Can rivals be friends? Can competitors be comrades? Whether on the race track or your home trails, is it right to share your training sessions or will you lose your edge? We sat down with Ines Thoma from the Canyon Factory Enduro Team to talk about friendship, a competitive mindset and the evolution of the Enduro World Series.

Your value as a pro athlete can usually be put down to one thing: success. The better you perform, the higher you are in the rankings, the more you take home at the end of the day. But reaching the top means being better than everyone else. What do you do with that unspoken part of human nature, a byproduct of ambition, that means you might end up wishing ill on others who are already at the top? Is it avoidable? In the Enduro World Series, the answer is yes – especially in the women’s field. While there’s just as much at play to reach the top, there’s a notable absence of rivalry. Instead, the riders might actually choose to ride together in the off-season. Between stages, the riders support each other and at the end of the weekend, they’ll sit together and say cheers for a great race. Is it for real?

Blurring the vision between competitiveness and friendship – how genuine are the words, “Good luck!” when they come from someone racing against you?

Someone who knows the state of affairs better than us is Ines Thoma. The German rider, who races for the Canyon Factory Enduro Team (now part of the new Canyon Collective), must have one of the fullest race slates at the EWS, having missed only one round since 2013 due to a spinal injury. She’s also made it through almost all the stages at all of the races, so it’s fair to say that Ines has not just been witness to its evolution, but been on the front line of its growth. “Back at the beginning, I used to turn up to every race with two helmets and a sandwich in my backpack,” she laughs. “You had to pedal so much on the transfers – each day felt like such an adventure.” Finding its feet is probably the best way to describe how the EWS muddled its way through at the start, testing the waters and pushing the limits of the possible. “The hardest race was Whistler a few years ago when we had to do more than 2,500 metres of climbing and they ran out of water at the feed stations. I didn’t get to drink anything at all for the final two hours and it was over 30°C,” recalls Ines.

The stages aren’t about racing each other – you’re against the time, the weather conditions and the course.

Ines is quick to rebut the idea the EWS has just got easier over time. It’s just different, she says. Nowadays it’s more like a multi-stage downhill for the elite. A lot of the transfers are done by shuttle. You definitely don’t show up at the start line with more than a full-face and two energy bars in your pocket. If anything goes wrong, you know you will have support and can count on someone, anyone – regardless of the fact that you may both be competitors – to help you. Once, when Anita Gehrig lost both her bike bottles on a stage, other female athletes did all they could to make sure she’d get through the race. Ines recalls how others have generously given her a cereal bar or spare tube without hesitation. Then, of course, that moment in Finale in 2018, when Ines snapped her chain on the final stage and was pulled along the coast road to the finish by the Gehrig twins.

With Ines in tow – proof that reaching Finale together matters.

Another standout moment that screams comradery was Cécile Ravanel pushing the perpetually misfortunate Katy Winton back to the tech zone after a flat on stage 3. “We’ve all needed help at times and probably given as much as we’ve received, so it evens out,” explains Ines matter-of-factly. If you are solely focused on your own performance and the time gaps, then who knows how much you might end up regretting it in the long-run?

Coffee over competition – the world’s fastest enduro riders meet every Wednesday

Most of the women’s field at the EWS have been around for a few years. They have got to know each other and spend much of the year adopting a similar travel routine. That includes a Wednesday coffee meet-up. When races fall on consecutive weekends, you’ll always find a crew huddled over a good flat white, including Noga Korem (GT Bicycles), Cécile Ravanel (COMMENCAL), Isabeau Courdurier (Lapierre), twins Anita and Caro Gehrig (Norco), Andréane Lanthier Nadeau, aka ALN (Rocky Mountain) and Ines. When asked about cliques or loners, textbook clichés amongst groups of women, Ines shakes her head, explaining that things like that could come down to language barriers, but she doesn’t see it happening.

Exploring the world with the rest of the EWS field

So, what explains the absence of nails-out rivalry between the riders of the EWS? According to Ines, it’s thanks to the whole concept of enduro. At its purest form, enduro still embodies the origins of mountain biking: mates pushing each other to ride new sections, faster and harder. The session-esque feel of enduro builds competitive comradery. As a race format, it’s unlike anything else – especially cross-country mountain biking, the discipline Ines raced as a junior. “In XCO you’re bar-to-bar on the start line, in direct competition against each other. The race is just packed with the need to win. You can’t overtake someone, you’re boxed in, and you always feel like you’re being treated unfairly. It’s kind of understandable why it can be hard to make friends in that sort of environment.” The ways in which enduro differ are multifold, she explains. “You wish each other good luck before every race, and then you’re on your own. Each rider is responsible for their performance on each stage and you don’t have any idea how the overall standings are looking while you’re riding. It pitches you as the athlete, against the conditions, your endurance and a personal battle for the best line and your quickest possible time. It’s only when you cross the finish line that you find out who was quickest and where you ended up,” she finishes, giving a relaxed shrug.

Since 2013, Ines Thoma has only missed one round of the EWS due to breaking her L1 and C5 vertebrae.

Unlike the fiercely competitive world of XCO where friendships aren’t easily formed, Ines says the EWS’ format breeds comradery.

It isn’t unusual to see Ines training on the trails of Finale with Anita and Caro Gehrig during the off-season or toeing the start line of local races with other top riders. Ines breaks into a huge grin. “We even work out at the gym together, so you always see what exercises the others are doing. But as all of us work differently with bodies that respond differently to different sorts of workouts, knowing what someone else is doing doesn’t actually matter.” She pauses, as if mentally scanning her body for injuries, “I mean, I might see others doing them but there’s no way I’d try and copy their box jumps – my knee would never let me.” So, if they aren’t trying to subtly pick up on each other’s sessions or outdo each other on number of reps, what do they get from training together? Easy: the sense of unity pushes you to improve, and as you work hard to bring out the best in yourself, it’s just as important to encourage others to push their limits too.

On a high after the long EWS season. The female elite of the EWS at the gala dinner in Finale Ligure.

This is exactly what makes enduro stand out. Each round is still a race, with everybody pushing themselves as hard as they can, but unlike XCO’s bar-to-bar competition where your rivals are rarely out of your sight, enduro puts that must-beat-all attitude on the backburner during transitions. Some say it is mountain biking at its best because it upholds the true spirit of riding off-road – you push to the max on the descents as you battle yourself and the terrain, but in between, you’re part of a family that looks out for each other. Enduro, stay as you are!

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Words: Photos: Boris Beyer / Duncan Philpott / Enduro World Series