This article should have been written in May last year, just after the Enduro World Series in Peebles, Scotland. Instead I wrote about a broken bone, about the disappointment of being unable to race and how I can bounce back from injury. I broke my collar bone quite spectacularly into three pieces on the Thursday prior to what was going to be my first Enduro World Series (EWS) race last year. To add insult to this injury I was only about 100m from the car park and about 2 seconds from having finished practicing all of the eight stages this race held. So quickly moving forwards in time, I got patched up with a titanium plate, got back on my bike and went racing again. I raced the rest of the UK Gravity Enduro series which pretty much is the complete history of my enduro racing career and then made plans for 2015.

Plans for 2015 are big, they include travelling, racing and hopefully adventure! My partner, Adam, and I decided we would stop work, sell the house and spend the summer in New Zealand. Then when the weather cheered up in the northern hemisphere we would travel back to Europe to experience some of the landscape and culture that is on our doorstep. To give a structure to our plans and because we love racing, we decided to enter as many of the EWS races as we could. We knew that these races would be amazing events to take part in, each one showcasing the best riding in that area and testing our abilities to the max! I knew it would be tough but an awesome way to see parts of the world alongside the most talented riders on the planet. All this along with living in our van sounds like the perfect life to me! Adam and I managed to get entries to all of the EWS races we wanted – New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain and Italy. This is an achievement in itself! If you experienced the online entry system for these races or know someone that suffered in the hands of this process then you will know what I mean. A badly timed screen refresh or slow mouse reactions could seal your fate and deny you an entry.

Different day and another different and stunning lakeside camp spot - here in Craigieburn near Arthurs Pass
Different day and another different and stunning lakeside camp spot – here in Craigieburn near Arthurs Pass

The three months prior to the first EWS of the season in Rotorua, New Zealand were spent in the South Island of this amazing country. We have travelled from the top of the south island, through beautiful seaside villages on the west coast, down to the MTB mecca of Queenstown, across to Dunedin via the amazing dusty desert of Alexandra before finally visiting Christchurch and Craigieburn. My EWS training mostly included riding my bike and desperately trying to get good night’s sleep in our tent! Tent life has been good but it’s suboptimal when attempting to get fitter than you have ever been before. I tested myself pre-race by taking part in the Yeti Trans New Zealand, a five day enduro throughout the area of Craigieburn and Queenstown. Despite many late nights blogging about my race experiences for ENDURO Mountain Bike Magazine I felt fit and confident on the bike, this feeling set me in good stead for the upcoming EWS.

Zooming down 'Zoot' track at Coronet Peak, Queenstown
Zooming down ‘Zoot’ track at Coronet Peak, Queenstown

During our time travelling the south we met a lifetimes worth of friendly, amazing bikers. The topic of our yearlong plans often came up and the conversation soon turned to the EWS and its location – Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua. My new found Kiwi friends described the forest as having smooth, flowy man made tracks with berms and jumps a plenty. I consistently heard them say “limited elevation” and even one dared to say “not that gnarly”. Given these discussions I underestimated Rotorua, approaching the race with a carefree attitude thinking the top dogs may ease us gently into the season. Subsequent to the first morning of training practice I realised I had been radically wrong. I quickly realised that Rotorua and the Whakarewarewa Forest was a snarling beast of steep chutes, tricky rooty corners and off camber, slippery native forest flora.

Finally arrived at the 'Meg Hut' in the Pisa Range - a long day backcountry ride to get here!
Finally arrived at the ‘Meg Hut’ in the Pisa Range – a long day backcountry ride to get here!

