) was all about Neil Delafield's 100% home-made loamy tracks, here in the Quantocks he was limited to adding a few short sections to the existing network of downhill tracks. But what great tracks they were. Some heart-in-mouth steep and twisty bits, some easy flat-out blasts. Lots and lots of roots. With a side-serving of more roots. And drops and jumps and steps. A bit of everything really. And fast. With not a trail-centre descent in sight.

I won't bore you with a detailed breakdown of the stages - I'm too old to remember them all in any case - but you can get a taste from these videos:

Some helmet-cam highlights courtesy of Wheelies team rider Ben Stallwood.

The end of stage 3 courtesy of marshal Fred Cook. The steep bit (from 5 minutes in) was more than a little scary and ace fun. Sadly the stage had to be abandoned on Sunday because some scrote half-inched one of the timing beacons. Wonder what they'll make of that at Cash Generator?

I particularly enjoyed the fast 'n' furious stages 5 to 7, ridden blind on the Sunday. When you're hurtling down the bottom section of the already super-hairy stage 7 at 20mph (OK, in my case maybe 10mph) and you suddenly find the Grand Canyon opening up before you, there's only one thing you can do - go for it. Trust the bike, feel the fear - and then feel on top of the world when you make it through unscathed, grinning from ear to ear. You just can't beat that feeling!

Which makes me wonder whether enduro stages shouldn't always be raced blind. No weekend-before recces, no practice sessions, no track walks, nothing.

One drawback, of course, is that you have to work harder on navigation. As a geriatric with more than enough on his hands dealing with the trail immediately in front of me, I find the additional complication of looking ahead to see where I'm supposed to go next (let alone spot alternative lines) a massive test for my limited multi-tasking abilities. It's like opening too many windows on your PC - eventually everything just grinds to a halt.

So I could have done with a whole lot more tape to show me where to go. Whereas the top racers could have done with a whole lot more tape to show them where not to go.

What I saw as a mildy disconcerting absence of directional cues was seen by some as an opportunity for the ultimate Strava line, cutting straight down through the trees and completely missing out the twists and turns of the actual track - eventually triggering a 20-strong protest train of riders whizzing down the hill to harangue the organiser into cancelling the stage, plus a whole lotta bitching on social media.

Click here for a video of the offending section courtesy of James Scott.

Ultimately, though, it was a storm in a teacup, and I've no doubt that lessons have been learned and future rounds will be taped up tighter than a Tory MP in Mistress Whippy's dungeon of dodgy desires.

And I still thought stage 7 was the absolute bollocks, rounding off a perfect weekend's riding.

Once again I was completely outclassed, and I couldn't believe how slow my times were when I checked them, but I had such fun riding the stages that I just didn't care. Could that be what #fortheriders is all about?

Dyfi in a nutshell.
Tracey Moseley has been world enduro champion every year since 1947, and if she looks knackered at the end...

Star date: 7-8 May 2016
Location: Dyfi Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Cannondale British Enduro round 2
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Result: 15th vet

"How are you feeling, Chris?" asks the MC.

At precisely 8.36 and 20 seconds on a Sunday morning after a night in a field with no showers on the back of the toughest practice loop of all time? Forgive me if I don't pull a wheelie off the start ramp.

The pre-race interview is part of the ritual here, part of the show. This isn't just a bike race, it's an event, a happening, a big deal. There's a clear aspiration to be the best (in the country, the world, the universe), a super-slick and super-pro mini-EWS or World Cup. And in fairness, it is all very well organised, with an impressive start/finish arena with massive sponsor presence and loads of trade stands and a huge crew telling you where to park and restocking the bogroll in the portaloos and otherwise keeping things running smoothly. The timing beacon thief wouldn't have stood a chance here. And they've certainly attracted a big field of elite riders who are very much the centre of attention - to the point where I grew pretty sick of hearing about Jerome this and Jerome that. What about Robson, I wondered.

Everything, but everything, is more serious than at UKE. There are an awful lot of rules, with seeding by age category and exact start times for every stage - and rapidly escalating time penalties (even disqualification) if you miss them. I'm still an XC racer at heart, so I'd thought the fixed start times would mean having to spend ages hanging about, but actually the transitions were pretty tight. Riding at an economical pace I only had a few minutes to spare before most of the stages. In fact it was very like an XC race where you only ever snatch a few words with riders here and there. There certainly wasn't time to deal with a mechanical or help someone else with theirs - you had to look out for number one.

