Words by Seb Kemp
Photos courtesy of Joe Lawwill
Joe Lawwill is the MTB marketing specialist for Shimano USA. He is also a ripper on a bike (Lawwill raced professionally for more than a decade, culminating in a Masters World Downhill Champion title in 2002) and a big proponent of the kinds of races that mesh with all-mountain riding. Joe has been a big part of organizing and promoting the Southridge Super-D race series in California.
Super-D and Enduro seem to be divided by the Atlantic. In Europe, Enduro has been raced for the past fifteen years. In the US, Super-D has been the dominant version of events. What sets the two apart and what are their relative merits? Can they both co-exist? We asked Joe Lawwill a few of these questions.
-What are the origins of the Southridge Super-D race series?
Donny Jackson from Southridge, USA, has actually offered Super-D events for many years. However his original events were a stark contrast to what the events have evolved into. When I used to go out there to race the DH I would see a handful of guys racing Super-D and it seemed that it was more or less an abbreviated lap on the XC course. I loved the idea of racing the downhill sections of the XC course, but racing to the top of the hill to do so just seemed like a major buzz kill. I talked with Donny about adjusting the course. He was open to the idea, but really wasn't going to go to too much trouble considering there were only 15-25 people signing up.
Luckily Eric Carter was feeling the same way I was about the Super-D courses and actually jumped in and took the reins and laid out some pretty cool courses. Once the substantial uphills were taken out I jumped in and gave it a try. Right away, I loved the concept. The courses still were not dialed, but they were way better than anything before.
About this time EC [Ed. a.k.a., Eric Carter] was getting busy with other projects and didn't have the time to spend on the Super-D courses. Donny jumped in and tried to set up a good Super-D course, but he really didn't have the bandwidth to deal with it and the course sort of came up short. At this point I was convinced that, if done right, not only would the Super-D events be really fun, but many other people would start doing them. Donny stepped back and basically let me do what I thought would be good.
The first event that was my course went over really well. News quickly spread and Super-D sign-ups began picking up. Over the last two seasons the average number of Super-D sign-ups has gone from around 25 to close to 100. The numbers would be higher, but some of the more core DH guys feel it takes away from their 2-minute race run on the DH the next day so they opt out. Something I don't understand.
To me it's all about getting the most out of your time on your bike. Sitting in line waiting for a shuttle ride up a hill to do a minute and half of downhill and 30-45 seconds of flat pedaling just doesn't sound that fun to me. The Winter Series has always been touted as a training race for the bigger Nationals and to me being able to race the Super-D on Saturday and racing the DH on Sunday is the best way to get race saddle time which is something that cannot be entirely duplicated in free riding on your own.
-Why did you go with the Super-D format?
I love riding and racing downhill, but since the point in time where bikes evolved into very specific dedicated machines, access has been very difficult. When I first started riding mountain bikes and got into DH I actually used the same bike I went for two-hour trail rides with as I did for World Cup downhills! Yes, things have changed a lot in the 20 years I have been around the cycling industry. I understand why bikes changed, in fact I was right there with my father developing and testing all sorts of long travel bikes to find an edge over the competition.
Like I said already, I love riding DH and even today I have an incredible Santa Cruz carbon V-10 DH bike, but for the most part it just sits in my garage. My time is limited and the idea of using up half a day to organize and do shuttles for a minimal amount of riding just doesn't add up for me.
Trail riding is where all my time is spent and Super-D is just an extension of that. I love to go for Strava times on my local trails, but I have to admit at times it can be problematic. Racing down public trails is filled with variables that can cause issues. Having a closed course like a Super-D event is a great opportunity for guys who like to shred trail bikes and not have to worry about upsetting anybody or crashing into someone.
-What is Super-D?
To me, "Super-D" defines mountain biking. It's the perfect mix of downhill and cross country racing packaged together into one fun 6-12 minute run. Although Super-D is all about the downhill, it is very common and accepted to have minor uphill or flat sections. The beauty of having some climbing leaves the door wide open to link together multiple downhill runs (that would be impossible during a regular downhill event) into one race run, thus making the downhill “Super”!
