Where did the winter go to? It feels like only last week that we were signing off from the 2012 season in Finale Ligure. Those five months have flown by and here we are again hurtling in a season's enduro racing here in Italy. For some this day surely couldn't come soon enough, but how many are wishing for more time to build fitness and find speed?
To open the season the series has headed back to a venue that wasn't on the PRO circuit in 2012, but has been a riders' favourite for many years: Sestri Levante. The small seaside town in the North-Western province of Liguria has been part of Superenduro since 2008. One thing brings them back time and again, and it's not the seaside, the beautiful views or even the ice cream. It's the trails. Rising up from the sea, the mountains here hold a network of trails that are in parts flat-out fast, and in others steep, rocky and ugly. Seemingly endless descents that are in equal parts fun and challenging.
There has been a lot of talk about enduro in the off-season, what is it? What will its future be? What says more than any of the digital speculation, magazine features or bar talk is that 500 riders signed up to race this week. If you want to understand it, you just need to come here and see this and it all makes a lot more sense...
| It's great to be back on the circuit and see familiar faces like the ever-smiling Vittorio Gambirasio. Chatting to him about the winter he's clear that he's been putting the mileage in ready for today. He's definitely looking bigger and leaner than last time we saw him. The only problem is, so do the rest of the top riders...|
| While there has been five months to prepare for this race, that doesn't mean there is no last minute tinkering going on to get the bikes ready in time.|
| Last orders for practice. It was time to cram everything into the van and head up towards the trails as quickly as you could.|
| Michal Prokop has turned his hand to enduro this year and this is his first time at a Superenduro race. He definitely stands out among the regular racers. While most enduro racers tend to be fairly normal-looking guys, he is a giant slab of muscle walking amongst them. His 4X world champs stripes put his bike handling beyond question, but will his sheer size slow him down? We'll find out tomorrow...|
| We headed up with Toby and Sam Pantling to have a look at stage two in the afternoon. This is typical of much of the climbing in Superenduro - when you're racing in real mountains singletrack tends to be too steep to climb, so you end up on roads and fireroads to reach the top. You are then rewarded with long descents, so we'd say it's all good in our book.|
| This year Toby Pantling has picked up a ride with Nukeproof as an ambassador and development rider. He seems to be getting on with the bike quite well...|
| This is a good view of the trails up above the town. Once you leave the forests at the top you get onto this kind of fast, open, rocky terrain.|
| Toby and Sam chasing each other back down towards the town to get ready for the prologue.|
| Mark Scott was keen to get back here to Superenduro, enthusing that he thinks it's the best race series out there. He says he has more fun here than anywhere else and when he looks like this one a bike, who are we to argue?|
| The paddock is down there, on the strip of reclaimed land running out from town to what used to be a small island. It is very nice spending time with the sea on both sides of you.|
| Michal Prokop + mountain bike = hitting things hard.|
| Yes, that's a real race plate. It needs saying again: 500 riders are racing this weekend.|
| After a morning's practice on the trails, Gianluca Vernassa heads for the beach to relax. The young Devinci Factory Team rider took some time out from his World Cup downhill ambitions to come and have fun at this enduro race just a couple of hours from his home. For some reason he's ended up with the number 13 plate this weekend, but he's not one for superstition and is running it with pride.|
| With 500 riders this weekend, the prologue took about three hours, so there was much sitting around in the sun and watching to be done.|
| The course officials (giudice di percorso) looked to be having the most fun today, running around the streets of the old town on their trials bikes to keep an eye on things. Although, as someone who doesn't own a trials bike, I need to ask one this: is the lycra normal? Fair play if it is, I think I'd want at least a solid set of kneepads on those things.|
| Pauline Diefenthaler made the trip over from Northern France with Jerome Clementz and is looking faster and more confident this year. Today she took a solid fifth place, just three seconds off the pace.|
| Isabeau Courdurier made a few trips over to Italy last year. She was never far from the top of the timesheets each time, today was no different. She put more than two seconds between herself and second-placed Laura Rossin over a minute course.|
| Jerome was clearly keen to come and get his eye in at Superenduro race before they host the first Enduro World Series race in a month's time. A minute pedal through the streets may sound easy, but being on the gas that long hurts. Really hurts. Coming home in third, one second behind a renowned pedal monster like Alex Lupato should answer any questions you have about how fit he is under the easy-going, smiling exterior.|
| Alex Lupato has clearly been putting in the work this winter and powered his way to the win in 54.1 seconds. Tomorrow is a long day, but these days every second counts and a 0.9 second advantage of his nearest rival might just make the difference.|
| The sunset on a town of tired, happy riders (and a few sores ones too). Tomorrow is when the real racing gets underway...|www.superenduromtb.com
| Riders were queuing to find out how they did in the prologue until long after nightfall.|