WINTER PARK, Colo. (VN) — Screaming naked through the night on a backwoods Vermont hillside with a hundred of your closest friends, commemorating the finale of the old Mount Snow NORBA National. Jumping the campfire with your collegiate cycling team, celebrating dirt and stars and wood smoke and simple joys of youth. Trudging across the astonishingly cold, foggy lots of the Sea Otter Classic, rejoicing in the opening of the season and all the geeky new technology that comes with it.
These things are mountain biking. The places are its soul; the people its lifeblood.
Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
All these events — and many more from mountain biking’s early days — share the same feeling: unity. And though mountain biking is more subdued than it was in its late 1990’s heyday, that unity, the passion its participants all share, has never disappeared.
A sweaty mix of downhillers, cross-country nerds, dual slalom groms, and even trials riders — plus plenty of cheap beer — makes the sport whole.
I saw that unity again this July, at Winter Park’s Colorado Freeride Festival, most notably among racers who tackled the three-day enduro race.
Driving and driven by enduro
I spoke with a number of enduro pros, and most were quick to point out how new bikes are changing mountain biking. Whether or not you will ever race an enduro, or even accept the discipline’s influence on off-road culture, it’s impossible to deny how much bikes are evolving.
“My Trek Remedy pedals nearly as well as my XC full-suspension bikes did several years ago,” Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski told VeloNews. “And it’s as capable as downhill bikes were then, too. That’s opened up incredible new avenues for both competition and recreation.”
How often will an Olympic XC racer and a World Cup downhiller agree on bikes? Well, Specialized pro Curtis Keene shares Horgan-Kobelski’s zeal for capable trail bikes, like those they raced at Winter Park.
“Trail bikes are so great now with the technology of the suspension and frame design,” Keene said. “They’re more capable than ever.”
Before mountain bikers were compelled to specialize in a particular discipline, equipment was nearly universal, as we’re now seeing at enduros. Yet that didn’t define the sport’s ethos, and it still shouldn’t.
No, mountain biking’s culture is rooted in a free-spirited willingness to tackle any course, recommended lap distances and designated feedzones be damned.
“It’s awesome, [at rally format races] no one knows what’s happening,” said Enduro World Series organizer Chris Ball. “Riders say they feel like amateurs again, and they love it. I love it.”
At late-nineties NORBA events, many mountain bikers traveled to the far-flung venues to simply camp, ride, and enjoy the scene. That trend is returning with the enduro crowd.
“At enduro, people can come, enjoy and finish the race, and have a good time. It’s not only about the race. The race is just one part of the weekend,” said Enduro World Series leader Jéröme Clémentz. And he’s absolutely right.
But we aren’t all going to build weekends around enduro events.
Calling it an inviting discipline is going out on a limb. Many of the courses are rough and challenging. Some races require full-face helmets — not the sort of accessory a beginner will tack onto a bike purchase, like a saddlebag or a bottle cage.
New riders might not hop into the Winter Park World Series stop, but they are taking clinics from pros like Trek’s Heather Irmiger.
“I’ve coached two all-mountain clinics this year that were sold out with waitlists,” she said. “These are women that wanted to learn to jump, to do berms better.”
Average mountain bikers may soon see the difference on their trails. Veteran pro Mark Weir, admitting that he’s “kind of a grouchy guy,” has vision for how trails can be improved.
“I’m from Marin [County, California]. They build tracks through IMBA that are six-percenters. Sure, let’s worry about drainage, but let’s worry about the erosion of people that want to ride stuff that’s challenging,” he said. “Hopefully in the future we figure out a way to build trails with a better experience. If they keep on doing standardized trails, people are going to get bored and go off-trail.”
The Family that Shreds Together …
Mountain biking will always have cliques and clans, all seeking identity. But enduro takes a small, promising step toward reuniting mountain biking’s disparate tribes.
“Enduro is what everyone does everyday,” said former downhill world champion Fabien Barel. Rather than shoehorning an odd racing format into an existing event (Short Track and XC Eliminator, we’re looking in your direction), enduro is based off how many people really ride.
Universal enthusiasm for great trails and competition can bring together endurance specialists and downhill veterans. Now, everyone from Irmiger to Barel can share the wealth of his or her experience.
If the tribes continue to gather, learn from each other and keep things fun, we’ve got a bright future just up the trail.