Curtis Keene may be North America's best hope for a top result at the Enduro World Series. Keene had focused on racing downhill for years but when he tried his hand at some Enduro racing in 2012, it was evident that he had great potential. By the end of 2012 he had won the North America Enduro Series overall title, then proved his international credentials by placing third at the final round of the SuperEnduro series in Finale Ligure, Italy.
During the off-season Curtis has made some big changes in order to really make a solid attempt at the Enduro World Series title. He has adjusted his training, dropped some muscle mass, switched to big wheels, and now gets a coveted Red Bull helmet deal.
For 2013 Keene will be racing with a Red Bull helmet on his head; a huge deal indeed. In addition to Red Bull, Keene retains his long-term sponsors, Specialized (frames, wheels, tires, open face helmets), Troy Lee Designs (kit and full-face helmet), SRAM (brake and drivetrain), RockShox (Suspension and seatposts), Truvativ (bar and stem) and Red Bull. This is quite the support package and should help give him a solid footing to reach for his goals.
Bike sat down with Curtis in Sedona last week to find out more about his preparations, his thoughts on wheel sizes, and his shiny, new helmet.
BIKE: So, what has been happening this winter and what is your plan for 2013? Aren't you training to be the Olympic XC Eliminator champion these days?
CK: Lopes has that covered. I'll be doing the full Enduro World Series, Oregon Series and some other random events. I'll do some downhill events too, the fun stuff like Sea Otter and Crankworx, but other than that, just riding mountain bikes.
BIKE: So last year was your first, full year racing Enduro and it was a pretty successful transition. What have you changed to improve on those successes?
CK: Last year was definitely a challenge because I had to race downhill and Enduro. I was bouncing back and forth, but this year I'm ready to focus solely on Enduro. This off-season I did a lot of XC rides. Just trail rides in Santa Monica, Laguna, and Santa Cruz. I just put in some more time on the bike because fitness was one of my weaknesses. I mean, we can all get better at all areas but I felt like I had some gains to make up there. I mean, there are some very fit guys out there racing – Adam Craig, Josh Carlson, Clementz, for example.
I also started riding some new bikes this winter. I'm pretty excited about that.
BIKE: So yeah, you made a pretty significant change by moving over to 29ers, is that correct?
CK: Yeah, I'm wagon wheeling it.
BIKE: What made you change?
CK: Well, the Specialized guys have some pretty dialed 29ers and they have been riding them forever. I thought I was a 26-inch kinda guy for life, but they sent me over a few to try and I got on the Stumpjumper 29 and Enduro 29, and to be honest, I love it. So I put in more time on them and rode them more and more until I found it hard to find something I didn't like about them.
Specialized had a really good wheel and tire set-up, so they are light, efficient, and stiff, which considering my size and the terrain we ride and race on, I just felt better on bigger wheels. I felt like I could go faster, safer. For me to reach that point where I feel sketchy and out of control, I have to be riding much faster than I was riding before. I ride the same trails, but on the 29er I feel way more in control and comfortable. Which feels like it deadens out the trail. I just like it now I feel more comfortable going way faster.
BIKE: When I spoke with Jason Chamberlain (Specialized head engineer) and Brandon Sloan [brand manager for high end mountain bikes) in January they told me they sent you a Camber 29 to just try, that you were reluctant to try it, but then you got into it. Were you aware of the development of the Specialized Enduro 29 at that stage and were you considering that bike to be your future weapon for racing Enduro?
CK: Yeah, I knew that, definitely. We did the Finale Ligure launch in October 2012 and I was just waiting to get one of the test bikes back from that to ride at home. As soon as a large became available it came my way.
The Camber 29 was my first [29er] and it was a good all-round bike, but I felt like it was completely different that the Stumpjumper Evo 29 and Enduro 29. Those bikes are suited to our kind of riding, Enduro racing, hard trail riding, whatever you want to call it. Once I got on those bikes I felt like I knew exactly what they [Jason Chamberlain and Branson Sloan] were talking about. I was like, "Whoa, this is something else" and the first thing I wanted to do was to go back to Santa Cruz and the trails I've ridden for years to really try out the 29er. You know how it is, you know your home trails so well and you know every little nook and cranny, so it's the best place to test something.
BIKE: Did you do that?
CK: I did actually.
CK: I'm riding a 29er now aren't I!
It was good, it wasn't like it was a different trail, it just that it smoothed things out. I rode with Sloan and a few Specialized guys a few weeks back, it was pretty dry, not blown out, but dry, rocky and fast. Sloan and I were moving. I was on the Stumpjumper Evo 29 and it was easily the fastest I've ever gone down that trail. It was crazy because I was in complete control and I had more if I wanted it. If I was out to race it, it would be scary because of how fast I could go down there.
I suppose that's why I like it, I guess it's a feeling. We are all searching for a feeling, something that gives us that confidence, mentally speaking, in racing at a high level.
BIKE: So you say you can hit the same top speed on your 29er as your 26-inch, but when you get there you feel more comfortable, in control and you can even push further. That seems to be ideal for Enduro racing – hitting a speed that you can sustain multiple times over the course of day's racing, not crash, not damage equipment.
CK: Yeah, right. Sometimes we do thirty minutes to an hour of racing, that's a lot of racing. So riding that ragged edge becomes a bit of a crapshoot because you start to roll the dice a little more. At a World Cup Downhill event you have to ride that ragged edge, it's part of the sport and what you have to do. But I don't have to ride the ragged edge to go that fast at Enduro races. You have to ride smooth, float through sections, be smart, and keep the corner speed up. I mean, I'm a turning guy and I feel like I'm turning better than ever on a 29er. I feel like my tires hook up better.
BIKE: So you also have a new helmet this year, don't you? How did that come about?
CK: Yep, so I've signed on for Red Bull now. That came about in August or September of last year. The guys at Specialized have a really good relationship with Red Bull and Red Bull showed some interest in me. In September I came back for a bit and met Scotty Bradfield, who is in charge of Red Bull Media House and is a really keen mountain biker and shredder. We started hanging out a bit, going for rides together and then from there we started having some meetings with the athlete marketing crew at Red Bull and it just went from there. It was a long process and took some time, but I'm stoked. I just got the news here and it's a dream come true. I mean, Red Bull, really? When they called me and told me it made my day. My week even.
BIKE: Congratulations man, that's not a small deal, that's a life changing deal.
CK: Yeah, it is. I like the deal because a lot of the guys are avid mountain bikers and are good guys. I've always tried to surround myself with good people. I'm pretty fortunate to have long-term relationships with people like the Specialized crew, the SRAM guys, and Troy Lee. Now they are family and friends before anything else. They aren't just business partners or sponsors; they are more than that. I have the same feeling about the Red Bull deal.
BIKE: What does it mean to your program and what kind of support does Red Bull offer beyond just a fancy paintjob on your helmet, a pay check and, of course, legions of adoring female fans?
CK: Red Bull does things for their athletes that go above and beyond the norm, especially when it comes to health stuff or injuries and rehabilitation because they have their own specialists they work with. It's way more than the paycheck and the helmet; they do so much more and want to help their athletes out. They are there to help you progress, whatever you might need to succeed.
Red Bull is always into cool new projects. We already have a few cool things on the board waiting, so it's like, here we are, go time.