I was lucky to have befriended relatively local EWS racers Mark and Raewyn whilst in the South Island. These guys, like every other Kiwi I have met are so hospitable, making us feel so welcome in their house and hometown. Mountain bikers in New Zealand are, and rightly so, very proud of the outstanding mountain biking their country has to offer and are more than happy to show visitors the crème de la crème of the trails, making sure we have a great time. In Rotorua Raewyn knew the forest like the back of her hand, we practiced and trained with these pinners in the few days prior to the race. The EWS was part of Crankworx meaning that a whole host of friends we had met whilst travelling were in town. It was great to feel almost like one of the locals and not so out of my depth with so many people to see and ride with throughout the week, the week held onto the holiday atmosphere of the past couple of months!

New friends and new trails! Julia Hobson and I about to take on 'The Edge' in Craigieburn.
New friends and new trails! Julia Hobson and I about to take on ‘The Edge’ in Craigieburn.

My long term test bike for ENDURO Mountain Bike Magazine is a Juliana Roubion, a female specific bike that is proving itself very capable and reliable on trails. My bike has spent three months being ridden (and crashed!) around New Zealand prior to this race but is standing up to the test extremely well. The bike is of standard specification as it comes out of the factory aside from a few personal alterations such as a change of handle bars and addition of a bash guard. I’m now using carbon Deity T-Mo Enduro bars as the bars originally fitted were far too narrow and flat with some wider Uberbike grips to prevent any hand ache. I use a Mozartt HXR chain guide and bash for peace of mind and protection. Heading into race day I needed to do no extra fettling or bike fixing other than the normal clean and lube.

Picturesque, snow capped peaks after the previous days miserable rain near Hokitika on the west coast.
Picturesque, snow capped peaks after the previous days miserable rain near Hokitika on the west coast.

As always there were many deliberations regarding bike set up. I’m starting to feel like I now have some experience to draw on where these issues are concerned. To get my Roubion ready for racing the EWS series I inserted a Works Components angled headset to slacken the head angle by 1.5 degrees. Pedalling efficiency is pretty much unchanged, which is great when we are talking 60km days in the saddle and now bike’s ability to descend is improved, increasing my confidence on the steeps! Other alterations for the race just include tyre choice. After assessing the track, the conditions and scrutinising the weather reports I chose a chunky and aggressive front tyre in the form of a Scwalbe Magic Mary and a fast rolling tyre for the rear, a Crown Gem from Vee Tyre Co. Less resistance on the rear for the climbs was a blessing combined with super chunky side knobs for security and grip in the corners during stages, a great combo!

New Zealand really is a huge playground.
New Zealand really is a huge playground.

Race day soon dawned though and after experiencing the best Rotorua has to offer in terms of riding I approached the start ramp with trepidation. I lined up alongside Fiona Beattie and Julia Hobson, both also UK girls and I could nearly kid myself that it was just another UK enduro. Looking further up and down the line-up though and seeing top female athletes from all over the world, I knew this was no ordinary enduro. It’s an amazing feeling to stand wheel to wheel with ladies I look up to for both their characters and bike handling prowess. I felt proud to have developed myself as a rider and obtained the necessary skills to enable me to ride the same tracks as these women. It is also inspiring to see so many women riders in one place ready to take on this race, arguably the most difficult and testing enduro race series in the world. To the sixty three women who took part – you rock!

 Hike a bike mission on Mt Oxford - its all about the downhill!
Hike a bike mission on Mt Oxford – its all about the downhill!

The start line set adjacent to an active geyser was surreal, every hour or so one of the geyser’s erupted right in front of the stage. So out of the ordinary, the violent water and steam shooting into the air took my mind from the impending intensity of the race. Only for a short time though, rolling down the steps and off out into the forest my thoughts were focused on getting to the first stage on time. Having never raced a race of this calibre before I had no idea how tight the transitions would be and exactly how hard I would have to pedal to get there. I gauged myself on the women around me, being able to see Fiona in front and riding with Julia once she had caught me was reassuring. I knew Julia had gone faster out of the blocks than she needed to and as we were all now setting the same pace, surely three people can’t be wrong?

One of many photos I have of a group of rad bikers and some awesome scenery!
One of many photos I have of a group of rad bikers and some awesome scenery!

