Pete Scullion’s regular series of rides with pro riders continues with one of the enduro circuit’s most enigmatic characters: Joe Barnes.
Words & Photography Pete Scullion
Overnight snow has turned Fort William into a winter wonderland as we shovel breakfast down our necks in Joe’s caravan nestled in the woods above the Road to the Isles. We’re up ‘early’, or at least Joe’s idea of early in any case. Highland life has a distinct lack of urgency to it and it’s something Joe embraces.
There’s no tea or coffee, but a Sports Direct mug full of a gallon of Barleycup, with copious amounts of honey and milk to wash down a mountain of porridge.
A blue prototype Orange emerges from ‘The Clubhouse’ – there’s something altogether familiar about Joe Barnes and Orange. Despite a six-year hiatus, it appears to have been the kind of seamless transition that other riders and other brands can’t quite manage.
After six years with Canyon, Joe returned to Orange Bikes as his main sponsor for 2019 and beyond, waving goodbye to full factory support and setting up his own team, Hazzard Racing. Joe is the team manager and the focus for him will be on racing the Scottish Enduro Series, some Enduro World Series races and the Megavalanche, along with local talent and Dudes’ regulars Lachlan Blair and Fergus Lamb, who will be doing a mix of enduro and downhill racing. British sponsors were a big focus and all bar Adidas are new sponsors for the year.
Finding the urgent.
After a relaxing breakfast with its lack of urgency, it’s time to step up the pace and, once on the bike, urgency is something Joe is renowned for. Especially when grip levels are low and the flanks of a rut are starting to trouble the knees. We load up the freshly liveried Dudes Racing Transit and roll up the Great Glen with views across the Nevis Range to one of the many hotspots of ‘classic’ Fort William riding. Alongside me on the inside passenger seat is the Joe Barnes go-to ride fuel. Not a classic in any other part of the world and maybe not even outside his circle of friends, but oatcakes and tinned sardines in tomato puree is what’s on the menu today.
This particular riding spot has risen phoenix-like from the flames of a clear-fell and is now back up and running. With a full winter coat, the vast stump field at the east end of the glen looks pretty bleak. That said, we’re very much in Joe Barnes territory. Much of the singletrack here has been crafted by his hand, or at least had his input somewhere along the line. It’s steep, narrow and rutted, and has corners that only work when attacked before it spits you out on a fire road conveniently located for another lap of the same. This is what riding in Fort William is all about. Bust out the laps until you almost throw up or feel a crash is imminent.
We lose sight of the hill as we roll into the car park and are once again immersed in winter wonderland conditions complete with derelict boat, the snow making that unique polystyrene crunch underfoot as we unload the van. Joe takes his time to clean his ‘pegs’ (teeth) before we get moving. Even in the sun, temperatures are struggling to get anywhere near positive digits and we’re both cursing lack of toe warmth from the get-go, despite throwing on too many layers.
Winching our way through ever-deepening snow to the trails above, whenever I can muster the leg strength to churn through the white stuff at the same rate as Joe, our chat soon moves to me reprising my role as the Lord and Saviour. [Pete has portrayed the Lord and Saviour on three occasions in the Dudes of Hazzard’s moving pictures, with another inbound. The idea came from an old school ski film that featured a cameo from Jesus – Joe thought it would be a good idea to splice that into the Dudes’ films, and Pete naturally fitted the bill with his flowing long hair and beard – Ed.]
Tale of three Joes.
There’s a relaxed haste to Joe’s forward motion that has me wheezing frozen Highland air while Joe has barely spun up his first turbo. Snow or not, this is no real surprise. I have known Joe for the best part of a decade and have spent much of that time desperately trying to keep him in sight, usually to no avail. I was fitter back then too. If Joe decides to go, the only thing you’ll hear is the familiar mechanical clunk of a rear mech throwing the chain down the cassette as the man himself vanishes over the horizon. Preferring to keep the climbing seated, even when on the gas, to keep the weight off the arms and keep them fresh for the descents, means you don’t know you’re getting smoked until it’s too late.
During the time I’ve known him, I’ve noticed that there are, essentially, three different varieties of Joe Barnes. There’s the focused racer who has extensive handwritten notes that many will never see; there’s the day-to-day Joe who is pretty chilled, yet driven, and definitely seems content in the world he’s built around him; and then there’s the maniac who brought to the world stage the Dudes of Hazzard and all that came to be known for. Even the latter had far more thought and process behind it than the lo-fi set-up would suggest.
Get past the shy, quiet exterior and you’ll find a mixture of all three Joe Barnes depending on what scheme he’s concocting. Whether it’s getting me in a bed sheet as the son of God in some outlandish scenario, working out how splitting and stacking logs counts as training or creating the finest slither of fresh slop in the woods, I’ve not met many other riders who seem to be constantly on the go with as many different things all of their own creation as Joe does.
Thankfully – or not, in Joe’s case – a tweaked elbow means we aren’t all maximum attack today, but even so, the snow is making keeping him honest that much harder. We’re soon back to cursing the cold and the snow before we have a breather at the halfway point and take in the view towards the Nevis Range, now semi-hidden by a large bank of cloud.