Challenging, yet not over the top technical, slow and high-speed sections and maybe a few man-made obstacles all come together to challenge riders of varying abilities and fitness. It's all about being all-inclusive rather than being a very exclusive event. Super-D rewards the all-around bike rider. It is a balance of bike skills, fitness and even strategy. You don't need to be a technical god or a fitness fanatic to do well in Super-D. It is a fantastic test of all-around riding ability and skill. You also don't need a highly specialized bike to have a good experience in a Super-D event. There are countless bikes that will work. Overall though, a 4.5-6.5-inch travel bike is usually best.
The actual racing is a single rider timed run similar to the format downhill racing uses.
-What is Enduro?
Enduro events are basically multiple stages of Super-D runs. Enduro is Super-D on a much larger scale. Just as in Super-D there are some uphills, but they are kept to a minimum. If there is too large of an uphill section in the middle of a trail that section is removed from the race and is only used as a transfer stage. Enduro is still in its infancy and definitions are still being sorted out, but for the most part the goal is to keep the events as gravity-fed as possible and keep any extended climbs reserved as untimed sections.
I believe a goal shared by everyone promoting these events is keeping it fun and all-inclusive. If you are there to race a gravity event you don't want 8 and 10-minute climbs in the middle of the race! The guys over at The Oregon Enduro Series and The Big Mountain Enduro series have a great jump on what works and they will continue to develop the best possible combination of stages.
The newly formed North American Enduro Tour is made up of events that conform to a loose set of qualifications that will continue to evolve but is already to a point that you know that if you go to a N.A.E.T event it will be great. They are pushing things to be as professional as possible while also being careful not force a boatload of ridiculous rules. Having general guidelines for promoters to follow seems to be the name of the game. Having some variation in the events is a good thing. I believe with the creation of the World Enduro Tour and N.A.E.T, the structure of accepted Enduro formats will become very clear over the next year.
-Why is Enduro 'hot shit' right now?
Momentum has been building for many years actually. There are numerous things coming together that has made Super-D and Enduro become more mainstream. In the not so distant past there was one main sanctioning body that controlled what Super-D was and as far as I know, if a promoter wanted to run a Super-D they had to follow these rules.
In my eyes they got it wrong and the majority of Super-D events were not very good.
One of the biggest flaws in the rulebook was the call out for an extended uphill start. Right away that is just wrong. Super-D/Enduro is not defined by climbing. They are gravity events and the events must reflect that. Today promoters have realized they can run their own events successfully without a third-party sanctioning body and that is exactly what is happening.
Another ingredient is bike development. The trail bike offerings out there are incredible. I currently ride a Santa Cruz Blur Carbon with 5.5-inches of rear travel and a Fox 34 160mm fork, a full XT build, seat dropper post and semi heavy duty tires that weighs under 28 pounds. I can ride this bike everywhere. I feel confident on any Enduro course and the bike is light enough that I don't get bogged down in the climbs or flat areas.
There are numerous affordable bikes available that will work great for Enduro. It's not like racing XC or DH where you need very expensive specialized bikes to be competitive. I am constantly telling people that a quality mid-travel bike outfitted with SLX is more than enough. You really don't need a full XTR bike to have a great experience. I mean if you can afford it, then, sure, why not buy the best? But if you are on a budget, you can be assured that you don't need to drop a bundle of cash on a bike.
I am not about to take credit for the movement, but I can say I have been pushing hard to make Super-D and Enduro more mainstream. Between pushing the Fontana Super-D events and pushing my Shimano athletes, both XC and DH, to do some Enduro events, acceptance has change quite a lot. In fact, last year I had many of my Shimano athletes tell me they would do a few select Enduros or Super D's (I think to just get me off their backs and they were curious about them). Now, going into this year, many of these same athletes are telling me that they are planning to run a full Enduro schedule with a few select DH events!
I think it's going to be really cool to see so many top athletes out there making a go of it in Enduro. I even have numerous dedicated Enduro athletes that are putting all their focus into the W.E.S and N.A.E.T events. I am super happy to see Enduro evolve the way it has. In my opinion it's been a long time coming and I can't wait to get out there and do as many of these events as I can.