The loop itself was tough, very tough, with over 50km and 1,500m of climbing each day. The first two stages in the forest were both preceded by a gruelling 350m ascent, and the arena was a full 5 miles of dull, cruelly undulating tarmac from the forest. The weather didn't really play ball either, drizzling down most of Saturday, and despite blazing sunshine on Sunday the fireroads remained sticky, hard work on a heavy enduro rig with soft mud tyres and flat pedals.

First stage on Sunday. I said conditions were sticky.
Photo: Peter Jones, organiser of the incomparable Dyfi Winter Warm Up.

What made it really, really, really hard, though, was doing all that climbing in a full-face helmet in 25°C sunshine. Yes, I could have taken a separate trail helmet for the climbs, but that would have required me to wear a backpack so I'd have ended up just as hot, and anyway how safe is it to crash on a race run with a spare helmet digging into your back?

The "full-face on stages and helmet on transitions" rule simply has to be revisited. Not only is it illogical (it's fine for us to push our limits on some seriously sketchy shit on the stages but we're not trusted to pootle up a fireroad transition without falling off?) but it's dangerous: hot, bothered and blinded by sweat is no way to start a downhill run. It's not surprising so many people binned it on the final stage of the day, and I'm surprised nobody collapsed from heat exhaustion or drowned in a river of other people's sweat on the way there.

Me and the two riders I overtook on the final stage. Far too little, far too late.

Now maybe it's my XC background, or just my contrary gene, but I actually liked being under pressure the whole time on race day, I loved the physicality of the loop, and I really enjoyed the weekend. I don't mind riding on my own, and I'm happy with it being all about me, me, me. 

And the race stages were brilliant. BES and UKE may be like chalk and cheese in other respects, but the actual racing was very similar - varied, challenging, scary at times, fun throughout and a world away from your typical trail-centre enduro.

Stage 1/6 was the best - a fresh-cut old-skool DH track with hairy steep turns on slick clay lined with enthusiastic spectators and finishing with a proper knackering grassy sprint into the arena. Even the one trail-centre stage was good fun - just how fast dare you go? And I'm glad they kept in the controversial slopfest at the top of stage 3, which I found unrideable but hilarious, spending most of it on my arse.

After five (yes, five) people passed me on that one section, my chances of an overall win were slim, despite Dan Atherton pulling a sickie immediately after seeing me nail stage 4 in practice. A coincidence? I think not.

Click here for gavskxf's video of "carnage corner" on the seeding stage, which I rather overcomplicated by getting the nose of my saddle wedged somewhere it really shouldn't have been.

In reality, all my times were woeful, but I still ended up halfway up the vets category after exhaustion caused quite a few to pull out early or crash out of the final stage. But I'll take that. It's supposed to be hard and it's supposed to hurt. Sport should reward fitness as well as skill. You want skill without fitness, go play darts. (In my head right now is a Baywatch slow-mo of manboobs in motion as Jocky Wilson sprints 100m to the oche... Sorry, had to share.)

One thing I've missed with enduro until now - and at UKE in particular - is that feeling of being completely, totally and utterly shattered at the end of a race day, hobbling home having given it your absolute all. I guess that must be what #fortheracers is all about.

I gave it everything.

So... UKE or BES?

With the stages themselves being very similar in nature and standard, it has to be down to the rest of the weekend outside the 30 minutes you're actually racing.

If you don't want to be rushing to stages to make an allotted start time, or you want to ride with your mates, or you're not very fit, the more grass-rootsy UKE is for you. There's even a handy Sunday-only option for those who can't make the whole weekend.

But if you're secretly fed up of having to wait for your mates on every climb, fancy your chances of bagging some serious prize money, or prefer a structured approach to life, you might want to look at the more corporate BES. 

As a rider, I enjoyed the more laid-back atmosphere of UKE. As a racer, I enjoyed the more intense atmosphere of BES. But which is better? I guess there's only one way to find out... FIGHT!

UK Enduro heads back to the loamy trails of the Crychan Forest in Mid Wales this coming weekend 28-29 May (Triscombe sold out, so best enter sharpish!). The next British Enduro round is at Afan in South Wales on 11-12 June.
Featured sponsor - Wickens & Söderström

Their chain lube is like totally amazeballs.
Even in the buried-alive mudfest that was stage 3 in the Dyfi, it kept my chain and cassette squeaky clean. Without the squeak.
I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
And finally a BIG THANKS to Dan Wyre for letting me use his fantastic photos!

1 comment:

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