A fairytale ending for the Thunder from Down Under

The final stage of the final race of the year, and one man stood between Sam Hill and a historic third EWS Championship.

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Words: Rob Sherratt and Nigel Page
Photos: Kike Abbelleira

Down to the wire

The script was straight out of Hollywood. It was the final stage of the final race of the year and the two title contenders were taking it right down to the wire. In the red corner, Florian Nicolai riding for the Canyon Factory Racing Team – tall, lean, precise, clinical – and in the blue corner, three-time downhill world champion Sam Hill – tattooed, loose, extrovert in the saddle, introvert off it. Rocky Balboa Vs Ivan Drago? That would be stretching the comparison, but Hill certainly fits the role of fan’s favourite and unlikely enduro champion, with his unconventional approach to bike set-up, dramatic riding style and inspired lines.

As the riders waited for the clock to tick down to their allotted start slots, surrounded by the chocolate box scenery of Zermatt and the Matterhorn, Hill was comfortably in the top three and inching closer to that historic third EWS crown. But, after problems early in the day, Nicolai was climbing back up the leaderboard, and with one stage to go, was sitting within striking distance in sixth place, just 24 seconds behind. He was also 60 points ahead in the overall standings, and only needed to move up one more place on the final stage to clinch the championship. To further spice things up, the final eight-minute stage was nominated as a Queen Stage, which meant an extra 40 series points were on the table for the winner. It really was all to play for.

Mechanic Jacy has been Sam’s right-hand man for over a decade

Sweating nervously back in the pits, Hill’s longstanding mechanic and trusted confidante, 
Jacy Shumilak, got a phone call. It was Sam. With so much on the line, he was unsure how to approach the stage. “Should I give it the berries?” Hill asked. Shumilak’s face went white. But after a moment to consider the options, Jacy gave his verdict: “OK”. It was game on.

Split-second decisions, such as this, can make or break a season for a race team like Team CRC Mavic, but in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget the months of preparation and hard work by staff and racers behind the scenes. So while Sam attacks the final stage, let’s rewind a few days.

Until this point, 2019 had been a very strange year in the EWS. Somehow Sam had clawed his way back into the battle for the overall title and an unprecedented EWS champion’s hat-trick. Sat in the Nukeproof marketing HQ, at my house in the Midlands, that didn’t seem like a bad excuse to head out to Zermatt for the final round of the Enduro World Series and cheer on the team. And hopefully witness history being made.

Left to right: Elliott, Nigel & Kelan take a breather

I’m quite partial to a drive through Europe, and splitting the journey over two days keeps it fairly chilled. In general, I’ve always avoided crossing the Swiss border on European trips, with horror stories of being pulled over at customs and being made to account for every item in the van, right down to the fluffy dice. But I had all my papers in check (thanks EWS team) explaining where I was going and what I was doing with a van full of bikes.

Zermatt, if you’ve never been, is a car-free town. You leave your vehicle a few kilometres away in a massive multi-story car park, then take the train into the town, where little electric carts dart around making deliveries, ferrying people and luggage to hotels and scaring the crap out of you as they sneak up silently behind you.

Forensic focus kicks in when Sam lays down the law between the tapes

It was the final day of practice when I arrived, but when the riders got back from the course I headed over to the pits to catch up with the team. You might think that, with so much at stake, the atmosphere would be tense and the riders would be feeling the pressure, but that wasn’t the case.

The vibe is generally pretty relaxed, even with Sam. He comes across as confident but never arrogant. He knows what he’s got to do and that he has the talent to do it. The way he handles pressure is part of what makes him special and is one of the reasons why he has had such an amazingly successful career. It takes more than just being an extraordinarily skilful bike rider to win so many races and championships.

The resort was heaving with tourists. Although it’s the pinnacle of enduro mountain biking, this event was very much a sideshow for the hordes of people there to catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn. There couldn’t have been more of a contrast to last year’s closing race venue – arguably the birthplace of enduro – Finale, on the Italian Riviera, where the whole town embraces the event; like the Monaco F1 of mountain biking.

Brutal course

That evening, the racers relaxed at home and revised their lines for the next day by watching Go Pro runs. Hill did the same, while helping his legs recover in a pair of inflatable compression boots. Many riders session sections of the tracks during practice, but Sam usually just does a full steady run of each stage and then watches his GoPro footage about five times to memorise it. Just another example of how he does things his own way, even if they seem unorthodox to us.

Off-duty, Sam is always cool and calm

Meanwhile, I caught up with Nigel Page, CRC Mavic’s team manager, and mechanics Jacy Shumilak and Carl Geeson. Nigel told me that the course walk and practice days had revealed Zermatt to be a challenging zone for racing. There were rocks everywhere, but speeds were also high, and the altitude was going to make it a really physical event.

Sam had been unfazed though, and liked the look of the stages. Jacy, on the other hand, was concerned that the tracks were going to be very demanding on the bikes, wheels and tyres, as well as the riders, so getting everyone to the finish line unscathed was going to be a big challenge.

Alpine peaks frame a sublime scene as master gets to work

While walking the tracks helps, it’s always a fine line for the riders between learning the lines and wearing themselves out. The tracks are long, which means miles of hiking on terrain not best suited to trendy trainers. Usually the team will only walk the stages that are supposed to be the most technical and challenging, and because it is impossible to learn everything, they will focus on the most technical sections, or those with multiple line choices. It’s more about flagging the important bits, rather than knowing exactly where you’re going at every moment.