Standing at stage one 15 minutes before my start time I thought we could take the next transition slightly easier. That was until some of the earlier male riders came past when heading to stage four, they told us liasons were tighter from now on and not to hang around – massive thanks to those riders, I love the camaraderie of enduro, you guys saved me from being late to stage two! Stage one as you will have heard by now if you have followed other race reports, was a challenging nest of roots! These wet roots were the stuff nightmares are made of when grip is concerned and I spent a fair amount of time on the floor. To make matters worse the stage began with a six or seven minute pedal over undulating native woodland singletrack, the longest seven minutes of my life! When the trail final took a turn in the downward direction I was pretty much spent, not ideal when trying to negotiate one of the toughest trails I have ever ridden.

As I alluded to, the transition to stage two was tight, after heeding words of warning I set off from the bottom of stage one still breathing heavily from the exertion and trying to rid myself of dirt from inside my gloves and socks as I went! Julia and I pedalled together, apologising to each other for not being able to chat as we rode. Here I realised I had made a rookie mistake – stuck to my top tube I had the times I needed to be at each stage but not the distance I was going to cover to get there. This meant my Garmin was next to useless as the kilometres racked up and the time sped on I was clueless as to how far I was away from the next stage start. I rocked up to stage two with minutes to spare and no time or inclination to eat. I began to worry, there was no way I could manage seven hours and 60km at this intensity without eating. Breathing hard though and trying to cram an energy bar down just made me feel sick. I was drained of energy on stage two, I was glad this was a short and sweet one! I was relatively dry and much less technical then the first stage weaving and twisting through the trees, just 1.5km long and descending 180m I was relieved to be out of the end managing to stay rubber side down. Cursing myself at my lack of energy, I knew that would be a slow stage for me.

I hope this isn't my 'race face'!
I hope this isn’t my ‘race face’!

Without stopping I headed straight off to stage three. I decided my tactics would be to pedal relatively hard to get there in order to give myself a few minutes to relax and try to eat something. My plan worked and I finally got on board some much needed sustenance. By now I had definitely sweated my body weight in water and was looking forward to the feed station at the end of the stage to replenish my supplies. Stage three was shorter than it had originally been designed to be as the latter part of the stage now resembled an unrideable bog rather than a MTB trail. No complaints from me at all, after navigating the rooty and technical upper sections which were very similar to stage one I was happy to put that difficult stage behind me. I had a real sense of achievement on finishing it, it was testing but so much fun to ride, each technical part I cleared made me whoop and holler inside my head! The spectators were brilliant throughout this stage, I was surprised by the amount of people who had made the effort to climb the hill in order to cheer us all on. I was equally amazed by the number of people who seemed to know my name, I’m sure I only knew about 5 people on that hill that day yet still I continually heard “Go Rachael!”, one of the best feelings in the world! Other competitors said the same, I have no idea how the crowd knew us, but they did!

In practice stage four was my favourite so I was pretty keen to get to the top of the hill and ride this one again. I quickly dropped in at the feed station but then chose to use some of my 15 minutes allotted time here for the transition to the next stage. Stage four began in the native forest up high in the Whakarewarea Forest but was a good deal more rideable than stage one and began descending from the very start which was nice! I popped and jumped over roots and natural rollers, most sections flowing together nicely until I was periodically met with a giant, muddy rut; evidence that nearly 400 riders had faced this track before me! From here on in the transitions were shorter and we were all able to take a much more relaxed approach. I got the inside info on the upcoming liaisons from a local rider, she explained the length and steepness of the fire roads, helping me with my earlier time/distance faux pas!

Nearly time to set off on Round 1 of the EWS - I'm probably thinking if another toilet stop would be wise!
Nearly time to set off on Round 1 of the EWS – I’m probably thinking if another toilet stop would be wise!

