What happens when you chuck an enduro specialist in at the deep end of a cross-country* event? Carnage and mayhem, that’s what – at professional levels. Dan Atherton took up the challenge for us at the Dyfi Enduro and, as tradition dictates, only barely survived to tell the tale. (*Yes, we know the Dyfi has called itself as an enduro since the year dot – he deals with that too…)
Words thanks to Gill Harris/Atherton Racing, photos by David Evans.
DA: First up, let’s get it out there, the Dyfi Enduro isn’t enduro as I know it! A timed, gravity enduro is an entirely different beast. This one’s been running since way back in the day, though – about 14 years I think – and when it started the new, EWS-style enduro wasn’t even a thing. So I guess the organisers are right to stick with the name, it’s an endurance event and people know what to expect. Well, in theory anyway – whatever they’d called it I don’t think it would have prepared me!
I really wanted to be part of this event because Dyfi’s where I live now, it’s become a real community focus with all the shops putting bikes with number plates on them in the windows and thousands of people flooding in. But it’s also cool to ride with the guys I see riding in the forest every day, the trails go right past my door! I guess a big part of me also wanted to do it as part of my training, it’s hard to replicate the intensity you need for racing when you’re not in a race situation, you always go harder and faster when you are in a race.
But here’s another thing: it’s not a race. The event is billed as a non-competitive, mass-start event. Not a race. Definitely NOT a race. But when you cross the start line, the clock starts too so of course I had to try and race it! And trying to race it meant it was the most hellish 3 hours 14 minutes and 33 seconds of my life!
The thing is, in an EWS Enduro you could expect to ride about 55km and ascend 1900m – the same distance and climb as this one, but the transitions in EWS aren’t timed. So not only are you riding the climbs at approximately 25% of the speed of the Dyfi climbs but you also have a 5-10 minute rest and chill before each downhill section. Five minutes to let your heartbeat settle makes a big difference.
I’ve never raced cross-country before so I really didn’t know what to expect. Of course I knew that cross-country riders were super-fit, but I knew it in an abstract, theoretical kind of way – until we hit the first climb! If you took any one of those climbs individually it’d be OK, it’s the mental challenge of knowing that you’ve got another three hours ahead of you with your heart at 170bpm. I just wasn’t convinced I’d be able to do it. The downhill sections felt a bit more natural and I’d overtake loads of riders but soon as we started the climbs they’d overtake me back, every single time! Actually, not every time – on some of the technical climbs I was OK, where the speeds were lower and it was more about power than consistent cadence, but all of the fire-roads had just been re-graded after the Welsh rally so they were soft, it was really hard for me to stay on top of my cadence.
Just watching those cross-country guys ride gave me a whole new respect for them. Moving from downhill to enduro was a whole leap in fitness for me but this was ten times that again! These guys were machines, not only super-fit but consider how hard it is riding these tracks on a hardtail, there’s no give in the bike and everything happens in a split second. This was a local event too, I can’t even begin to imagine how a World Cup would be. I had put cut-down downhill tyres on my bike (Continental Mud Kings); they were quite heavy but it’s so rocky out there I didn’t want to risk a puncture.
So it strikes me that I’ve painted a pretty dark picture so far, and that’s exactly why the organisers are so right to stress that this isn’t a race. You don’t even get a finishing position, just your own time. I know with absolute certainty that if I hadn’t been pushing it so hard I would have had a great time! Our GT Factory Racing Team Director, Dan Brown rode it and loved it. All the boys loved it! There were beer tents and food stops and a school brass band, live music all the way round and all of the local people coming out of their houses to cheer and wave. Because I’m a racer I made sure that I was there early enough to get a good starting position and I came off that start line racing, but after 40 minutes, maybe an hour, it becomes irrelevant whether there’s two riders ahead of you or 22. Every ounce of me wanted to catch the guy in front, every fibre wanted to do better, but at that level of exertion that kind of motivation slips away; pretty soon it was all about setting a rhythm that I could cope with to get round to the end.
You might kid yourself on the start-line that you’re going to race, like I did. Even as the rain pours down, the tracks getting muddier and tougher by the minute and the enormity of the task that lies ahead starts to take hold in your mind, the urge to race will be fighting with the realization of what a gnarly thing it is you have to do. You might be as naïve as I was – I talked myself into believing it wasn’t going to be that hard. I won’t make that mistake again but I will ride again, definitely. And I’d like to think I’d ride it pretty chilled next year…
Dan Atherton, Atherton Racing.