The chance to compete against the elite doesn’t come very often in cycle sport. To merely qualify for the right to try and qualify for a World Cup downhill requires working your way up through regional events, then national races, and only when you’ve accrued enough points against Britain’s best can you rock up at Fort William and step into the lion’s den of elite DH.
It’s the same in XC, and marathon, and every form of skinny-tyred competition. But enduro racing is different. It’s still young enough that, if you’re quick with a mouse, you can get an entry for one of the premier Enduro World Series events.
I was lucky enough to get one of the 500-or-so entries last year for the Scottish round, as part of the Tweedlove Festival, in Peebles, and had such a memorable, if exhausting, time that I knew I had to try and get an entry again for the 2015 version.
And so it was that I found myself rolling down a ramp off the stage, into a deserted expo area, at 8am on a Saturday morning in late May with 58km and four timed stages ahead of me.
For those of you unfamiliar with the enduro format, its closest cousin is a car rally. There’s a big loop set out, you follow a prescribed route, and along the way you compete on timed special stages. These are downhill and technical, but also include sneaky climbs and pedally sections to test your fitness.
Your times for each stage are added up, and the rider with the lowest overall time at the end of the event is the winner. It’s the lovechild of riding and racing, with great trails, a social atmosphere and bragging rights down the pub afterwards. Or at least you hope…
Being the World Series, this event is tougher than most, with long, technical stages and a big overall distance. It’s also held over two days, so you’ve got to be really consistent to do well.
Last year I managed to get third in the 40+ category, so I definitely put a bit of pressure on myself to do better this time around.
Day one, as you can see from the video, was stunning. Scotland put on a show for the world, with beautiful weather, stunning scenery and amazing weather. After a chilled roll down the Tweed valley from Peebles to Innerleithen, we climbed up to the start of the first stage. Generous time was allowed for the transitions, so you could spin the pedals and chill out in the sun.
The first stage began on trail centre singletrack, so it was comparatively flat and super physical. I was in the red by the end of the first straight. Tricky little rock gardens kept you on your toes, then there was a greasy, freshly cut track dropping almost fall line down to the finish.
The guy in front, Martin, crashed on a horrible little chicane, fell on his face and split his nose open. Not a great start! Then I managed to wrap myself around a tree on the steep section in a classic case of first run nerves. Of course if was right in front of the most vociferous spectator on the hill.
Stage two was much better, and although I missed the turn onto a climb, I didn’t lose too much time and got some decent flow going.
Stages four and five moved away from the more trail centre terrain to the hand-cut loam of the Golfie side. This is what enduro racing is all about. Steep, tight, twisty tracks with a trees so tight you need whiskers.
Both began with some amazing turns that had simply been strimmed into the heather. And then there’s the Innerleithen wave; the corduroy of peaks and troughs created by the rows of spruce trees. Its like a giant pump track, giving speed and flow, if you can find the right rhythm!
At the end of day one’s four stages, I was in fourth. Ahead was local hotshot, multiple national champion and former World Cup top ten racer, Crawford Carrick-Anderson, followed by legend Woody Hole and Orange chief mechanic Dan Greenwood in third. After those early mistakes, I was catching Dan up, so it was still all to play for.
Most importantly, though, it wasn’t just a great day’s racing — it was one of the finest days I’ve had on a bike in a long time.
Click here to see what happened on day two, when the weather turned and the going got really tough.