By Matthew De Young
Mountain bike racing is undergoing a national revival. The enduro format, which originated in Europe, is re-energizing mountain bike competitions coast to coast, and the races are attracting both pros and recreational cyclists in droves. Its broad appeal is a result of the fact that enduro closely mimics the way most mountain bikers actually ride, placing a premium on the descents while still requiring riders to put in the work to earn their turns. New race series are popping up everywhere, and riders who burned out on cross country and downhill racing years ago are dusting off their number plates, grabbing their trail bikes, and signing up to compete once again.
Enduro is sometimes confused with endurance racing. While endurance races are all about riding for distance – think 24-hour races or multi-day cross country events like the Breck Epic – enduro takes its name from dirtbike motorcycle competitions that involve multiple timed stages.
In the mid 2000s, French and Italian race promoters began putting on mountain bike events loosely based on enduro motorcycling. The races featured timed runs separated by untimed transfer stages. This is where enduro is unique: riders are focused on racing downhill but still are tasked with climbing to each stage using the same bike.
The Best of Both Worlds
With enduro, a heavy downhill bike with gobs of suspension would prove a disadvantage, as the timed stages often include short climbs and extended pedally sections. Also the transfer stages would prove nearly impossible with the lame duck climbing abilities of a big bike. A cross country bike, on the other hand, with its fun-hating, climbing oriented geometry and minimal suspension would be quickly overwhelmed by the technical courses covered in these races. The variation in terrain has led racers to choose all-mountain bikes – the same bikes favored by the majority of recreational riders for their versatility and all around fun factor.
Tom Doran, a downhill racer who has transitioned to racing pro enduro, puts it this way, “I soon discovered that the 6” travel bike with a slack head angle was just about as capable as the downhill bike but WAY more efficient. Eventually that led to much more time on the trail bike and less time on the downhill bike. Once I discovered how capable these bikes are, I pretty much ONLY rode 6” bikes.” Suddenly recreational riders who shunned racing because of the high cost of buying a downhill bike found that they were already riding the ideal race weapon. Thus enduro’s status as everyman’s mountain bike race was realized.
The courses cater to the well-rounded athlete. Racers need the technical skills of a downhill rider combined with the endurance of a trail rider. The podiums at these races often feature high profile downhill racers standing shoulder to shoulder with seasoned cross country pros. This mixing of riders from opposite ends of the racing spectrum creates a fun atmosphere. Riders often begin an event with an untimed climb, giving racers a chance to get to know each other and shoot the breeze.
This mimics a lot of mountain bikers’ typical fun rides, cruising up the hill with their buds, and then seeing who can pin it the fastest on the way back down. The vibe is much more relaxed than the typical adrenaline charged downhill race or hyper focused cross-country event. Mark Weir, a pro enduro racer who came up racing pro cross country and downhill recalls his first time racing the Trans-Provence enduro race in France, “I came out of that race with twenty new friends.”
While enduro was catching on in Europe, back in the states race promoters were pushing a new format called Super D. Early Super D events either featured Le Mans style mass starts – where racers lined up and ran to their bikes at the start of a race – or a mass start with racers starting on their bikes. Many felt that these races were really just cross country races masquerading as gravity events.
Weir looks back at the early days of Super D with less than fond memories. “Then you come to Sea Otter…and they have racers sitting Indian style with their hands on their heads reverse to their bikes [for the Le Mans start] and I’m out, this is not for me. I’m not a frickin’ circus attraction, I want to race my bike. I don’t want to sit here on my ass, Indian style with my hands up, and then stand and run to my bike with a bunch of other jerks … this isn’t funny. It almost just looked like they were making fun of it. After that it was like ‘Super D, is super lame.’“ As one might gather from Weir’s disdain, these early races did not attract the excitement that race promoters and the sanctioning cycling bodies hoped for.
Some race promoters – mostly independent guys who weren’t hamstringed by the governing cycling bodies – recognized the fact that Super D was falling flat and took it upon themselves to tweak the discipline into a format that would get racers stoked. Promoters began building courses that linked up multiple downhill sections with short climbs. Most abandoned the Le Mans and mass starts for a time trial format. These races were basically a single stage version of the popular European enduro. Events like the Super D series in Fontana near LA and at Toro Park near Monterey began attracting racers, serving as off season training for National Circuits.
With these modified Super D races becoming popular, the U.S. mountain bike race scene was set for the introduction of the European style enduro. Race promoter Devon Lyons of the Oregon Enduro Series had been putting on a modestly successful Super D series when he heard about enduro racing in Europe. Athletes at his events kept telling him about this new form of racing and encouraging him to adopt it for his events. Lyons listened and took many facets of European enduro and applied them to the Oregon races. The Oregon Enduro Series had its inaugural season in 2009, making it the first Enduro race series in the U.S. “We have seen a 25 to 30 percent increase in race size every year,” said Lyons, who had to cap race entries at 350 participants per race purely for logistical reasons. The Oregon Enduro Series will be entering its fifth season in 2014 with five races on the calendar.
Various other series have popped up across the U.S. capitalizing on the excitement created by the Oregon Enduro Series. The Big Mountain Enduro Series had a full season of enduro racing in the Rocky Mountain west in 2013. The North American Enduro Tour combines events from various enduro series across the U.S. and the California Enduro Series (CES) had a successful inaugural season for 2013 and is adding events for 2014.
When asked about the rapid rise in popularity of enduro racing in California, Steve Gemelos, the director of CES, responded, “Most mountain bikers are trail riders – they ride to stay in shape, stay healthy, and have fun. Their rides are social, riding with their friends a few times a week, with a little friendly competition thrown in for bragging rights. The enduro format resonates with these mountain bikers in a way that other races do not.”
With its broad appeal to many mountain bikers, from beginners to top-level pros, enduro is set to become the benchmark for competitive off-road bicycle racing in the U.S.
With its ongoing success in Europe and rapidly rising profile here in the United States all signs point to a bright future for this exciting race format.
Learn what some of Enduro’s top athletes love so much about enduro: Why Enduro?