Stage five was a blur of off camber wet roots, ruts and falling off. The less said about this stage the better, I was so disappointed with my riding. Later after talking to other riders I found I wasn’t the only one, this trail was so awkward and fiddly and had caused many people problems. I’m getting better at putting this kind of feeling behind me and getting on with the race, something I have been focusing on doing throughout my racing experience as it has bitten me before! Dwelling on a poor performance will do nothing other than cause the rest of your riding to be sub optimal.

Onwards and upwards then to stage six and the final one in the Whakarewarewa Forest. This stage, formed by part of a national downhill track was of a typical downhill style of trail. It was rough with, jumps, berms and some really blown out sections of the track with deep undercuts where the riders before me had bumped down steps and ploughed through turns. The stage was physically demanding just due to its unforgiving condition and my tired limbs were causing me to make silly mistakes. Another lesson the EWS taught me before the race was even over – I need to be fitter and stronger in order to be more consistent, making me faster. It’s a big race day and one I wasn’t quite ready for.

If this was stage 5 then Trev was lucky to catch me on my bike!
If this was stage 5 then Trev was lucky to catch me on my bike!

Stage seven, the last one, took place on Mount Ngongotaha near to the Skyline Gondola. We caught a shuttle from the forest entrance across town to the gondola which we then took up the hill. The gondola only climbs 150m, ridiculously short, meaning that we still had another 4km and 180m to climb to the start of the stage. Stage seven filled me with fear, it was a high speed stage mainly on the downhill track used earlier in the week of Crankworx festivities. I was near to freaking out about the three wooden bridges in the middle of the stage. These were treacherous and slippery, no braking could be done over them, and I had no idea what the landings would look like since the downhillers had raced this track. Gathered at the top of the stage most girls were having similar thoughts – the speeds you could get up on this track could have some huge consequences. UK racer Katy Winton had some wise words, it’s the beginning of a long season, she said, don’t blow it on this one stage, just get down safe! She was right, enduro racing is about being fast on the downhill’s and being able to climb all day, but it is also about being consistent, a big crash leading to a DNF doesn’t get you a result and could put your entire season at risk.

The end is so very near......
The end is so very near……

Knowing my limits, I set off steady keeping myself calm and the nerves under control. All I could think about was getting down safely. The top section was barely rideable for me, it was so cut up and loose logs strewn all over the place and ankle deep mud. Getting out into the open and onto the grass the speed began to pick up, whether I liked it or not! At the top I had almost decided not to take a risk with one drop on course, I thought the landing would be too rutted and I would be certain to crash. My race face took over though and I couldn’t let myself take the shorter ‘B line’! Approaching the drop at that moment of no return the landing was as horrendous as I knew it would be, somehow though I stayed upright and let the rut lead me round the corner pumping out and round the tree at the bottom. From here on in crowds lined the stage, I had a slow speed off in a steep hairpin in the trees but after running and jumping back on my bike I could see the finish. It was still someway off down the open hillside but in sight and that was amazing!

Even closer ....... Round one of the Enduro World Series successfully completed!
Even closer ……. Round one of the Enduro World Series successfully completed!

Over seven hours, after starting at 10am that morning, I finished my first Enduro World Series race. It had been epic of all proportions, we raced for 60km, took in 2,200m of climbing and collected so many memorable moments! I was exhausted, relieved, ecstatic and proud, I had ridden some of the best trails in the world with some of the best riders and come out of the other end wanting more! How could I not? I love riding my bike, love being outdoors with likeminded people, experiencing a different part of the world and all that it has to offer. I also love the challenge of racing, it’s difficult and sometimes daunting but I enjoy testing myself and my ability to ride. As soon as I crossed the finish line I began to look forward to the next time, the EWS Emerald Enduro in County Wicklow, Ireland. Congratulating my fellow competitors, I found myself saying “see you there” and I simply can’t wait to continue the adventure!

Words: Rachael Gurney Photos: Trev Worsey and Rachael Gurney

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