Charlie Murray had an incredible season in 2020 with a top result of 6th at the Finale Ligure EWS. Following his success at the Enduro World Series, he headed off with the Pivot team to race at Crankworx, the DH World Cup and even ended up taking on the muddy mess of the eMTB World Champs for New Zealand. For 2021 Charlie Murray has left his day job and has gone full time after signing with Specialized to be a part of their new enduro team. We caught up with Charlie to talk about how he got into mountain biking, his racing career and some more details about the new team.
To start off what can you tell us about the new team?
It’s a new concept for Specialized, the focus is enduro and racing the EWS as a full team but we are going to be racing a bit of eMTB too. We have four riders on the team and I’m excited to race with them all and get stuck in.
Are you going to be racing some downhill or will you be sticking to enduro?
I’m not quite sure, my priority is enduro and the EWS, and then on the side I will be doing some e-bike events. I really do want to do some downhill races, but it is hard to fit it all in. At least doing World Champs DH would be awesome. Hopefully, I get to that, but it will mostly be enduro with a little bit of e-bike.
Just noticed you have picked up an injury, how did that happen?
Yeah, I have broken my little finger. I was doing a local race and there was a rock sticking out of a bank on the side of the trail, I clipped my bars as I went past and broke my finger.
Will this affect any races?
I’m pretty hopeful it will be sweet in a few weeks. It has been about ten days so far and it is feeling pretty good, so hopefully a couple more weeks and I can get rid of the cast. It is a bit unfortunate, but it is good to get the injuries out of the way before the season. Hopefully this means I don’t get injured during the season. Well, that’s the plan anyway.
Going back to the start now, how did you get into mountain biking?
I guess my brother and I just did what a lot of kids do, mess around on BMXs and little kids bikes and build jumps and ramps in the back yard. We had a holiday house in the mountains in New Zealand so our parents would take us up there at the weekends and we had a friend Patrick next door who we would build pump tracks with and little downhill tracks for our 16" rigid bikes.
We would also watch videos of Steve Peat and Cedric Gracia and get inspired to try and do what they were doing only we just had back pedal brake bikes. There was no front brake, so you learnt how to skid pretty well. It’s funny, because of the back-wheel brakes, it now means that I ride with my wrong foot forward. I always had my dominant foot at the back so that I could be modulating the brake. So now I have my feet the opposite way around to most people. It is kind of weird, but it feels normal to me.
That’s pretty unique to have developed your foot position from riding back pedal brakes
Yeah, because obviously you get a 16" bike when you are say five or pretty small but we kept them for about ten years because we found them so much fun. We had bigger cross-country bikes a little later on but we would never ride them as we preferred the little 16" ones.
When did you then decide to take things more seriously and enter some races?
When I was at high school, I did some cross-country races, but I just never liked all of the training and I sort of just wished that I could do the downhill. I think Dad thought downhill was like motocross and it was really dangerous so he wasn’t that keen on us doing it. I put biking on the back burner after high school but when I finished university my girlfriend convinced me to enter a local enduro race in Dunedin. That was my first proper enduro race in the Kiwi summer of 2017/18.
Wow so pretty recently?
Yeah just over three years ago, and then I was hooked. I did better than I expected after cobbling some gear together. I think I wore skiing knee pads, a motocross full face and a Hawaiian shirt for that first race. I have some good photos of it actually.
Then from there I entered a few more races and decided to do more biking and less skiing. Before that I would ski heaps with my brother and mates. Then I got a really weird stroke of luck when Tom Bradshaw broke his shoulder blade and couldn’t go to the EWS in Chile. He offered me his spot and vouched for me with the EWS. Tom just said, ‘oh yeah this guy is as fast as me, he should come instead’. This was before it was strict like it is now, so they let me in, and I got to race in Chile and Colombia. Since then I haven’t really looked back.
Photo: Jason Beacham
That’s crazy how it was just that one opportunity and you are hooked.
Yeah, it was crazy. Nice of Bradshaw to vouch for me and put his neck on the line. The Enduro World Series guys were great too and helped me a lot, but I actually had an absolute nightmare at that first race. I was riding on the liaison to the first stage and like everyone was just cruising down the four-wheel-drive track. I was getting super excited so I was bouncing about and I jumped off the side and bombed down a small scree slope, a loose rock jumped up and smacked the bottom of the frame and I didn’t realise, but it had cut my front brake hose.
