Time for a new frontier, a new way of thinking, and getting out of our comfort zone. So, we met up with hard enduro phenomenon Manuel (Mani) Lettenbichler in the Austrian mountains to mix things up with motorbikes and mountain bikes. Caution: things are about to get loud, muddy, and electric!

Our two-strokes tick over as we let the engines warm up, a hint of petrol exhaust fumes mixing with the scent of freshly sawn wood. We would bottle up the smell and wear it as a perfume if we could. We’re standing in the yard of a huge sawmill in the middle of the Austrian mountains. Our playground consists of 400 hectares of private forest, the exact location of which remains our secret. We’ll be spending more time under than on the motorbike. But, fortunately, we don’t know that yet, though we could have anticipated it.

The main reason for our future soil samples is Mani Lettenbichler. The proud Bavarian is a Red Bull KTM Factory rider, three-time Hard Enduro World Champion, and made the seemingly impossible possible just last year. Six consecutive wins – including the infamous Red Bull Erzbergrodeo – not just lending him the title of FIM Hard Enduro World Champion, but also resulting in a perfect season. So, obviously, he can sit back and enjoy watching us struggle as we push our motorbikes up the slopes. But why on earth would we put ourselves through this as editors of a mountain bike magazine?

The answer is simple: we want to take our MTB skills to the next level, get out of our comfort zones, and face new challenges. To do this, you simply have to leave the MTB bubble and look outside the box. You must explore new frontiers, meet new personalities, and adopt a new mindset. So, off we go into enemy territory, breaking with the taboo of riding with a “real engine”. Time for a change of perspective.

Training is about adaptation and growth. Always blasting down the same trail with a familiar setup doesn’t allow you to progress. If you want to improve, you must stay mentally agile. We grow by venturing into new territory, and if you look at professional athletes, you’ll notice them including other sports and disciplines as an integral part of their training. Whether it’s road bike pros like Peter Sagan hopping onto a mountain bike or rally legends like Walter Röhrl only just missing out on a drop bar career. To refine your skills, hone your techniques, and take them to the next level, you’ve got to try something new. In our case, that means hopping onto “mopeds” – or rather, enduro dirt bikes. It was completely new territory at first, but it soon proved to be the perfect complement.

It’s similar for Mani. As a hard enduro pro, he spends hundreds of hours a year behind the cockpit of his KTM. So, mountain biking is a natural way for him to mix things up. That’s how our paths cross, and we figured that riding with him would expand our horizons while also allowing us to find new motivation, acquire new skills, and learn a ton about Mani’s recipe for success and his way of life. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, things often tend to get a lot messier.

We hop on our motorcycles on the first morning with a good deal of respect, and follow Mani towards the trails like newly hatched ducklings. We eat a lot of dirt from his rear wheel on the first climb, twisting the throttle ourselves with childlike glee so as not to be left behind. Up, down; up, down; up, down. All day long. In between, we torture ourselves along a narrow riverbed, with waterfalls that stand taller than ourselves. Mani makes it look easy, like he’s just playing. A quick twist of the throttle, the brief metallic “braap” of his two-stroke, and he’s up. Leaving us at the bottom, gawking up…

Anyone who has ever been to a downhill World Cup, the Red Bull Rampage, or a similar event knows what we’re talking about. The internet is full of jaw-dropping videos, but when you actually stand on the edge of the track, everything is so much faster, steeper, and bigger than you imagined. But that’s what makes the experience so spectacular and unique. And it’s the same with the waterfall.

But we’re not about to pass up the opportunity. After all, it’s not every day that the Hard Enduro World Champion is there to give you pointers and catch the bike if it doesn’t work out. To Mani’s – and our own – amusement, we make like bugs and land on our backs, kicking. But we eventually manage to get up somehow anyway, leaving us with the triumphant feeling of having overcome a seemingly impossible hurdle. Oh, how we’ve missed that! After lifting the heavy machine off the ground for what feels like the hundredth time, our arms and legs start feeling drained. We cruise back towards the sawmill. Mani casually chilling on the rear wheel – us, soaking wet from our dip in the river.

Round 1: Done. And many more to follow, interspersed with tech talk, silly jokes, and tips. In hard enduro, commitment and a good sense of what is doable is essential. We knew from the start that we couldn’t keep up with Mani, but we also assumed that we knew what was theoretically rideable. Then, when we stopped at a rocky, 5-metre-high ledge and Mani said that he would ride up there, we could only shake our heads in disbelief. Where does he want to ride up?