Rather than sit on the sidelines waiting and pulling out hair that he doesn’t have, Nigel decides to race the Masters event the next day. It means he will be out on the hill catching up on the action when he can, rather than fussing over everything and getting stressed. The team love the fact that he’s out there competing with them, and it’s all part of the weirdness of why the team works.

Sam gets his teeth into a Swiss course that looks modelled on Toblerone

He’s off first out of the team, which means an early start for Carl and Jacy to make sure his bike is prepped before they start on a final check of Sam’s, Elliott’s (Heap) and Kelan’s (Grant) rigs. By this point, I’m already buzzing, so I head down to watch Nigel start, then settle down to a long day of refreshing the live timing on my phone back in the pits. Who said racing was glamorous?!

Mixed fortunes

Sam has a great start, with strong times on the first few stages getting him comfortably into the top three. In fact, he sets the fastest time on the third stage, which must be a big confidence boost. Nicolai is at the tail end of the top 10 after a tough start, but it starts to come together for him on stage three too, where he takes third, just four seconds behind Hill.

Sam tunes into a rocky gully and rides it like a needle in a groove

At midday there is a flurry of madness in the pits as each rider comes through for a mini pit stop and a time check. The mechanics go over the bikes and get a debrief from the riders.

Nigel is the first to finish. He has a solid day with consistent top-10 results and a few top fives in a super-strong Masters category that includes a number of ‘pro’ racers. Next up is Kelan who has struggled to find his flow, finishing a “disappointing” 55th (a top 100 result is incredible in the EWS, but these guys are really hard on themselves). Elliott spent the day fighting back from a disastrous stage one, achieving some top-20 times to earn a credible 34th. In truth they are both a little gutted, as they both like to be in the top 30, but it’s so difficult now with the high calibre of riders.

EWS sparring partners Florian and Sam show their mutual respect

Sam comes through the pits for the final time, and everyone is a little tense and excited – with the exception of Sam who looks chilled, fresh and is already talking about riding motocross on Monday. Before he heads back out for the final two stages, Jacy ensures he’s got all the spares he needs for any trackside maintenance. Every pocket is stuffed with something – chains, tubes, mech hanger, CO2 cartridges, you name it. Jacy said this was entirely for his peace of mind and nerves rather than Sam’s.

As Nigel rides up to the bottom of the final stage to see Sam cross the finish line, Carl and I head to the supermarket to prepare for whatever comes next; whether commiserations or celebrations. Whatever happens, it has been a long, tough season for the lads so they deserve to let off steam. Stage four isn’t the best for Sam, with a seventh place, but loads of the top guys have struggled and Nicolai could only manage 15th. It had all come down to the final stage.

Relief takes over as the full-face tussle ends

The queen stage is very long – eight and a half minutes for the best in the world. That equates to well over 10 minutes even for a really fast rider. At altitude. After a long day in the saddle. According to the team, it was really steep and rocky at the start, fast and flowy in the middle and finished with a physically demanding bike park section at bottom – just when you’re at your weakest. But it is only the following day, when I get a chance to ride the stage for myself, that I fully appreciate how such a description fails to do justice to reality. You really need to experience these tracks to understand the speed, strength and skill the top riders have. Not only is the trail lengthy, but it is utterly brutal on both body and bike.

Release the berries

It is at this point that Sam makes the phone call. He has decided to give it the “berries”. It sounds like madness, even to Jacy’s experienced ears momentarily, but what you begin realise when you work with a talent like Sam, is that, despite his amazing results and his mind-boggling speed, he rides within his limits for most of the year. He’s experienced enough and shrewd enough to know that, to win a title, you have to bring the bike home safely, and finish consistently somewhere near the top. He might keep it buttoned up more these days, but the raw speed that earned him such adulation among DH fans, and respect among fellow racers, is still as potent as ever, and he knows he always has something special in the tank if he needs it.

It takes a lot of bottle to win the EWS… and to celebrate it

At the finish, Sam’s 30-second man, sitting third on the road, is Kevin Miquel. As Kevin comes across the line, Nigel checks his watch, expecting Sam to come into sight 15 to 20 seconds later. But no sooner has he looked at his wrist, than the volume of the crowd surges up to 11. Sam is on an absolute flyer, sending dust into the air and railing the final corner like it was a slalom race. He’d taken the stage win by an amazing eight seconds, secured second overall in the race and taken the 40 bonus points for the championship. But the win had gone to Martin Maes and Nicolai had clawed back up to fifth on the day. Surely it was enough to secure the championship?

Sinking a beer never felt so good

Maths is not our strong point, so until the EWS organisers gave the word, we weren’t 100 per cent sure. We all thought he had won, but there was an agonising wait for the official confirmation. This only came just before we wobbled onto the podium at 10pm (there may have been a few beers involved). Sam had done it: 2019 EWS champion, and his third EWS title. We had also managed a third place in the overall team standings as well, which was a welcome surprise.

Over beers and cigars that night, Nigel summed it up in front of the team: “What a legend. Will there ever be anyone else like Sam Hill in gravity mountain bike racing? Only time will tell.”

Words: Rob Sherratt and Nigel Page
Photos: Kike Abbelleira