I got to the first stage and dropped in, when I braked for the first corner I realised nothing was there as the hose was cut. I flew off the top of the berm and into a pile of rocks right next to Sven Martin. I had to do the rest of the day with just the front brake so that was pretty miserable but glad I could provide Sven with some entertainment.
After doing that I wanted to do things properly, so I got my brake fixed and rode so carefully on the next liasons. I wanted to prove to myself I could piece together a good stage too. You are always searching for that perfect stage – which you never really get – but I am always trying to look for that.
Until recently you were balancing working a full-time job and doing the EWS, how hard was it to balance both at the same time?
Yeah, I was working as a structural engineer once I finished university, but I was lucky that the engineering firm I was working for were understanding. I think without a boss that wasn’t as flexible as mine you would be struggling. Luckily my bosses Julian, Matt & Andy were keen mountain bikers so we worked out a contract where I could take 3 months off to go overseas and could finish an hour early to train some days. So, I would train after work and yeah it is definitely harder, but I was lucky to have a setup where I could make it work. Another Kiwi racer Brendan Clarke also helped make it possible by arranging a lot of the travel for me. I’ve been lucky to have such legends batting for me over the past few years.
How have you found it now you are training full time?
It’s awesome, lots of fun but it has been a little bit difficult the past couple of months as I have been trying to keep a low profile which is easier said than done. Especially when you are hanging out with Eddie and those boys and also trying to do some races to keep the speed going. So, it has been a little bit difficult and frustrating as I just want to focus on the riding instead of keeping my head down. I’m loving the extra time though.
It’s just got to be more fun not having to rush around to get everything done right?
Yeah exactly, when I was working, I was always thinking I was on the back foot and always sacrificing something, rushing from here to there. Now I can go to bed early and yeah it is pretty refreshing. I have been riding more and learning heaps of stuff. Especially hanging out with the Vanzac boys, I’ve been learning lots on the downhill bike. I want to be able to do more of that in the next couple of years as I think just playing on your bike is best for your skills.
Looking back at last year you had a pretty incredible season, was that something you were expecting?
Yeah, it was definitely surprising. I think before that my best result was 26th at Northstar with maybe a top ten on the queen stage. I kind of knew I could be at that level, but I just didn’t know how to do it. It had happened randomly before, I would have some stages in the 50s and then suddenly one that was in the 10s but it felt quite similar so I couldn’t tell what the difference was. Last year things slowly started clicking into place, and I could be more consistent and get into a good mindset for each stage and I knew what sort of speed I was doing. I don’t know why it really clicked but I did have a load of help from Eddie and the Pivot team. Eddie took a while to figure it out himself, but he obviously cracked it a couple of years ago when he started to get on the podium.
His main advice was to just do your own thing and don’t look at people like Richie or Sam coming flying down and think he did this line or he’s going so fast or whatever. Just don’t even think about anyone else and just go out there and just ride and think about your own riding.
When you try and do that it, it is amazing how much it helps. I think just having more mental capacity to focus on what is in front of you and having more focus to ride better because you are not constantly worrying about what everyone else is doing. Once I started doing that, it all clicked into place and I could put together some more consistent results. I would still have some mistakes, but I was getting better and improving. Although I still made a pretty crucial error in Finale last year. On maybe the fourth of fifth stage I thought that I saw the finish sign – the one that beeps when you go past it – and I was certain I had been past it, so after a corner following a high-speed section I stopped. I looked back up the track for a few seconds and then things felt a bit weird, so I sat back on the bike and was seated rolling down this ancient roman cobble stone track. Five seconds later I heard 'beep beep beep' and that was where the finish board was. So, I had stopped before the finish board but luckily not for too long. I was kicking myself and I thought my whole race was over. That was pretty stupid, and now I am going to ride 100 metres past every finish line.
Do you think that changed your result?
Well, Eddie was a few seconds in front of me so I would like to think that maybe I would have been one place further up but that’s just racing. Some people stop after the finish line and some people don’t. The top boys were far ahead so it wouldn’t have made a difference really. It would have been a shame if there had been ten people all in ten seconds. It was lucky but I was stupid.
Last year also saw you take part in the eMTB World Champs, how did that happen?