Out in the open, the bright sunlight stings the eyes as it reflects off the virgin snow and we both wish we’d brought some tinted lenses. With lungs refilled and heart rates settled – and Joe having hoovered a few oatcakes before I could blink – we’re off up through the deepening snow once again.
I aim to slow the pace and keep the gap to my liking by chatting about plans for the year ahead. Skipping the first two Enduro World Series rounds, as they are furthest away and, therefore, most expensive, but still aiming to do the remaining five is the plan. Joe reminds me that he’s still one of the few riders to have started every single Enduro World Series round. No mean feat, and proof that just getting through a whole season regardless of results is a task in itself.
Racing a full Scottish Enduro Series for the first time is another part of the plan, keeping things close to home, for reasons that should now be pretty obvious, at Laggan, Fort William and Kinlochleven, with Ae and Innerleithen still not a million miles away.
Chat then turns to bike set-up, knowing that Joe has some very definite specifics in this regard – he’s positive about the change back to Orange as far as suspension goes. His Canyons were very progressive, requiring a fully linear damper set-up to compensate. With the single pivot Orange being more linear, there’s now scope to get the best set-up of dampers and suspension curves working together to his liking.
Two things that always surprised me about Joe’s bikes are a larger than normal chainring in the form of a 36T and a very slow-rolling rear tyre. On fast, open descents, a small ring like a 32T tooth spins out, and having seen his pace through the white stuff today, the easy gears clearly aren’t an issue either. A cut Schwalbe Dirty Dan out front and a Magic Mary out back certainly isn’t the raciest of set-ups, but (in Fort William) “when it’s steep up and steep down, it doesn’t matter, does it?”. Fair point well made, Joe.
Swinging a leg over Joe’s prototype, he points out that the bottom bracket is a little low compared to the bike he’ll spend most of the year on, “but you can just get used to it”. The rear brake pulls back to the bar and the front is a little more binary with a throw that doesn’t quite come so close. As it was essentially Mr Barnes himself who pushed for the 17in Five many moons ago (the top tube of an 18in and the seat tube of a 16in), it’s no surprise that the prototype is similarly proportioned, although the concept isn’t quite as forward-thinking as it was back then.
As I’m a literal lightweight, any fork and shock feel firm to me, so it’s hard to get the measure of how Joe’s dampers are set up, but I am reliably informed that Joe has his forks running firm, fast and linear, and the new bike is almost there with a similar set-up out the back as well. Some sunny testing days in the Med will get the latter fine-tuned though.
As we spin to the top of the hill, finally freewheeling for the first time in an hour on a climb that should easily take half that without the snow, Joe’s pretty frank about the energy it’s taken to get a team off the ground since the season ended after coming from a full factory set-up. Only Adidas remain from the 2018 list of sponsors. British brands were definitely a focal point of the team with Orange being joined by Hope, Fabric, Mucky Nutz and Endura, as well as a few other non-natives. Joe seems chuffed at the prospect of running ODI grips this year, something he’d clearly had his eye on for a while.
Turning things around.
That was the climbing done… For now. We sit atop a forestry forwarder track looking across the snowy glen and Joe’s eyes widen as I suggest perhaps making a new slalom track to meet the old trail as it emerges from the devastation. There’s clearly never been an issue about time with spade in hand for Joe. It’s almost as if he relishes the creation as much as enjoying the fruits of the labour, and it also shows how you can look at trails getting logged and wrecked in a very different light if you’re willing to be creative and put the hard time in. Most people look at forests with trails in them being harvested as bad. In this case, Joe, with some help, has used it as an opportunity to fix what is fixable or just to create anew.
From thereon down I feel like I’m trying to keep pace with a fast four-wheel drive car in an absolute banger with bald tyres on a wet B-road. As fast he is up the hills, Joe has an annoying habit of being ridiculously fast through trails that are awkward enough without two inches of snow. Ignore the howl of cold, wet brakes and just watch the man quietly take the hill to pieces.
Add to that one of the most eye-catching riding styles going and you may as well stuff yourself into a hedge to watch him ride. The way Joe has both wheels carving a smooth arc, honed in a car park on work lunch breaks many moons ago, is now what most would call ‘rear wheel steer’. You only have to watch Joe’s more recent riding footage to know that his riding and the Orange go hand in hand.
As we regain composure after almost bottoming out into a compression onto the fire road, I’m still wheezing, my heart rate finding itself higher than normal courtesy of a complete lack of traction, but Joe looks ready for lap number two. Fresh, composed and happy to go again until the cows come home no doubt. This really is Joe in his element. While some riders burn out or need downtime after the season, laps of the woods is something Joe has done since he discovered bikes and it’s unlikely that will change any time soon.
Before we load the bikes into the van, Joe whips out his all-terrain slippers (no, really) and swaps his cold, wet riding shoes for something altogether more comfortable. With toes warming nicely he tucks into the culinary delight that is tinned sardines on oatcakes. Back at the ranch, we thaw out with another gallon of Barleycup before getting the bikes clean as a whistle as the fresh snow falls.
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