Enduro is taking the world by storm. At least, that’s what it looks like. With an ever-growing schedule of events, the emergence of enduro-specific athletes and increasing media exposure, one might easily surmise that enduro is mountain bike racing's Next Big Thing.
The question I’m interested in is, will it? Be mountain bike racing's Next Big Thing that is. To start the conversation, let’s cast enduro against the sport’s two big staple disciplines, cross-country and downhill.
Cross-country is a big deal. It’s in the Olympics. Riders at the top of the discipline are world-class athletes, as in, they’re some of the fittest people on the planet. There’s a UCI World Cup series, there’s a UCI World Championship event, there’s TV coverage, and big non-endemic sponsors like multinational car companies and food conglomerates. It's pretty serious stuff.
Jump to the other side of the spectrum. Downhill. Again, huge sport. No Olympics surprisingly, but a robust World Cup circuit and World Championship event, big sponsors, some TV coverage with top athletes bringing home significant dollars - easily well into the six figure range. Pretty serious stuff.
As a result, both XC and DH see millions of dollars when it comes to research and development from bike and component manufacturers. Sponsorship and tech support also sees huge investment. Consider the cost of team trucks, mechanical support and travel to events that now span the globe. Mega millions. Yes, bike racing is a big, expensive deal.
And now you’ve got the emergence of enduro. That super fun grassroots mountain bike discipline that's been hiding in the shadows for many years, void of any clear definition or structure - to the layman anyway. Is it a three day event or one race? Is it the Megavalanche or the Trans Provence? And what the hell is Super D? No, it's not a new sport at all, especially where the Italians and the French are concerned. In fact, the idea of enduro, of going up and then down with a smattering of across, has been around for years. It’s just that now, after so many years off away in the mountains, it finally seems to be taking steps towards the big league.
There are a number of factors pointing in this direction. The announcement of the Enduro World Series is probably the most notable—what amounts to an amalgam of seven premiere events from already established enduro races around the world. As noted in the press release: “The Enduro World Series links the largest mountain bike enduro events in the world with the best trails possible and exists to deliver the best racing, most relaxed atmosphere and rider-focused organization possible.”
As legendary riders like Fabien Barel and Nicolas Vouliouz begin to participate more in enduro events, in just a few short years (really, the last two), the discipline has developed some international cachet. No longer is it reserved to grassroots-ish, everybody-camp-in-the-field-and-party community-oriented events with a few local shredders with bike deals and free jerseys. No, today most bike companies have an enduro team (granted, enduro athlete salaries pale to their XC and DH brethren) and enduro bikes. Most events now have title sponsors (rarely non-endemics) but bigger bike industry brands like Santa Cruz, Mavic and Sram have definitely invested in the discipline.
But now, as it grows and becomes more legit, and, most importantly, as that all important cash cow behind the sport builds from more and more people actually buying enduro bikes, what does the discipline look like in the next few years? Let’s face it, interest in XC racing is waning, and while interest in DH is on the up tick, it’s still a fairly exclusive discipline: it requires a big bike and a lift pass or a mom and a truck.
Not to mention, enduro brings all the elements of mountain biking under one roof: sick bikes, the world’s best trails, with a holistic prerequisite of XC fitness and DH full throttle skill. Begs the question, could enduro one day eclipse both disciplines? Could top riders from XC and DH jump ship onto the new bandwagon?
“The main problem of enduro racing is how to get exposure without changing the format,” says Fred Glo, a long time enduro race organizer. “Filming an enduro is a big deal, but change the rules just because we would like to get exposure, this will be the wrong direction to take for sure. Enduro racing’s roots are races by and for riders.”
But as we all know, the pressures of big business have a way of taking the fun out of stuff. And the enduro discipline seems rife for exploitation. While the purist format sees riders in the saddle for five to seven hours a day for up to two days, we all know that a 20 minute enduro course, filled with sprint climbs, flowy XC and tech sections could make for very entertaining viewing.
According to Enrico Guala, however, one of the founders of the World Enduro Series, we don’t have too much to worry about."In five years enduro will be ‘just’ another discipline like XC or DH," he says. "Probably the access door to mountain bike racing for many newcomers and beginner, thanks to the accessible format.”
Perhaps so, but as more ex-pros jump ship, and as a new crop of young racers chooses enduro rather than XC or DH (apparently in France this is the trend for young riders), things might start to change. Even today, the sport is wide open, with no definitive enduro champion. You have your cadre of shredders: Clementz, Lau, Stock, Vouilloz, Dan Atherton, Remy Absalon, Davide Sottocornola and Curtis Keene, but there’s no dominant force. Once the EWS crowns a champion, however, things in enduro might start to move quick.
This will come with the sport’s refinement. And I can’t help but wonder (and would definitely like to see) who would win a quintessential enduro race with the likes of Minnaar or Steve Smith and Nino Schurter. Who would win? The downhiller, the XC rider or the enduro specialist? Interestingly enough, we'll get to see how things shake down in a little under two months as both Minaar and Peaty are racing the first EWS in Punta Ala, as well as Vouilloz, Atherton, Clementz, Absalon, and Barel.
According to Guala, however the day of the enduro specialist is upon us. “Until a couple of years ago a good XC'er could play his cards on physical course and a downhiller on a more technical one. But now the specialists of enduro are difficult to beat, even for the top XC or DH athletes. An enduro race is a different game, there is more than just pedaling performance or riding skills, you need to be complete, you need to care about your equipment, you need to manage your concentration and being focused for six hours, live and adapt to a climate change, be able to "read" different terrain with the same equipment. There are way more elements to take into consideration.”
In the end, it’s an interesting problem for those involved with the promotion and regulation of enduro racing. You obviously want success and you want growth. Sponsorship dollars make everyone happy. Athlete contracts and prize money on par with other disciplines will undoubtedly attract a large pool of up and coming racers. Lets face it, enduro is the closest semblance to pure mountain biking out there. It’s what we all want to do—to race that style can only be attractive. More talent, equals more exposure, which adds to more pressure on organizers. And while the UCI seems to have missed the boat by pulling out of a proposed UCI-backed Enduro World Series, if enduro takes off, it might not be long before they're trying to gain control of the discipline.
Regardless of what happens down the road, however, it’s a fascinating time for a discipline that’s finally beginning to see its day, whose ultimate trickledown—awesome, super versatile bikes that can do it all, and wicked-fun grassroots events riding on our favorite trails—are doing the sport of mountain biking some serious good. No doubt, that will never change. Needless to say though, enduro's future will be very interesting to watch. Make sure to stay tuned.