We didn’t think this was possible, and the imaginary boundaries that we had in our minds just kept getting shifted as Mani jumped up and down the sheer rock face like a mountain goat. We decide to call it a day and cruise back to the sawmill, our worldview slightly upset. To our surprise, Mani’s the first to ask if it’s time for beer. He doesn’t have to ask twice. We have a case of German – Swabian, to be precise – beer in the car anyway. Being smart enough to think ahead, we’ve already put it in the cooler. With a satisfied grin, we toast to a day well spent – cheers!

We enjoy sipping on our beers while taking in the last rays of sunshine and philosophising about the next day. The plan is to go mountain biking, even if we would have liked to spend another day on the motorbikes. However, Mani’s eyes light up because he hasn’t had time to ride his MTB in recent months and he’s brought his brand new YT DECOY, which he’s just built up.

It’s so new that he’s still running tubes because he hasn’t gotten round to converting it to tubeless. He doesn’t let our “silly” remarks about it get to him (well, we’ll see how that comes back to bite him later ;) . So we hop on our bikes and cruise towards the summit of the mountain in Turbo mode. Meanwhile, we ask Mani where else he usually rides his motorbike. He lives just a few hundred metres from the Austrian border, in the middle of the mountains. There must be a lot of potential there! To our surprise, he says that isn’t the case. It’s too risky and stressful because it’s illegal. And it will easily come back to bite him due to his standing in the sport. Apparently the police have knocked on his door many times when someone was riding their motorcycle in the woods. So why not move to a place where you can train and ride, preferably all winter long?

“Sure, I’ve often toyed with the idea of moving – to Spain, for example – to have better training conditions. Ultimately, I feel most comfortable where I grew up, and that’s what counts for me. It’s one reason why I love mountain biking so much. I can just head out the door and quickly hit the trails without having to worry. I know my way around here, I know the people, and I have my family and all my friends around me. That’s the best way of staying balanced that I can imagine. In Spain, things would constantly revolve around training and riding my motorbike, which I don’t want.”

It’s immediately obvious that Mani knows what he’s doing on the eMTB. He keeps riding away from us and doesn’t bother taking a break to let us catch up. Until – fortunately for us – the ride is interrupted by a loud hiss. With a cynical grin, Mani accepts our spare tube to mend his flat rear tire. As he pumps, we catch our breath, eventually putting in a few more runs before our batteries run out.

The two sports – mountain biking and hard enduro – have more in common than you may initially think. They’re at home off the beaten track. You can have the most fun in the mountains. On a mountain bike, however, it’s more about the downhills. With a motorbike, steep climbs can be just as much fun. Reading the terrain, knowing where to ride, where you’ll find grip, and what to avoid, is essential for both sports. That’s an easy skill to transfer, as is balance on the bike, and a sense of speed. Mani’s skills clearly demonstrated that, but we also felt like we progressed a lot. Whether it’s climbing steep hairpin bends on an eMTB, or ploughing through rock gardens with newfound confidence. In addition, one thing we love about mountain biking is spending the whole day in the great outdoors, discovering new trails and unknown places. Now we’ve found another way to do just that.

The feeling of moving out of your comfort zone, mustering up the courage to attempt some new challenge, and then succeeding with a big grin on your face is indescribable. Hard enduro lets us experience just that and, in addition to making unforgettable memories and having huge explorer potential, it gives us new motivation and skills to push our limits even further on our MTBs. So, why limit yourself to just one brilliant hobby when you can have two?

Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of ENDURO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality mountain bike journalism. Click here to learn more.

Words: Peter Walker Photos: Peter Walker

About the author

Peter Walker

As editor-in-chief, Peter is as much a man of action as he is of words. This expert, screw-driver-flexing two wheeled-whizz has many envy-inducing characteristics, including a background in motocross, several EWS race plates to his name, and more than 150 recorded days at Whistler Bike Park. However complex the bike and however steep the trail, he’s probably already nailed it, twice. Oh, and he can do it all on skinny tyres too. When it comes to guiding consumers, Peter cut his teeth at Vancouver’s oldest bike shop and now puts pen to paper on the daily translating this know-how into our editorial plan. When not tearing up Stuttgart’s local trails while testing bikes, he loves nothing more than loading up his self-renovated VW T5 and hitting the road. The fact that he’s a trained paramedic gives his colleagues reassurance out on the trails. So far we haven’t had to call him by his alias ‘Sani Peter’, so here’s hoping he keeps it right side up for the rest of his time here!