Well, yeah, I was with the Pivot team and they were looking after me at the Enduro races and then that season wrapped up and they were off to Crankworx and World Champs. Bernard likes to say that he didn’t invite me and Eddie invited me, but Eddie says that he didn’t invite me either. So, guess I invited myself but either way I was there, and Bernard leant me one of his downhill bikes so I could compete at Crankworx.
It was my second time on a downhill bike and I loved it so much I emailed Cycling New Zealand and asked if I could race the Downhill at the World Champs. They replied saying that it was all very well that I was enjoying the riding but that to qualify you have to at least have raced a downhill race like a World Cup before World Champs. I was a bit deflated by this entirely reasonable response but when I was talking to Wyn Masters he said I should ask them about the e-bike slot as there are no requirements for that. They were happy about my change in direction and sorted me out for the race. I was there for the week had nothing else to do, and love racing bikes so thought I may as well try it I didn’t really know what to expect but it was man, it was so much harder than I thought.
It’s kind of more like a cross country race than anything else?
Yeah, it is as hard as a cross country race but everyone is just going faster. If you don’t have the best bike it is even harder work for you. It was lots of fun though as it had rained all week – as you would have seen for the World Champs downhill – so the XC track was one big grassy, drifty, muddy mess. It was probably the hardest but most fun race of the season. In the practice everyone was doing laps to see what the course was like, but I just went to this one grassy bank and went up and down all day doing drifts.
It was great fun and the best thing is that part of the reason that things worked out for me with Specialized this year was because the manager, saw me at the e-bike World Champs. My bike ran out of battery during the race and as I had only one lap to go, I wanted to finish. So, I ran around the last lap pushing my bike and it was pretty challenging as I was cramping up everywhere, but the Specialized team manager must’ve been watching, and he obviously found it pretty entertaining. So, it paid off.
You then went on to enter some World Cup DH races, how did you find that having never really raced downhill?
It was full-on, I have a new respect for all the downhill riders and how mentally committed they are. I came to the races thinking it would be like an enduro but with only one stage, but it is a whole different culture.
It was hard to get used to it, everything is fast and rough, and the bikes are so stiff, and you get pretty beat up. Even though you aren’t doing as much riding or pedaling I just was knackered and scared as well. You are going so fast into some serious rock gardens. But I learnt heaps and it is good for enduro having more high-speed riding under your belt.
Back to your move to Specialized, how did they spot you and what was the journey to signing with the team?
I know they were watching the last couple of enduro races and I believe early on Specialized had asked Sven if there were any riders out there they should be looking at. Sven mentioned my name which I am so grateful for. From then, Specialized kind of had eyes on me and then I just started to chat with them during that week at World Champs. I guess looking back it's an indication of how important the interactions you have with people are but results also do a lot of the talking.
After talking to them, they seemed keen to put me on an ambassador program. I guess since Jared left Specialized they haven’t had a full-blown enduro team. Instead they’ve had ambassador riders competing at events, so they were looking to put me on that program. Then after a while, they decided they wanted to do a full team. I talked to a few other companies who were interested but I wanted the support Specialized were offering plus the opportunity to race an e-bike. I was never fully sold on e-bikes until that week at World Champs but they are so much fun and I think the sport is only going to grow so I wanted to put myself in a position where hopefully I can be part of the e-bike race scene.
So for this year will you be doing both the EWS and EWS-E or will you be doing different
My focus is on the enduro, so it will be a 100% commitment to the EWS events. But if there is a race with enough time in-between races then we will go and do some EWS-E races. I’ll definitely be lining up for e-bike World Champs too.
What are your hopes then for this year?
It is hard to know. It would be awesome to get on the podium at the EWS. That would be the dream and I suppose is the goal at the moment. But mainly, I just want to get through the season happy and healthy and have fun like past years. I would like to do better at the e-bike world champs this year too, it is pretty hard as I try to stay fit but compared to the cross country boys I’ve got nothing. So, I have to try and be smart and use the bike to my advantage and make up time on the downhills. It would be cool to get a top ten at the e-bike worlds.
Are you going to try and enter the Downhill World Champs this year as well?
Yeah, just to race that is a goal. I don’t have high expectations but I’m keen to race it and if I could be in the top 40 it would be incredible. The first thing is to convince Cycling New Zealand I’m worth a spot. I have been doing a bit of racing this summer on the downhill bike and placed 4th at National Champs, so hopefully they are onboard with it.