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In the shoes of a champion: Part 3, Hard Lessons.

I was right on the tyre of my 20 second guy, as we charged into another steep section, taking lines I did not want, again I tried to relax my hands, but the unrelenting gnar clawed me back. It felt like the grips were the size of coke cans and the brake levers were beyond reach. I was about 6 minutes into the stage and my arms were toast, I felt like a tourist, what was I doing here, riding this bike, in this race? Again I hit a fierce sharp rock and my hand almost blew off the grip, just catching the end of the bar. I could hardly pull the brakes and I was out of control, as the bike pin-balled down the chute I knew I was going to crash, it was now inevitable. What was it Jerome said about looking for something soft?

All confident on the outside, scared to death on the inside!

All confident on the outside, scared to death on the inside!

With an 11:17am start, the morning involved a lot of these!

With an 11:17am start, the morning involved a lot of these!

It was a strange feeling to wake up a race day morning with nothing to do, my bike had been cleaned and checked, brake pads had been changed and bedded in, even the transponder and number board had been looked after by Matteo. I wandered round the apartment, seeking something with which to occupy myself, but everything had been done. Jerome had hooked me up with a full Cannondale/Mavic race kit, pack and tools, and even brought in some porridge for race day, at least I could eat a breakfast of champions. But while I was eating, the prospect of the day ahead lay heavy on my mind, now I love racing, it’s great fun to ride fast on closed tracks, but I have never been super competitive and prefer to keep it local, checking my times secretly against rivals to see if I was improving. But this was the Enduro World Series, and everyone looked so fast, I knew I was not fit enough for this. The Cannondale Overmountain team, as always, were all being super supportive, just wanting me to have fun and not worry too much about the result, but they had helped me so much I was disappointed in the knowledge that my current lack of fitness was going to claim many seconds, if not minutes on the super long stages. This project was set up at the last minute so I was one of the last people signed on, and as such was almost the last man to ride; traffic was going to be a potential issue. Still, it was better than riding in Jeromes slot, a sweet prank that had me going from the German office.

Ben Cruz, a real racer gets set to head up.  Taking a solid 14th place.

Ben Cruz, a real racer gets set to head up. Taking a solid 14th place.

My bike was all prepped and ready, nothing more to do!

My bike was all prepped and ready, nothing more to do!

Good to go!

Good to go!

These were likely to come in useful today!

These were likely to come in useful today!

Again Jerome had given me loads of great advice, “watch the timing and stay a bit longer in the feed stations if you are early”. He also made sure I had everything in my pack that I needed, gels, tools, tube and pump. He double checked I had the pump, I promised that I would not ride it out on the rim if I had a puncture. Now, my best results so far in the EWS had seen me finish just inside the top 200, I am not a dedicated racer and my work often gets in the way of putting in solid bike time. Winter training is laughably poor and it had been a good few months since I had ridden full-gas, but I wanted to do well for the team and was going to push as hard as I could. However, I had not ridden in an EWS this year, and suspected that the standard had improved somewhat at the ‘sold out in hours’ events, especially when looking at all the fit looking folk in the paddock. As I rolled up onto the start ramp to get my 30 seconds with Enrico I felt startlingly conspicuous in a full Overmountain kit and on Jerome’s Jekyll. With the sun shining, I wondered why Enrico was making such a big deal about rain jackets, but as I changed to the second lift, it all became clear. The weather had well and truly spat its dummy and it was pissing it down. As I sat hunched up on the chairlift, full face lowered against the wind, getting wetter and wetter with nowhere to hide, I glanced at the track below me. What was once fast grassy traverses had become a muddy quagmire. The weather had switched midday and it was going to be a different race for those at the back of the pack, including me. I had been hoping to crack 20 minutes for this stage, as it was taking the fastest riders a monstrous 16 minutes, but that looked impossible now.

The trails were dry and fast in the morning.

The trails were dry and fast in the morning.

There may be trouble ahead!

There may be trouble ahead!

The 20 minute climb from the chairlift ensured that I was now hot as well as wet, but that soon passed as the wind started to bite hard and I regretted my haste in hitting the climb. I had not practiced the first few turns as they were snow bound on the practice day, but they looked pretty straight forward. As rider after rider left the gates, I concentrated on Jerome’s advice and prepared to pace myself, keeping something back for the climbs, rather than push too hard on the technical sections. Jerome said that I should focus on keeping up a steady input of power, and keep the speed up on the flat sections. My thoughts were cut off sharply, “328” rang out from the marshal, no way, where had the time gone! I wheeled Jerome’s bike up to the gate and dropped it into 5th gear, took a few deep breaths, flexed my fingers on the bars and tried to calm my spiking nerves. “ 5,4,3,2,1 Go”, I was into it, the Jekyll lept forward and I charged for the first corner, I was hoping that a bit of late braking would help see it round, but adrenalin was pumping and I overcooked it, kicking the back end out and then binning it into the rocks! Well that was it, I had crashed Jerome’s bike, and was only 100m into the event.

Proper big mountain racing.

Proper big mountain racing.

