It seems like only yesterday that I sat down with Chris Ball in the back of a local bike shop in the Scottish Borders to talk about the exciting new Enduro World Series that he had planned. At that point so much was unknown, would it be popular, would the big teams attend, would momentum last a whole season? To be honest, in the UK it was not even clear what enduro was, so a lot hinged on the next 12 months.
With the season over I think even the most ardent critic would have to agree that the 2013 Enduro World Series was a huge success, each event bringing something new to the sport and concluding with the crowning of deserved champions on the shores of the Mediterranean. Enduro is now a World Level sport and its popularity is booming. With the UCI now taking an interest the future of Enduro is again a little uncertain, but we have the 2014 EWS to look forward to and with racers now knowing exactly what to train for, speeds are going to be explosive.
We caught up with the EWS top chief Chris Ball just before he jetted off to Chile where he checked out the venue for the opening round of the 2014 series and took part in the Montenbaik Enduro (taking a respectable 3rd).
Hey Chris, so it’s over, we have our world champions and it’s now OK to say ‘I am an enduro racer’, how was 2013 for you?
It was exciting, sleepless and up and down really. I have learnt so much and there has been a lot of work that has gone on behind the scenes. Every time we had to make a decision there was no template to follow, we had to ensure that even the most basic decisions were in the sports best interest. It has been amazing being in the position to create something brand new, and to see that level of racing happen! The support we received has been amazing and overall it has been fantastic!
The media followed the series closely this year, what were the high points for you?
There are two that remind me of a similar emotion. The first was the podium at Punta Ala, because at that moment we had had a race, we had winners, and we had leaders of the Enduro World Series! All that work, Skype calls and emails from my laptop in Edinburgh had suddenly materialised into a filled podium and champagne. It was a really bizarre situation, I felt that if for some reason we did not get the next 6 rounds, we had had a race, and it had happened!
I would say that I almost experienced the same emotion in Finale, it was the same feeling but this time we had not just had a race, but an entire series! We had World Champions, and deserved ones at that, it was a bizarre feeling that history had been made, whether large or small, it had happened!
Did you get to ride all the stages throughout the series?
Yes, I rode them all!
Which was your favourite?
Wow, that’s a tough question, and I think for me there are two that really stood out! I would probably say stage 3 from Finale, it captured that real sense of Italy, riding in the dust, past the old church before finishing in the town on the narrow stone walls. Pura Vida in Whistler was also incredible! Unfortunately we had to shorten it 500m due to land access, and I am not sure if the guys enjoyed racing it as much as I enjoyed riding it. That trail really typified all the videos and all the photos you had seen of BC, massive trees, deep canyons, big roots, rock rollovers, loads of deep dry loam, it was a standout for me! I think they stood out for me as both were very much caricatures of their location!
You have been racking up the air miles this year, where is your favourite place to ride?
Whistler blew my mind, I have been to Whistler many times before but with a downhill bike, this was the first time that I had taken a 150mm enduro bike. We had some down days between Colorado and Whistler and after one run through the bike park we headed further afield, a day up in Pemberton, a day in the Chilcotins with a float plane and a day in Squamish. I would say that Whistler on a trail bike was eye opening, you expect amazing trails from Finale and I have great trails where I live in the Tweed Valley, but Whistler was so much of a surprise on a trail bike.
There was a lot of variety in the stages this year, what do you think makes the perfect enduro stage?
A good stage needs a combination of everything, it needs to be physical and it needs to make you struggle physically so that the people who have trained have the advantage. It needs to incorporate technicality into the trail as well, something that has the odd section that scares the living daylights out of you and some sections where you relax and have a bit of flow, just enjoy riding your bike. And maybe one or two super physical sections where you are rewarded for your off-season training. That’s the perfect enduro stage for me!
And what about the transitions, some EWS rounds were tough and long but perhaps still not really challenging to the top end of the field! Do you think transitions should be tight and play a larger part in the physicality of the day?
Yeah, I do! But I also think it depends on where you are, the two French events were chairlift assisted, however the amount of descending would certainly challenge the riders physically. In Val d’Allos if you included training it was nearly 13,000m of descending, that is a huge amount! We are going to look at tightening the liaisons for the faster categories, this year everyone had the same transfer times, but sometimes it was challenging for the back of the field. Next year we are going to play around with some things to ensure that everyone is challenged at the events, but yes, the liaisons should factor!
Do you think a lot of visiting riders from outside Italy and France were surprised by the level of technicality?
Yes massively, and I think not just riders from other venues, but also riders from other disciplines! I think there were a lot of eyes being opened all round, enduro is pretty gnarly.
You have spent a lot of time on DH tracks, some may argue that some of the stages this year were DH like in terms of consequence, for example stages in Les Deux Alpes and Val d’isere. I remember being pretty scared on some of those stages. What are your thoughts on how challenging you can make the stages?
Val d’isere was pretty wild, it was laid out by Alex Baluad who works with Fred Glo, he is one of the most experienced course markers in enduro. I guess it depends on the venue, you always need to understand that if you go to Val d’Isere, a lot of the terrain is steep you must expect to be riding big mountains with high levels of exposure! I never want to see enduro become manicured in many ways like DH has in terms of safety, we want to keep enduro safe of course, but it is wild racing in wild mountains, and that essence needs to be kept, it HAS to be kept! DH will always be more televisual, more packaged and polished, that’s its strength! Enduro needs to hold onto its identity.
Do you think that EWS events should pose a bigger challenge than regional races?
Yes, and not necessarily just technically to be honest, maybe more in their length and duration, factors like how many stages and how long the day is. If you had a regional race in Finale most of the stages would be the same, but in a world series you would expect a few more stages in that day, push it that bit harder.
