Words by Lauren Gregg
"So, how do you start a professional mountain bike team?"
This was a question I found myself asking at the beginning of this year. But long story short, after a hell of a lot of work and some luck, too, just a few months later I was half a world away in Colombia staring at one of the most pro-looking teams I'd ever seen – the new Fuji Factory Enduro Team – about to race the Enduro World Series Manizales!
After racing full-time seasons for the past nine years, I'd just taken the next step in my career to the other side of the industry with a job as MTB Marketing Manager for Fuji Bikes. I was excited (and nervous!) to learn about all the new aspects of the gig, but of course I was most stoked about being involved in what has always been the nearest and dearest to me – racing. I knew I wanted to start a team, but I'd never been on a real factory team before. I'd fought my way through as a privateer all those years. Regardless, I'm passionate about supporting racers, I've got lots of experience and connections, and I knew I was going to put my all into making it happen. I knew what I would have wanted myself on a factory team, and I wanted to be able to give that to my racers. I went into it with the hope that I could bring my own personal style to a pro team – focusing not only on killer results, but also promoting the sport by having a hell of a good time and relating to everyday riders.
"Am I going to be able to pull this off?" This was the next question. I'd been hired by the time that most teams were already set for the upcoming season. I decided not to let that slow me down and in the traditional "send it" style, emails started flying, phone calls were made to everyone I knew, and my desk became buried in furiously scribbled notes. Among all the chaos, I felt so lucky to have landed with Fuji, a company that is super fired up about growing their MTB program and that is coming out with some of the sickest trail bikes I've ever seen this year.
The preseason is always a crazy time for any athlete- planning and coordinating a race season is hard work- but planning a team I was working harder than any year before putting together my own racing programs. But all the hard work paid off, and I ended up on a plane headed to Colombia with two world class racers and our race bikes.
It wasn't just hard work that pulled this off, lady luck was also helping me out. The stars aligned and I was so excited to sign two of the top US Enduro racers to our team, Amy Morrison and Jimmy Smith.
Amy and I go way back, racing together in the California Enduro Series. We used to be neck in neck at the races, she really pushed me to get faster and better which I'll always be grateful for, but eventually, she took her riding to the next level and left me in the dust. I continued to be more and more impressed at the crazy shit she was hitting and how much faster she's was riding, and couldn't have been more stoked to sign such a shredder to my team! With four series championship titles under her belt (2015 + 2016 California Enduro Series, 2017 North American Enduro Tour, 2017 California Golden Tour) I knew Amy would be getting our bike up on some podiums.
By a stroke of fate, Jimmy Smith and I ended up meeting and staying in the same AirBnb at USA National Championships last year. I was immediately inspired by his energy, his focus, and his strict focus on getting pitted. Jimmy comes from a street BMX background but decided to make the switch to riding big bikes and amazingly came away with two national series titles in his first year racing enduro. I knew he'd be perfect for our team.
With these two superstar athletes on the team, we secured sponsors, designed our kits, and matched them to the totally redesigned super-bikes the team is racing (to be released to the public later this summer!). Our Factory Team was finally a go and it was time for our big debut at our first race, the EWS Manizales in Colombia.
Of course, our travel was full of challenges and setbacks but we were all super stoked to be headed to an EWS with a real support team. We were a factory team operating with a privateer attitude – stoked, laughing, taking each setback and challenge in stride, grateful every step of the way and loving every minute of it.
Jimmy and Amy had been training hard all off-season, and I was happy to be able to take off some stress and let them focus on the race. They were total pros and I couldn't help feeling proud and content – this is what I'd always thought racing was supposed to feel like. This was the beginning of the future for Fuji Factory Racing. We were focused and ready to race, but our ragtag crew was living up to our new tagline "More Fun on a Fuji." We were not only to race, but to have as much fun as possible on this wild adventure!
You've read all the race recaps. You know how wild and muddy the EWS course was. Amy and Jimmy absolutely killed it and as I shot photos and met up with them between stages, I had so much respect for their attitudes and how well they were handling the gnarly conditions. They were focused but still managed to keep smiles on their faces! After a serious battle in the mud, Amy came away with one of the top finishes ever for an American woman at an international EWS, 13th place. Jimmy had a solid finish and was a crowd favourite with his stylish riding and his showman personality. He was one of the only riders to hit the wall ride in the Urban DH and the corwd went nuts!
One of the real highlights of the trip was off the race course – a local's night ride with our Colombian distributor Global Bikes. Global Bikes took us in like family, and hanging out with them and learning more about the authentic ride culture in the area was amazing. After the sun went down, we turned on our lights and rode through the city and out into the jungle. Over the course of our ride, almost 100 riders joined us and climbed high into the hills, culminating at a meeting point that turned into a party as we all shared some drinks and snacks and laughed even with the language barrier. It was a truly surreal and awesome experience. I was so grateful to get outside of the racing bubble and really connect with the local riders that are riding our bikes. Everyone was so excited to meet pro riders Amy and Jimmy and they were busy taking photos with fans all night before we flew down the trail back into the city to the shop, returning past 11pm. I never thought a job would take me into the Colombian jungle in the middle of the night, but I am so grateful that it did!
All in all, the first race of the Fuji Factory Team was a major success. I am so excited for the rest of our season and for a really bright future for our team. We're going to keep getting better, faster, and more dialled, but we'll never forget where we came from. We'll never forget to focus on connecting with real riders and having fun on our bikes!