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Damien Oton arrives at the race trailer and flashes a friendly smile. It’s the morning of the SRAM Canadian Open Enduro — Round 6 in the Enduro World Series — and the 26-year-old rider is here to check in with his mechanic and find a bit of shade. He calls the Whistler event his favorite of the series, but knows it will be a long day.
The Canadian Open course is the most brutal of the seven-round EWS, and packs five stages into a single day of competition. He’s scheduled to roll down the start ramp at 11:03 a.m. and will expect to be done with his workday roughly eight-and-a half hours later.
Oton is a natural — both on and off the bike. The Devinci rider is currently ranked second in the EWS and has been the revelation of the 2014 season, with an overall win at La Thuille and a second at Valloire. His performances have garnered him a lot of attention, but he generously accepts requests for interviews, even though he’s not completely comfortable with the English language.
On the course, however, Oton looks completely comfortable. His riding style is not flamboyant, but playful, nonchalant — like he’s just having a bit of fun in the woods. And between stages, Oton remains relaxed, chatting with sponsors, reporters and fans, before heading off to another startline.
At the end of stage 4, he sits in second place, just 12:04 seconds behind Belgium’s Martin Maes. If stage 5 were any “ordinary” enduro stage, Maes’ cushion would look insurmountable, but the final stage here is a massive plunge from Whistler’s Top of the World, through the Garbanzo Zone and down to the base of the mountain. It’s a stage designed to keep riders at their absolute limit for more than 20 minutes, so coming back from a 12-second deficit is hardly out of the question.
Taking on a bit of fluid and making one last check of his bike before departing for the Top of the World, Oton can’t hide the physical stress of the already long day.
“Are you ready for Stage 5?” we ask.
“I’m ready … but maybe not my legs,” Oton replied.
Despite that, he’s not stingy with his smiles and high-fives as he rolls away from the pit and toward the gondola.
When he crosses the line at 7:23 p.m., it’s clear that Oton has gone deep on this one. He’s got the signature 1000-yard stare of an athlete who has given everything. But it’s obvious that he knows this ride wasn’t good enough for the win.