Back to Square One – Racing Enduro as a Rookie

Michael Guilford Michael's Riding & Racing

Just over a month ago (May 2021), I made my ‘debut’ into Enduro MTB racing. The Hope PMBA event involved 6 stages of descent over mixed terrain, overlooking stunning views beside Lake Windermere in the Lake District. I entered hoping to finish mid-field but ultimately I just wanted to get round without any major incidents.

As an Enduro World Series qualifier event, Graythwaite has a reputation for being one of the most technical Enduro races in the UK. Now, I thought I was reasonably prepared for technical terrain, having spent most of lockdown riding local trails in Wharncliffe Woods. But this was something else. From the off, Stages 1 & 2 threw me around, with its twisty, greasy tracks through dense forest. With over 700 riders hammering freshly raked tracks, it quickly turned to a skeleton of slippery exposed roots. I spent stages 3 to 5 recovering my nerves and Stage 6 was more like a Downhill specific track, with big drops and kickers on the A lines.  

So how did I fair? Well, below my expectations but not rock bottom; 348th out of 549.

Before a Covid-determined rest, my race results in 2019 were more promising e.g. 7th in the South East Regional National B Road Race. And for 9 years before that I raced MTB XC and Cyclocross with podium results.

So, what’s it like to dive in at the deep end as a beginner in Enduro MTB Racing? How do I set reasonable expectations?

What can I carry across from previous experience…?

Despite the different event demands, my history of race experience definitely made a difference.

When I started racing, the whole process of competing was nerve-wracking and I was fumbling through hoping for a result. But after years of learning from a community of racers and coaches, I got the hang of preparing for events and the tactics of racing and gradually results improved. Even then, I still feel I have unfinished business in the other disciplines.

Fitness

I don’t have the endurance fitness that I had when I was road racing, but I have maintained a relatively good base. I was comfortable riding two long days of practice and that ability to recover quickly helped reduce the physical fatigue of each race run.

Technical demands

Whenever I face a challenging trail feature on a MTB, I often talk myself through it like this. ‘I’ve done stuff like this on a 100mm bike, wearing Lycra and with my saddle jabbing me in the groin’.  

In XC racing we used to talk about ‘jelly arms’. This is the feeling of starting a descent while your body is recovering at a Vo2max level (i.e. breathing very hard). Bike control feels very limited so you focus on smoothing the trail out and staying relaxed. But even then, a big crash can result from the slightest misjudgement.

…and what is completely new?

Reading unknown trails

Most mountain bikers will know the importance of looking ahead down the track. The skill in reading the trails, is to be able to see the line you are heading for and pick out the key features you need to negotiate it. As much as I tried to talk myself into ‘looking up’ I found myself getting fixated on the trail just a bike length ahead.

Focus

Over the first two stages, it felt like a fight to stay upright, I never felt secure on the greasy tracks. This pulled me into a state of hyper-focus, but like over-revving an engine it was unsustainable. By stage three my brain was cooked.

I’ve always struggled with attention and focus. For racing XC, a sports psychologist helped me develop a method for improving focus called ‘focus zones’. This methods intentionally switches mental output between four areas: broad/narrow and Internal/external.

Ideally I need to apply similar mental skills to Enduro. This might involve switching between: scoping out the trail, judging speed for features, feeling the bike through contact points and controlling breathing.

Speed

I was slow, really slow! My time was 17:39 over 5mins behind the fastest rider Greg Callaghan. The top 10 riders were nearly 50% quicker than me! I have been here before, like trying to hang onto a break in a National road race. The rider on the front looks so much stronger and the intensity feels unmanageable. But in reality the difference in physical ability is relatively small, maybe 10%, and a lot more comes down to subtle differences in psychology, technique and tactics.

One thing I noticed while scrolling through the strava segments for the stages, is that the top riders were able to maintain a much smoother speed, with less braking through turns and features.

So, what next?

Since my first race I’ve done two more Enduro races and I have another 7 lined up for this year. The racing has been exciting so far and having something to focus on has bosted my motivation to improve. I have been training more on unfamiliar trails and working on pushing speed up and already my race times have started to improve.