You come from the Tweed Valley (Scotland) where local enduro races are really popular, Do you think the World Series has benefited smaller grass root events?
I think it has helped to generate a lot of interest in the sport itself and helped develop participation, the World Series is aspirational but it also makes riders excited about the sport itself. It’s a pyramid really, you need a wide base to have a high peak, the EWS marks the peak, but that wide base comes from exciting regional racing.
Some of the stages were pretty widely taped, such as stage 1 of Val d’isere, do you think that it is good to build in some elements of expression and line choice in enduro?
I think it really depends on the venue, if you go to Colorado you have beautiful ribbons of 8inch wide singletrack and are riding in a national park that is heavily monitored by the environmental agency, you have to respect that and the course needs to be closely controlled. Enduro is not just about racing, but also the atmosphere, the environment, and the community. You have to respect the local environment, however we like to add a wild feel whenever we can. We were able to be more creative with the stages in France, but having more open sections meant that courses had to be clearly marked and throughout the year we got much better at marking out to World Series level.
So now world level racing is established and sponsors are taking interest, do you see more riders moving from downhill to specialise in enduro?
I see more riders moving from DH, however it seem that all the media focus is on the DH riders and there are also a lot of incredibly skilled XC riders moving into the sport. I think that less riders will dabble next year, a lot of riders this year gained a huge amount of respect for the sport, whether they liked it or not they were dragged kicking and screaming into understanding that enduro is quite hard at a World Series level. Some that dipped their toes in thinking they were going to win or come in the top10, finished 15th-20th-40th-50th and realised that if they wanted to race enduro they would have to dedicate more time to it. I think we will start to see younger enduro specialists like Martin Maes doing well, and more people taking it a lot more seriously.
What about Nino Schurter at Finale, what a great advert for XC riders?
Those guys are amazing, they are often highly underrated technically, but it is the courses and bikes that don’t let them look amazing, XC guys are incredibly skilled!
And they are certainly strong on the pedals too! With the podiums mixed with DH riders and enduro specialists, what qualities do you think are needed to be a World Champion?
They need maturity, incredible race craft and the ability to play the long game while dealing with immediate pressures. A champion needs to be able to read the terrain, while maintaining a huge physical base and be a very technical rider. You have to be at a high level, not necessarily a top level, but a high level in every aspect.
You must have been pleased to see Jerome and Tracy taking the titles?
Yes, it was amazing! If you look at Tracy for example, she has raced Downhill World Cups and XC World Cups. This year she has streamlined herself into an enduro racer, doing more aerobic work and even racing the XC national champs in the UK (coming 3rd) in the middle of the season. It is great to see riders coming from DH backgrounds who also bring in XC attributes. Jerome is just mind blowing across the board. They are ideal champions in that they have the complete package, but I am sure we will see more from Jared, Nico and Fabien in 2014.
They are great role models for the sport too!
Yes and you know what, they are also instrumental advisors for us! We run ideas past them and listen to their feedback, and Tracy and Jerome have been very important. They are so focused on the riders, especially the lower end of the field. They are professionals that don’t just look at professionals they see the bigger picture, and to have them as champions and representing the riders has been great for the EWS.
What about the young guns like Maes working through the field?
It is just terrifying to think how fast they are going to go when they are already riding so fast at such a young age. I am sure we may see some surprises next year!
It must be tough dealing with riders looking for every advantage, and there were a few issues with rules and their understanding this year?
Yes, we have some rule changes in mind for 2014, the format and the fundamentals will remain the same but we are going to tidy up as many rules as we can, based on what we experienced. We tried to see what would work best this year and we shall try some other stuff next year too, we have some tweaks that we are going to apply. Things like the start order and small changes to the liaisons, small details that we think will make a big difference to the riders. But we are not going to become a rule orientated body, that’s not our plan, we just want to make it extremely easy to understand.
With all the events selling out, sometimes in days, how have you found rider support for the series?
It has been great, really good, a lot of good comments! Of course the professionals get paid to be there but the amazing thing is the amount of non professional riders who have participated, they kept on coming up to me saying ‘just amazing’, those guys are who we do it for!
Will you be offering any complete series entries to simplify registration?
Hmmm yes, but only for teams at the moment and perhaps the top 100, but that is something we will look at in the longer term!
Will you be carrying the rankings over to 2014?
Yes for the first round, this year we had to manually rank riders as there was no foundation to work from, but next year we can seed the riders into the first round a lot more effectively.
OK, for the last question..
No, don’t ask the wheel size question, please, just one interview without talking about wheel size!
Ha, OK, perhaps for a different take on it, how much do you think that enduro is industry led, for example the big push seems to be going in the direction of lighter bikes and bigger wheels. Do you think that will have an effect on shaping course design or should enduro always be based primarily on the terrain?
Enduro could not exist without industry development, there are stages that we rode this year that you could not ride 10 years ago without a downhill bike, and you certainly could not have climbed to the top. So I guess we already are led by bike design. It’s kind of symbiotic, wheel size and bike design will reflect course design and course design will reflect the capabilities of the bike.
Fair point, so where do you see enduro bikes of the future going?
I think we will see bikes that are a lot more efficient, we are still seeing a lot of folk on small downhill bikes! I think that bikes will become easier to adjust on the fly, like Jeromes grip shift adaptation, bikes will become more efficient, possibly lighter but more of an all round package. At the moment you have fast efficient bikes, and fast stable bikes, I think we will start to see those crossing over more!
Nice one Chris, best of luck for your first round in 2014!
Interview: Trev Worsey
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