After untangling the bike from the taping pole I pressed on, too afraid to look at the frame in case there were deep gouges. What had been a furiously fast traverse in the morning was now a muddy mess, the bike churned and skidded around as I tried to hold speed on the mountain side. A flat grassy corner started another big sideways slide, which would have looked rad from the side, if I had not carried on sliding right under the tape and down a bank. It was so cold too, I could not feel my fingers and my thumb would not press the reverb lever, twice I dumped gears by punching the shifter with my closed fist as my thumbs were frozen in a death grip. It generally carried on like that for the next 5 minutes, forward speed was painfully slow and even after passing 8 people I still felt like I was going to be 9th from the back. The steep mid stage climb was gruelling and as I hit the summit I stalled and felt like I was going to pass out. It got better from there, the lower steep sections were drier and speed picked up, bringing with it a whole new enemy, arm pump. When I crossed the line and checked my watch I was gutted, a quick mental calculation showed that I had taken over 22 minutes, 2 minutes back from riders I knew I normally swapped times with, who had ridden earlier in the dry. I was going to have to do something special to claw that back.

Goofing around on the chairlift on the way to stage one, before we hit the rain!

Goofing around on the chairlift on the way to stage one, before we hit the rain!

The climb to Stage Two was tough, 560m to climb in just over an hour is a hard number to swallow. I now regretted taking Jerome’s 36t ring, too proud to take the 34t offered by Matteo. However, I soldiered on and the timing was perfect this time, a quick cup of hot tea at the feed station at the top of the tarmac climb, then a steep 20 minute push to the top still left me with 5 minutes to get set before the cold set in. This time the track had dried out, so it was a chance to try and let the bike run. I really wanted to put in a good performance for the Overmountain team, I was never going to light up the top 50, but I wanted to give it everything after they had invested so much time in me. I was gutted with my performance in Stage One, so held that in my mind as I dropped into Stage Two, it was now or never.

I was getting more and more confident with the amazing bike.

I was getting more and more confident with the amazing bike.

I tried to be like Jerome, up over the bars and trying to put in smooth pedal strokes whenever I could, I even tried to assume the ‘turtle position’ but that resulted in a sketchy nose ride down a chute that saw me adopting something slightly less radical. I caught my 20 and 40 second guys and felt great. The Jekyll is a superb bike when pinned, whisper quiet, super stiff, and when you encounter a big impact, rather than hanging up and bogging down it seems to surge forward. I hit the steeper lower half far faster than I was comfortable with, but it was working and I was loving it. Dusty rocky chutes broke up the intensity of the super fast traverses, skinny bench cuts with big fall lines burst under the wheels. I hit the flat finish and gave it everything, burying myself on the grassy field. 8:00.02 was the time, 144th overall, and clawing me back over 40 places from the rubbish Stage One. A new target had been set in my mind, perhaps I could get my first ever top 150 at an Enduro World Series?

Riding to the checkpoint I saw that I had 15 minutes to spare, and then I suddenly remembered that I was full factory. I dropped back to the Cannondale Overmountain pits, and before I could come up with an apology for my dismal Stage One performance, the guys all told me I was doing great, perhaps just happy to see me alive. Matteo wasted no time in cleaning all the mud off the bike, and I was delighted to see that the jetwash did not reveal any damage, phew! After a quick espresso from the team camper I was back into it, heading up to the final Stage Three. This was a long stage, nearly 6km with a sharp climb in the middle, dropping over 900m. Again the weather was not too bad and it looked pretty dry. I really wanted to put down a good time on this one and was really starting to enjoy the bike. Race nerves were gone now that a couple of stages were under my belt, and I soon started to reel in my 20 second guy. The top section was true alpine, a thin trail with big rock drops and technical features. It was all feeling amazing, flowing over the drops and going bigger than I had ever before; I also had a lot more confidence in the bike, pushing it harder into the flat turns.

Stage Three had dried out nicely, a proper big mountain experience.

Stage Three had dried out nicely, a proper big mountain experience.

However, as the stage wore on a new development started to worry me. Even though the trail was super flowing my arms were so pumped I could feel my forearms stretching against the Bliss jersey, it was getting harder and harder to hold onto the grips, and braking bumps and big hits would see my hands slipping terrifyingly. As I pressed on, it started to get worse, and I was having trouble pulling the brakes, not only could I no longer hold on, but I could also not slow down when it was rough! As I rifled down another super rocky plummet, on the edge of control, I caught my 20 second guy and then we both caught the 40 second man. It was too steep and techy to pass safely so we trained down for half a minute, thankfully it opened out and I dived in front, only to see my 20 second guy start to claw in front again as we hit the long climb. Admitting a fitness defeat, I tried to hang onto his tail as he dragged me to the top, he slowed down to let me through again at the top of the steep single, but I was gassed out and shouted “go go go”. I chased him down the next section, wanting to let the bike run and overtake but my grip was gone, and I knew I was so close to a crash, this was a do or die moment, and remembering the teams advice, I backed off and tried to keep it safe to the finish, enduro is a game of two halves.

The end of the day, broken, sore, and in search of food!

The end of the day, broken, sore, and in search of food!

So that was me, finishing the first day in 164th overall, not a staggering result, but I was stoked. The support of the Cannondale Overmountain team, Jerome’s advice and a superb bike had helped me push my unfit form into a solid overnight position. After dropping the bike back in to get some TLC from Matteo, I left in search of industry volumes of carbohydrate and a medicinal ‘race beer’.

Read the full 4 parts here: Part 1: Part 2: Part 3: Part 4

Words: Trev Worsey

Photos: Trev Worsey and copyright www.reuiller.com

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