|Probably all of us, when we bought our first bike, didn't think to do races or know much about international-level mountain biking. The first thing we did with our mountain bikes was climb up hills so we could have fun going down them. That is the philosophy of enduro. - Franco Monchiero|
For an Italian, Franco Monchiero is direct with his words. The founder of Italy’s Superenduro series has a clear vision of what he thinks enduro should be. Start talking to the people behind enduro races and this kind of language is common, words like spirit, fun and essence crop up again and again. Fred Glo, the man who first called a race an enduro says simply, “I just wanted to organise a race I would like to participate in. I wanted more riding in a weekend, more fun and good trails.”
They aren’t the kind of words you hear coming from the mouths and pens of many race organisers any more. In downhill and cross-country the language of racing talks solely of challenge, victory and defeat. The rise and progression of mountain bike racing has been nothing short of meteoric. Franco’s partner in Superenduro, Enrico Guala, recalls that “in the 1980s there wasn’t this extreme specialisation of XC and downhill. I remember the bike I used in the 80s with a rigid fork. You did everything on that bike, climbing and descending. Then came the specialisation, by the time we reached the 2000s you couldn’t do every discipline well.” Today you’d be brave to take an XC race bike down a world cup-standard downhill track, and lugging a 40lb DH race bike around a 30 mile loop would be painful. The same goes for the people who race those disciplines, the levels of fitness and bike handling you need to race at those top levels are mind-bending. Yet for most of us, this is a long, long way from what we actually do on our bikes. This is where enduro fits in. As Fred puts it, “enduro is the heart of mountain biking – the link between technical and fitness riding. It is the only bike you need in your garage. Maybe it’s not the best bike to ride XC, but you can, maybe it’s not the best bike to ride downhill or the bikepark, but you can.”
“Untimed uphill and timed downhill” is how Ash Smith, the man behind the Trans-Provence stage race, describes the format on its most basic level. He goes on, “people were realising, right from the beginning of mountain biking that we socially ride around with mates. There has always been a thing where you ride around together, have a bit of a break at the top and try and beat each other down the descents. For me, enduro is a recognition that you might as well formalise the race that you would do anyway with your mates – so you have a time and can see who did actually win.” What that works out to is a format where you race over a series of timed special stages that are mostly downhill. Those stages will be less full-on than downhill racing and could well involve some going uphill. Depending on where you are in the world, getting to the top can mean pedalling, a chairlift or a combination of both. Whoever has the fastest combined time over the special stages wins. Races tend to be fairly relaxed outside the top ten, with the focus on getting quality time out on your bike with your friends.
In the some countries, like the UK, there is need for some clarity – in the last few years some events called themselves enduros, long-distance races that didn’t use the timed stages and untimed liaisons which define enduro. As Gravity Enduro series organiser Steve Parr jokes, “the UK are lazy bastards, instead of saying endurance, they said, ‘oh, enduro, it’s shorter!’ They just shortened it and it stuck because it’s cool, it’s a nice name.” Ash isn’t shy in condemning this either, “it has caused a lot of confusion. In my opinion, and I’ll admit it is quite an extreme opinion, it has contributed to why it’s been slow to take off in the UK.” To get stuck into the definition of enduro would also rule out something like the Brechfa Enduro from being described as an enduro, as even though they use the timed special stage format, it includes an uphill climbing stage.
Tracing the birth of the enduro format is in one way utterly simple, yet in others nearly impossible. In August 2003 Fred Glo held the Tribe 10,000 at Val D’Allos – the first mountain bike race called an enduro. There is genesis, the point where enduro began. Although Fred will tell you, “I don’t think we invented anything, we just adjusted things.” So to find the roots of enduro we must look further back and if we keep going all the way we end up in Carlisle in 1913. It was there that the first motorbike Six Day International Enduro was held, the oldest date on the FIM world calendar. With the format so well-established for motorbikes, it should come as no surprise that two of the men who pioneered the mountain bike enduro format, Fred Glo and Franco Monchiero, have their backgrounds there and it was these experiences that shaped their visions of mountain bike racing.
Early race histories are inevitably hard to nail down as they are held among groups of friends, recorded on cigarette boxes and all the results will have been lost when someone moved house. What is certain is that in the late 1980s a format called rallye emerged in France, based on the idea of timed special stages and untimed liaisons. Where this differed from modern enduro is that they tended to be more cross-country-orientated. On the 1001sentiers.fr website there is a snippet of results from the 1989 Rallye de Crete d’Auron. Only a few details have survived, but it clearly describes a race over five special stages, the last one being an obstacle course around the Auron ice rink. At the same time, among the vineyards of Alba in Northern Italy, Franco was holding small, local races around his house that used an enduro-style format. There are examples of these kind of races dotted throughout mountain bike history: Finland has had these kind of races for a long time now; New Zealand had the beer-fuelled, self-timed Real Railing Rally Racing as part of the infamous League of Gentlemen unrace series; in the UK we had the annual timing cock-up that was the Kona Mash-up. It is hard to talk about enduro without talking about the Megavalanche either. While it isn’t a true enduro event, it influenced every major enduro event organiser out there with its focus on long descents that tested both bike handling and fitness.
