That Time I Went Full Enduro
Sometimes you gotta go huge to discover where your limits are.
One rider discovers enduro racing, and believes she’s finally found her niche – until others start doing better than her. But there’s a reason it felt like such a big deal in the first place...
Thupthupthup. A flat trail tyre makes the saddest sound when you’re walking your bike down a hill.
Minutes before, I had psyched myself back up for the fifth and final stage of a small enduro race in a tiny town 15 minutes from my home – in other words, the most important event of the year.
Unwilling to admit how much this race mattered, my friends and I had been pre-riding the course stealthily for weeks. Race day brought the heat and humidity characteristic of that time of year, making the rocks sweaty. I’d struggled all morning over rocky sections I usually cleaned, each dab causing more panic as I pictured those seconds piling onto my total time.
I decided to salvage my day on the final stage. At the start, I cleared my head, swiped my timing chip, and charged down the trail. I couldn’t believe how fast I was going.
Too fast. About 90 metres down, my back rim went kunk! on a rock. The tyre deflated – and so did my new-found
My enduro career had started with more promise. The previous summer, on a whim, I’d tagged along with some friends to a two- day enduro and won the second race. I leapt into my friends’ arms, elated, when I saw the result. I had found my thing. In enduro, riders are timed on stages that are primarily downhill, with neutral ‘ transfer’ stages in between. It is a test of the best all- round rider, not just the fittest. This made sense to me. Suddenly, I made sense to me. I’d always been more inclined to descents. As a kid, I amused myself for hours by repeatedly riding up my parents’ steep driveway on my blue banana- seat bike, just for the exhilarating whoosh of coming back down. On the trail, I gravitated toward steeps, rocks, chutes, and lippy takeoffs. Enduro rewarded daredevilry, and I liked that.
It was also a fresh start. I found mountain biking as an adult and often felt acutely aware of that lost time. But enduro had come to us from Europe just a few years ago; it was new to everyone.
Plus, it was fun. That first race felt like a giant, two- day group ride. The descents were so rowdy and long that my hamstrings quivered by the end. When I slid in after cleaning one particularly heinous stage, my friends were waiting at the bottom to highfive me. We camped on someone’s property, drank whisky by a bonfire, and slept in our bags under the stars. There was no better way to spend a weekend.
I had big ambitions for 2016. I got a 150mm- travel, all- mountain rig. I started riding with the guys from my local bike shop and became engrossed in their endless discussions about tyre pressure, tread pattern, and suspension settings. We hit several DH- style trails by lapping a short road climb over and over. We drank beer in the parking lot afterwards.
It was a fabulous lifestyle. I got over feeling guilty about being driven up some steep road to get to the downhills faster. Enduro was mountain biking’s giant packet of black winegums; there were none of the boring flavours, only the best one. Finally, I could eschew all that character- building stuff and maximise the fun.
Then the actual races started. I was soon reminded that enduro isn’t all high fives and beers.
Contrary to its low- pressure stereotype, it’s actually pretty hard. You have to explode off the line, navigate technical terrain at speed, sprint out of the corners, pedal through the flats, air all the gaps, all while your heart rate’s in the red. Oh, and make as few mistakes as possible.
This is a helluva lot to try to accomplish in the three to fifteen minutes of a single stage.
And I had a problem: As soon as I decided I wanted to be good at enduro, I stopped being good at enduro.
The adrenaline junkie in me was hooked, but now my less endearing alter ego – the overachiever – was in it too. And she was ruining the party.
I’d grown attached to the idea that I had untapped potential in this sport, and was scared I’d find out it wasn’t true. At races, I pretended to be cool – laughing and chatting between stages. But inside, my fixation on results made me all nerves, manifesting in a racing style best described as ‘ fleeing a large predator’. I came into corners too hot. I slipped and slid off-line. I flatted out.
Then there was Karen. Karen had also just started racing enduro; but unlike me, she was disconcertingly casual about it. She beat me by a healthy margin every time, and always seemed genuinely surprised when she won.
It would have been charming if it hadn’t made me think I was getting trounced by someone who might not even be trying. Even worse: she was super-nice.
I found myself dreading the next local race. But I rode pretty smoothly, and when I turned in my timing chip, I thought, Maybe I’m learning a thing or two.
The other women were still out on the course, so I milled around and avoided the timing booth as they trickled in. When I could no longer stand the suspense, I sauntered up to the computer showing the results, and edged into the small group of racers clustered around it. I had a good feeling about this one.
Then I saw the screen. I was dead last. I had ridden close to my best, and it just wasn’t enough.
Unable to even look at a pair of knee pads, I rode only my road bike for the next several days, and moped.
It’s not like I thought I was some prodigy just waiting to be discovered in my 30s and whisked away from my desk job to the Enduro World Series. I simply wanted to race some fast riders and feel like, with some work and a little luck, I could compete with them. Suddenly, this seemed delusional. Whatever these people were made of, I clearly didn’t have it.
And I hated that I cared. Why did it ache so much just to be normal? Enduro was supposed to be fun, but I had taken it too seriously. I had lost my enduro way.
So I took a break. I did a couple of XC races, which now felt like a cakewalk. But mostly, I just rode. I explored long climbs on my road bike. I did casual little mountain rides. It began to matter less whether I was getting faster or more skilled each time. It seemed silly to get frustrated when I had a bad day on the bike – silly to think of bike rides as ‘ bad days’ or ‘good days’ at all. The summer petered out in a warm, muggy sigh.
A few months afterwards, my friends decided to do the last race of the season. They offered me a seat in the car.
I waffled. The forecast called for rain. I was worried about losing. But I wanted to ride some new trails and spend the day with my mates.
It was a small race. Only four women showed up. At the start of stage one, I felt something surprising: calm. Instead of unearthing a superstar, enduro had proved that I was me – an average 33-year- old, who likes to jump off stuff with her bike. That was enough. My result that day wouldn’t change that.
Pushing too hard had led to heartbreak and sliced tyres in the past, so this time I slowed down. I manoeuvred with caution through switchbacks littered with babyheads. I jockeyed through a jagged scree field, telling myself, Be smooth, be light. In the middle of the fourth stage, I steered off the trail, and it took a couple of tries to get started again. But I shrugged it off.
My friends and I rode together the entire time. At the finish, we joined some racers we knew, who were heckling incoming riders to go bigger over some dirt jumps. Someone placed a sweating, icy beer in my hand.
Minutes later, the sky crackled and fat rain drops began to fall. But the mood stayed festive.
People gathered under an awning, swopping stories and high fives. I mingled, hogged the free food, and felt satisfied. I didn’t win, and it had never mattered.
For a few hours, I was the plucky kid whooshing downhill again.