That Time I Went Full En­duro

Some­times you gotta go huge to dis­cover where your lim­its are.

Bicycling (South Africa) - - NEWS - BY GLO­RIA LIU

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

pos­i­tive at­ti­tude.

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.

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