This is where Fred Glo’s Tribe 10,000 becomes important again – it is where this mass of ideas solidified and the point from which the modern enduro format began to grow. That first race had a format that might initially seem very different from what you recognise as enduro. As Fred explains, “in the Alps it would be too much to pedal up the hills – it wouldn’t be fun, so we used the lifts to go up. There were ten timed stages per weekend, on Sunday it was usually more all-mountain, on Saturday more enduro-DH. The goal was always to have about 90% down and 10% up. At the end you had more than two hours time trial over a weekend – it’s a lot. When I put the word enduro on the Tribe 10,000 half the guys didn’t understand what I meant. I had huge complaints because they came with DH bikes. In their heads, it was just going to be ten downhill runs in a weekend, but this is not downhill. Enduro is longer, more physical.”
By 2008 Franco Monchiero decided there was a need for an enduro series in Italy and held his first Superenduro race. To make it work in Italy the format had to be adapted to suit the terrain. Fred’s Tribe enduro races were always held in ski resorts, but Franco explains, “it would be very difficult to hold them in Italy – there are maybe three or four places where you could hold this kind of race, we couldn’t hold that kind of race in somewhere like Punta Ala.” With its spread into Italy, you can start to see the different visions of what enduro should be, as Franco feels strongly that “the fundamental essence of enduro is to enjoy the ride, but to reach the top of the mountain by pedalling.” As enduro grows it is this kind of format where you climb under your own power that has been picked up far and wide, in no small part because few of us are lucky enough to live near ski lifts.
That adaptation has come full-circle and as of this year Fred’s Tribe races are adopting the format for one round, spurred on by another first for them – they are the first series to be officially recognised as national cup. “Since 2005 we have been running our series and in 2011 the French Federation asked us to represent enduro racing today in France. After our races a lot of clubs and racers wanted to organise their own races and events in their village or area. Because there were no lifts or high mountains, there was adaptation to the territories. At the beginning when everyone took the name of enduro and put the name on this other format I believed in two formats: enduro with ski lifts and rallye enduro for everywhere else. But in the end it’s normal, everything was not under my control. Everyone put the name enduro on their local race and now things are very different and we have to consider what enduro is ten years later. When the federation asks ‘what is enduro racing today?’ you have to consider all the aspects of enduro. For this year in our four race weekends we have the classic format, with no pedalling, one where we mix pedalling and lifts and one round with no lift.” Italy is also keeping pace with these developments and crowned a National Champion of enduro in 2011.
This leads us to the inevitable question, what does the future hold for enduro? For Trans Provence’s Ash, there is a simple answer, “the absolutely essential thing is that it doesn’t get too serious. It’s so important that it doesn’t become so focused on the results and too serious about the racing. The whole attraction is having a good crack; we must keep the good atmosphere and high-quality trails.” For Fred there is a more specific issue too – practice. Keeping true to style of the original motorbike enduros, in his races riders take the courses without practice runs. “If tomorrow we have something similar to downhill, I’m not sure it’s the same spirit. For me discovering the trail and anticipating was important in our enduro discipline. If everything is under kilometres of tape and you can practice as much as you like, for me it is not the spirit of enduro.” While at first it may sound like a crazy idea and few other race organisers are willing to join him in running races without practice, when you start working it through it speaks to one of the core ideas of the discipline – accessibility. Everybody arrives on race day on a level playing field.
Yet there won’t be an easy balance to find, in the UK Steve Parr can already see the level of attention the format is getting, “you should have seen the pits at Innerleithen [round one of the UK’s Gravity Enduro series this year]. People went holy shit, this is mental, look at the size of it and it’s only the second year. And it’s only going to get bigger. It’s going to get more professional with the likes of Tracy Moseley and Dan Atherton coming over.” Enduro’s first professional racer, Remy Absalom, sees much of the same, “I think enduro is going to develop because more and more XC and DH riders prefer to change to enduro. The level is going to evolve into a great championship.” Yet he caveats that, even a top-level racer like him who depends on enduro for his living says, “I think and I hope the atmosphere will stay good and we can always keep the enjoyment in riding.”
Balancing the tensions between the demands of an increasingly-professional race format and what most people want as mountain bikers is going to be a challenge for enduro race organisers. Franco Monchiero, a former Italian motocross and downhill champion, sees the future of enduro paralleled in the sport it originally developed from – motorbike enduro. “If we make a comparison between the worlds of mountain bikes and motor bikes – downhill would be motocross and Superenduro would be enduro. Today, I am not a motocross rider at a good-level. I couldn’t think of racing because I would be lapped after two laps, they would all be jumping over my head and I would look like an idiot. It is the same with downhill. I don’t have the technical capacity to do it any more. With enduro moto they put all the riders in together, top riders with lower and middle-level riders in the same race because there aren’t too many technical sections, the jumps aren’t too big, the trails aren’t too extreme. With this approach, for your first race, you could race together with the top riders. It is the same for mountain bike enduro. At round one of Superenduro this year I was talking to people racing who were doing their first race and they were in with the top riders. In downhill or XC it would be impossible.” This is echoed by Steve Parr, “it’s a fine balance. I always say, if I can’t ride it, it can’t go in and I class myself as Joe Average.”
What is certain is that it is here to stay, as Steve observes, “you just have to go to a trail centre at a weekend – there are hundreds, thousands of five to six inch trails bikes out there. All you’ve got to do is put a chain device on and you can come racing.” And as long race organisers keep talking about things like fun, spirit and essence, it’s going to open racing up to people who just want to enjoy riding their bikes and don’t want to give up their entire lives chasing some far-off victory.