At the top of the looming Carrick Mountain in County Wicklow, Ireland, a helmeted rider stands with his bike under one arm, his feet perilously close to the sheer drop at the edge of a gnarly looking trail. He peers over the precipice before delivering his assessment. “Whoa…”
Ask any of the 350 riders who are in Wicklow for the Emerald Enduro – round two of the Enduro World Series – to define their sport and chances are their answer will be “ultimate mountain biking”. Biking’s newest discipline is gaining in appeal with top athletes and new riders alike, and it’s easy to see why. Mashing up the best elements of downhill and cross-country racing into one punishing whole, enduro combines fast, steep descending trails (‘special stages’) with stamina-stretching ‘liaison stages’ where riders pedal mostly uphill for anything up to 100km. Enduro by name, enduro by nature.
“You can’t have any weaknesses in this sport, because they’ll show,” says 23-year-old Greg Callaghan, one of its rising stars. “You have to be an all-round great rider – and consistent, too. Any mistakes and you’re out of the race.”
The diverse challenges of enduro are enticing riders accomplished in other areas, especially downhill racing, in their droves. Ten-time downhill world champion Nicolas Vouilloz, Britain’s Tracy Moseley and multi-skilled Olympic gold-medallist Anne Caroline Chausson are just a few of the legendary names on the scoresheet of the EWS, the sport’s premier international showcase.
And then there’s Fabien Barel. If anyone embodies the spirit of enduro it’s the 34-year-old Frenchman, a three-time downhill world champion who switched disciplines in 2013. In April last year, during the opening round of the 2014 EWS, Barel came a cropper on the dusty volcanic slopes of the stunning but brutal Chilean Andes, wiping out at an incredible 60kph. To the spectators’ amazement, he soldiered on and finished the day’s racing in spite of the pain.
Barel assumed he’d broken a rib or two as a result of the crash, which in the world of enduro is classed as a little more than a minor annoyance. It was only the following morning that he discovered the true extent of his injury… “I’d broken three vertebrae in my back. It was pretty close to the spinal cord,” Barel says. “It took me six months to recover. I spent two of those months lying in bed, not moving. The doctors told me the sport was over for me. But my goal was to get fit in time for the last race. I was determined not to give up. I would use the same dedication during my therapy that I have when I’m racing.”
True to his word, the tenacious Barel was back on the saddle for the seventh and final round of the series, at Finale Ligure on the Italian Riviera in October, and not only did he compete in the race, he won it. “It was unreal,” he says. “For me, it was a chance to send out a message to everyone.”
Early on the first morning of practice at the Emerald Enduro, Barel is already tinkering with his bike (“I’m an engineer as well as a racer”), determined to improve on his second-place finish in this year’s opening round in New Zealand. Friendly and charismatic, he chats candidly about his setbacks in heavily accented but perfect English. Barel looks lean, lithe and ready for business; it’s hard to believe only a year has passed since his potentially career-ending injury.
All riders know risk is impossible to eliminate in enduro. Injuries are par for the course, even for the champions doing battle at the highest level. Last year’s EWS winner, Jared Graves – the former BMX, four cross and downhill champ – is currently sidelined with a double shoulder separation after coming off his bike in training for this year’s series. As Barel puts it, “Even the elite crash.” But the fact that these sporting legends are prepared to take such risks and push themselves to ride harder, better and faster is what makes the racing so compelling.
“At our first-ever event in Tuscany [in 2013], there were 16 world champions from four different off-road cycling disciplines,” says Chris Ball, creator and director of the EWS. “It was like the Avengers – superheroes you would never normally see competing against each other battling it out on the same track. Now people are realising that enduro is a whole different challenge, and guys like Fabien and these other hugely iconic names are excited by it.”
The sport’s growing stock with fans is obvious come race day. By some miracle, the ominously black, early-morning clouds have given way to an unexpectedly sun-drenched setting and hundreds of enthusiastic Irish supporters hike their way up the steep, tricksy trails of Carrick Mountain, some in fancy dress (cows, leprechauns and Father Teds are out in force), others lugging unwieldy banners, all ready to cheer on the competitors.
It’s clear from Barel’s beaming smile that he enjoys the interaction with the crowds. But what drives this fan favourite, who has achieved huge success during his 20-year career, is a desire to test his limits. And the fresh demands of enduro have him hooked. “The diversity of riding and of riders is what enduro is really about,” he says. “When you do a downhill event, you’re on the same run all weekend. Here, you have six or seven where you’re riding different parts of the mountain. Staying focused and keeping up the pace is very, very hard.” He pauses, then looks up with a cheeky grin. “But I like a challenge.”
This is the first year the EWS has visited the Ireland, presenting virgin courses to navigate. Elite enduro riders are used to adapting to different terrain; the series visits all corners of the Earth. This season will take riders from the forests of Scotland to the French Alps, from Rotorua’s geysers to the 10,000ft peaks of Colorado. “A big part of mountain biking is that we get to explore places,” says Ball, “but the travel and adventure aspects were missing from the more traditional downhill and cross-country races. We tried to create a series that, first and foremost, went to amazing locations with really cool trails. The logistics come last!”
The beauty of the slopes of Carrick Mountain belies the serious challenge of navigating them at speed on two wheels. These trails are not for the faint-hearted. The unforgiving route through dense forest is packed with rogue hazards ready to punish any error, with perilously rocky outcrops at the summit. Old mattresses have been propped up against the trees lining the course’s sharpest curves, an endearingly unsophisticated buffer should a rider lose control.
The day’s racing is underway, filling the woods with the sounds of metallic clunks, bouncing chains and the muffled thud of tyres hitting dirt as the riders push themselves to complete the seven varied special stages in the fastest time possible. “That’s f–king steep!” yells one competitor incredulously as he careers down a particularly hairy drop with a severe turn at the base, sending the sideline spectators scrambling out of the way as he skids on the mud below, before managing to steady himself and narrowly avert a perilous off-ridge tumble.
Barel starts strong, winning the first stage comfortably and posting impressive results in the following two runs. He’s looking like one of the leading contenders in the men’s event and is odds-on for a spot on the podium. But, at the start of stage four, disaster strikes when the whole of the tyre pops off this rear wheel. In typical Barel style, he refuses to be beaten and rides on, finishing the 1,200m stage on the exposed wheel rim. The time penalty is critical; he knows there’s now no hope of winning. But, as Barel and his Canyon team work furiously to get his bike back into working order, he’s unwilling to give up. “I’ll still try to attack, give it my best and keep a positive attitude,” he says.
True to form, he completes the final three stages, placing him 20th overall (not bad considering the extent of his ‘mechanical’) as local lad Callaghan takes advantage with an emphatic debut win. “I lost 1.20 minutes, but managed to get back for points,” Barel says. “Next weekend will be better.” He’s right. One week later, in the third round of EWS 2015 in Scotland’s Tweed Valley, he takes fourth place, which pushes him back up the series table with four rounds to go.
It’s riders like Barel, with his hard-fought battle to regain fitness and his refusal to give up in the face of pain and puncture, that will ensure enduro endures. “We all have limits in life,” he says, “but I believe that if we drive with huge dedication towards any of the goals we set ourselves, we can reach them.”