Nick Maher is a French Alpine resident, a British expat who’s been living the bike rider/snowboarder dream for a long time. Having travelled the Alps and the world in search of great terrain he settled in Samoens, France, the host town for last weekend’s Enduro World Series race. So he thought it’d be rude not to give it a shot. It’s really interesting to hear from a local and a non-racer what his thoughts on the event and the discipline are…
My First Enduro World Series Race
Rumours began circling well over a year before the race that the Enduro World Series was coming to my adopted home town of Samoens in France. It was a little bit hard to believe, as the resort has never truly warmed to mountain bikers. But as soon as official confirmation came through I knew I’d try to get an entry.
Although I thought I might be able to play the home advantage this was more about being part of the event and getting to line up in the pits with the big guns and old friends alike while riding my home trails with some of the best in the world. I can’t think of many sports that give you the chance to do that and it is one of the many things that make the series unique. Of course, being able to ride at race speed on trails I’d normally have to restrain myself on for fear of meeting hikers, hunters or other surprises was a big draw too!
Prior to this race I’d only ever crossed the start line of one enduro race, a French national also here in Samoens, so it was pretty much straight in at the deep end.
There’s been a lot of talk about pre-race practice surrounding this race and I’d like to dip in and say that the French nationals have been coming here for several years now. I’m sure many of the riders who lined up to start the EWS may have also raced here previously, and that some of the tracks used were very similar, in fact Stage 5 was a carbon copy of the last stage of the nationals race, even down to the ‘surprise’ chicanes installed to slow riders up and keep those with local knowledge on their toes. However, a lot of the trails had vast sections re-made or lengthened compared to the national course and the top and bottom sections of Stage 4 weren’t completed until the resort was closed to racers. Even as a local I’d never seen the trail before. (Honestly!)
The resort was open for a week before the racers were banned from the trails and there were several top riders well ensconced in town before that ban kicked in. The irony on my part was that I was away working that week and didn’t even clock one day on the mountain before the race.
Anyway, in at the deep end…
Stage 1 destroyed me. It was so physical, rough, rocky and then a couple of savage climbs. Even the organisers said it was probably the most physically challenging stage of the series!
There were a multitude of problems: long lift lines causing everyone to be late for their recce runs, a long course hold to extract some seriously injured riders and of course the rain had to arrive after a month of plus 30 degree clear skies.
I had to have a long chat with myself after Stage 1 as I really felt out of my depth. I didn’t feel like I was racing at all, just getting down the hill. I was blowing at the top of all the climbs and any training I’d done now seemed pointless. Plus my race-prepped bike felt like shit.
I had a few minutess back at the van to grab some water and head back up to practice run Stage 2. But, as it took so long to get up the mountain the first two times, no one was taking chances this time and the queue took forever again. This was a bit of a theme for the weekend and the only real detractor, we all spent a lot of time standing around waiting to get up the lift. As you never knew how long it would take, everyone started queuing earlier and earlier for fear of missing their start time, and time that should have been for tinkering and eating turned into time spent getting lasered by the sun. A bit more organisation at the lift would have helped, maybe letting riders up by number order rather than just scrumming it. On the plus side there was plenty of time to talk sh1t with the folk around you.
Stage 2 was brilliant: fast, steep and lined with people. I managed to catch a few guys in front and got the buzz back! It was still much longer and more draining than I was used to but I felt more like I belonged there and I was racing. It’s such a good feeling to see a flash of colour ahead of you in the forest and know you’re catching the rider in front. The poor bloke might have had a crash or mechanical but it doesn’t matter, you just try to reel them in and get past! Good fun and real racing especially when most of the guys out there are pretty handy.
The cancellation of the second run on Stage 2 to get the race back on track after the stoppages was a welcome break for me, I’d either been queuing or riding since first thing and hadn’t had much of chance to look at the bike or eat properly. The bike was holding up despite losing a derailleur in the rocks and the end of Stage 2 and I was feeling back in the game after the low point of the first stage. That has to be the hard part of enduro racing; keeping the positivity going through the day and putting the little things behind you to maintain some level of consistency. I don’t know how the top guys do it but it’s abundantly clear that a lot of racing experience will help you, and I’m sure it’s no accident that the entire men’s podium had Downhill World Champion’s stripes (and of course there were plenty of World titles on the women’s podium too).
There was a bit of a pedal/push up to the start of Stage 3, which was actually quite nice. A few moments of quiet in the forest before the noise of the crowds lining the track and seeing Voullioz skip across a road crossing on a line I never would have contemplated!
Stage 3 finished in the town square, a perfect end to the day as it showed off the beautiful town of Samoens and brought the race to the people who wouldn’t normally make the effort to watch something like that. I’m sure this encouraged more people to head up the mountain the next day to spectate and I know that the EWS make a point of trying to integrate each race into the host town, a great thing in my opinion.
I went to bed that night exhausted, hardly checking the bike and immediately after hanging my kit up to dry, but I was excited for the second day. I was sitting 147th, which I was reasonably happy with. I had no real benchmark for racing at this level, I’d kind of set goals to finish in the top half of the field but other than that no expectations at all, just get to the finish mainly.
Stages 4 and 5 are some of my favourite trails here in Samoens, so Sunday was going to be my day, no more riding steady, this was where I could maybe pull a few spots back! I was pretty confident going out the gate at the top of Stage 4 absolutely loving roosting through the high alpine on fresh cut powdery corners! Then I completely blew the one section I told myself to go steady on… over the bars and sliding down a bank on my ass getting further from my bike at every moment! One bloke came past as I was scrambling back up but that was all.
Then I binned it again on a fast bit next to a fire road, the part where I was going to allow myself to have a breather between technical sections. Lesson learnt there: race the whole track not just bits of it!
Stage 4 at race pace was really tough, massive whoops and compressions the whole way down and no respite. But all the lads in and around my position seemed to have had a problem on the way down which made me less worried about my little excursions.
The top of Stage 5 is classic fast alpine singletrack, covered in pine needles and loam with big barrelled corners and a good line of sight. I would have liked to have been trackside on this one to see the top boys come through as they must’ve been hauling.
It’s funny what happens to your mind and body when you know this will be the last effort of the weekend. My head suddenly sharpened up and some of the fatigue lifted as I went out the gate feeling on it.
A massive swap on the fire road section lower down made my life flash before my eyes, I still don’t know what happened but it was pretty lairy! I was up the bank, missed a barbwire fence on one side then down through a group of kids filming on their phones, partly ripped the sole of my shoe before I found myself tanking along at the same speed back on track!
The last bit of energy was spent sprinting for the line and it was done, I had finished an EWS race. It turns out that despite my crashes and everything else I had held my exact same spot I had at the start of day two, 147th, just into the top half of the field. But already the ‘what ifs’ are going around in my head. Maybe next time I can scrape a few more places…..
Overall it was a mega weekend of racing. Just seeing the village totally dominated by bikes was the highlight for me and I hope the race brings Samoens’ superb mountain biking to the attention of more riders as I believe it to be one of the best spots in the Alps.