Words by John Hauer of X-Fusion
Images and Video by Gianluca Ricceri
After a few hundred dollars in baggage fees, still slightly unsure on our preparation, Brian Lopes and I set off for Italy to compete in the inaugural Enduro World Series race. Enduro mania has been sweeping the globe and what better way to gain and understanding for its popularity than to attend, compete in and experience the largest (and potentially most competitive ever) Enduro race to date first hand.
We arrived in the small town of Punta Ala, on the West coast of Italy, six days prior to the event. Quickly, we assembled our bikes and began riding, documenting and learning the special stages that would be raced the following weekend. With rapidly changing weather conditions and minimal time to ride the courses, watching pre-recorded helmet cam footage helped to learn the technical terrain. Bike preparation and maintenance were also crucial to success on race day. Durability of the bike played a big factor if you were going to have a good race. A flat or a mechanical meant you were out of contention.
Both of us opted to bring 29ers to Punta Ala. The long transfers between stages required an efficient bike to conserve energy while the stages themselves were rough, where the big wheels carried speed over the bigger holes. For the most part, my and Brian's set-ups were very similar. We relied on the 34mm platform X-Fusion Trace RL2 140mm forks up front. In the rear, Brian's Ibis Ripley ran the Microlite RL. Despite being a shock designed for XC racing, it was able to tackle even the chunkiest terrain in Punta Ala. On the back of my Specialized Stumpy 29 EVO, I went with our tried-and-true O2 RCX. Having a solid range of low-speed compression throughout the day allowed me to adjust the bike for varying sections of trail.
Finally, after a week of preparation and getting adjusted it was time to race. The event kicked off Saturday night with a prologue stage through a local castle and town area. It was extremely nerve racking racing on the slick and wet cobblestones, but Brian and myself were able to get down relatively smoothly without losing any significant time before the real racing started. The prologue helped bring the racing to the local people and despite the weather being terrible, fans were still out in full force to see the action.
After the Saturday evening prologue, it was time to go to sleep and be well rested for the next day's efforts. Unfortunately the rain began to drop. Being two dudes from California, the sound of rain in a foreign land the night before we had to go throw ourselves down the rocky trails was less than ideal. We expected it though, and knew that everybody would be encountering the same struggles and uncertainty while racing.
The next morning, despite a night of continuous rain, the sun was out and shining bright. The organizers sent riders off in pairs every minute, beginning at 8:30 am. With an abundance of time to get to stage 1, the riders were able to socialize and take their time on making it to the start. Some riders (like Dan Atherton) even decided that walking up all the steep hills was a better idea to conserve energy, despite how awesome it made them look.
Stage 1 was definitely the muddiest stage with the least amount of time to dry out. Lopes and I were happy to both make it down the hill without crashes or big mistakes but had moments in our runs where it all could have gone terribly wrong. It's crucial to be consistent in Enduro racing, so any stage that you clean can be looked at as a small success.
Stage 2 went well again for Lopes. He had another solid but conservative run, keeping himself in fighting chance for a strong overall finish. Unfortunately for myself, I let it hang out a bit too much in a rocky section and crashed hard. I collected myself and continued down the trail following the rider who had overtaken me. Despite crashing and giving away chances at a strong overall it was confidence inspiring to be able to sit on an established European rider's wheel down to the end of the stage.
On stage 3, Lopes had a terrific run putting him back inside the top 20 overall. I also had my best stage of the event placing 18th just a few tenths back from one of my childhood heros, Nico Vouilloz. After stage 3 it was definitely apparent that fatigue was settling in for some riders, as their results tapered off in stage 3 and 4.
Stage 4 was the shortest stage, and dropped all riders down to the beautiful Italian coast. Lopes had another strong finish, as did I, improving our overall rankings. Lopes reeled back a ton of competition to take 15th overall. He was the fastest rider on a 29er in Punta Ala and in the category subdivision by age he smoked his class! I finished 47th overall respectfully out of the 400+ with slight regret of my mistakes in stage 2. That's Enduro racing though at its purist. You must be consistent and smooth in all stages, without making time costly mistakes.
To wrap up the weekend we checked results, cracked a beer and then took a swim in the Mediterranean Sea. We had succeeded in our mission to take in all we could of the growing cycling discipline: Enduro. Would we have done anything different? Sure! But that's for us to know for next time. What it comes down to is we had a damn good time on our bikes and that's what Enduro is all about.