As we head into the sixth season of Enduro World Series competition, we look set for the toughest battle yet for the men's overall title. Matt Wragg picks the seven of the men he thinks will be leading the pack this season and could come away with the overall.
The 2015 and 2016 series champion had an off year in 2017 and it's still not clear why. The most plausible explanation I have heard is that it's a question of his head. If you look at the results from the final round of 2017 in Finale Ligure, the rumour goes that his team sat him down on the Saturday night and there was something of a dressing down. It seems to have done the job - on Sunday he was the fastest man on the hill, with his worst stage result a 6th, after consistently sitting outside the top 20 on Saturday. To be fair to Richie, if you look at his life, it would be hard to begrudge him letting his focus wander. While his racing palmaries are impressive, that kind of success only comes with single-minded focus which has to come at a great personal cost. In between training, testing, and racing, where is the time to be a teenager? While most of us may take those years/memories of late teenage and early adulthood for granted, all those stupid misadventures, mistakes, and sketchy decisions are an important part of growing up, of becoming a well-rounded person. So he may need some time on a personal level - after all, there is a huge risk of burning out when success comes so early and in such a dramatic fashion. What this all translates to for the season, from the outside, is hard to guess. Only Richie can really know what is going on, but if he shows up in Chile with his game face on, I think he has to be the favourite to win anywhere and everywhere.
While he may have settled for second overall in 2017, there is a very strong argument that Adrien Dailly was the man to beat all season. While Sam Hill won just a single race on his way to the title, Adrien took three victories. Although this is a testament to Sam's consistency and ability to capitalise on Adrien's mistakes and weak(er) weekends. The worrying thing for the rest of the field is how young Adrien is - this was only his first season racing with the big boys, and it took a three-time DH World Champion to deny him the title. As he heads towards his mid-20s he is going to get fitter and stronger, and with a little more experience (and guidance from a certain Nico Vouilloz) expect to see him eliminating those mistakes that dogged his 2017 season.
Impressive hardly does Sam Hill's debut season justice. Sam joins Tracy Moseley in the exclusive club as the only two racers so far to win the EWS overall title on their first try. Yet, if we look at his 2017 results, his title was somewhat lower key with only a single win compared to the 3 or 4 Richie racked up when he took his titles. Winning the Aspen round and bagging the series title showed that Sam can be competitive on every course, not just on the tracks that suit downhillers. But, it also shows that he is beatable, although he was out of the top five only once all year. I think the big unknown has to be his progression, how is moving away from DH working for him? He is at an age where you would expect to see some fall-off in his explosive power and a lean towards endurance fitness - will that work for him or against him? I think there is no doubt that he will be at the sharp end again this year, but will it be enough?
There are very few people with a strong enough head to win a world-class race on home soil. Greg has done just that. Twice. Yet it was his third victory, in Madeira last year, that is the most telling. It is one thing to win where the style of racing suits you, but to do that on unfamiliar ground, at a race where the playing field was about as level as you will ever get is a different matter. Since the very first season of the EWS, Greg has charted an upwards trajectory, methodically building and improving each year - he has risen from a van-dwelling privateer to someone who is undoubtedly a threat every single weekend. Maybe the interesting thing coming into this season is that during 2017 Greg recognised that he was losing out to the other front-runners on the high-speed courses, so this winter he headed to California with Gee Atherton to work on that. Considering that he finished third overall last year, it seems like a pretty good bet to think that he will be in the title running come the end of the season.
It is easy to overlook Martin Maes when we talk title contenders because he wasn't in the running when the series rolled into Finale Ligure in 2016 or 2017. Yet, if you look at his results, when he makes it to the finish line he is always there, rarely off the podium. The problem is that in both 2016 and 2017 he has been injured or DNF'd at two rounds, sinking his overall ambitions. Having watched Martin racing against (and usually beating) grown men since 2011, it is hard to remember that he only turns 22 this year - he is even younger than Adrien Dailly or Richie Rude. If he can cut out the mistakes and stay rubber side down, the sky is the limit for the young Belgian.
Round seven last year must have felt equal parts joy and relief for Jesse Melamed, as he took the win at his home race in Whistler. It had been coming for a while - he had shown the speed for a couple of seasons, but it just it hadn't all come together for him when it counted. Hopefully, with the monkey off his back, he can find the right headspace and truly emerge as a consistent front-runner this year. He certainly has it all there in his toolkit, it's just a question of him putting it together over the season. Don't be surprised to see him right at the sharp end come October.
2018 looks to be a decisive year for the Catalan Eagle. In 2016 he showed that he could be the most consistent man on the circuit, and in 2017 he reminded everyone that he can win races, as he signed off the season with victory in Finale Ligure. The problem is that thus far he hasn't been able to be consistent and win in a single season, and that is exactly what he needs to do if he wants to lift the title. Going against him is his age, because, aside from Sam Hill, he's the oldest man in this list and will need to raise his game if he wants to look down at the young guns from the top step.