With my heart pounding in my chest the clock ticks to zero, and I stumble my way out of the start gate. Overly eager to match the pace this bike and kit are used to, I ride like a newborn foal taking its first steps, overshooting and blowing turns until, sure enough, I explode over the bars to sample the French dirt. What the hell was I doing?

“I started to worry that my very casual ‘training’ program begun a month beforehand would not be enough.”

We’ve all dreamt of living the pro life… flying to exotic destinations and riding the latest and greatest bikes that have been lovingly tuned by a personal mechanic. These have always been luxuries only available to a select few of the world’s best, so what was I doing here, riding a BMC Enduro Racing Team bike? This story started a few months earlier, where, after a storming debut in the South American EWS races in Chile and Argentina, taking 13th then 7th position, BMC’s fresh signing Lewis Buchanan picked up a devastating elbow injury during training. His season over, Lewis was confined to the sidelines while the EWS circus continued its course around the world. As a personal friend and journalist, I was offered the opportunity to experience Round 7 of the EWS Valberg from between the tapes – and behind the bars of Lewis’s personal race bike.

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If I am honest, as the event grew closer I became increasingly nervous. While I had been to many rounds, my fight was always behind the camera, not against the clock, and I had very little race experience. I started to worry that my very casual ‘training’ program begun a month beforehand would not be enough. This was hammered home when the course book was released: the massive climbs were way bigger than I’d ever undertaken. It was going to be brutal.

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Meeting the BMC Enduro Race Team

My nerves were peaking as I joined the team in Valberg, where I met racers François Bailly-Maître and Lewis; we were also joined by Denis (the mechanic) and Melanie (the team boss). I wasn’t sure how I’d fit into the team; I feared Francois would be too focused on his weekend to have any time for me, but to my relief it was quite the opposite. I was made to feel really comfortable straight away. Lewis had kindly carted his bike over from Scotland, complete with FOX factory suspension, Shimano XTR brakes, and electronic Di2 shifting. The full works! I’d never ridden a kitted-out factory race bike and was super excited about the opportunity, but also pensive. Besides all the expensive components that were at the peril of my riding, a pro’s setup is very different to what an average rider like myself needs. Lewis ensured me that once pointed downhill I’d understand the riding position immediately, and he was right.


Distinguished Company

The pro experience started for me on the first day of practice when I stopped to check out the first turns, then quickly found myself in very esteemed company: Nico Vouilloz, Adrien Dailly, François and Rémy Absalon, to name but a few. It was certainly an education to see how these guys can read the terrain, spotting lines that were never on my radar. Any qualms I’d had about bonding with the bike in time were squashed after only a few minutes; the 29” wheels were perfect for this terrain, the bike felt planted, and the roomy reach and geometry made for a confidence-inspiring ride, whilst the sublime performance of the FOX coil shock left me at a loss for words. I was keen to smash runs, but had to think about the long game and conserving energy for the race days.

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Opening the curtains on the final practice day revealed a grey and soggy landscape with heavy rain falling and temperatures taking a dive. It was going to be a wild one, and sure enough the resulting mud slides gave me a chance to show Francois my best dance moves as I repeatedly got spat over the bars (much to his amusement). The fact that I was battling to stay on the bike, let alone attack the trails, was a concern. Then that was it: practice was over, and with what felt like an extra four kilos of mud on the bike I handed it over to Denis for its final strip down, cleaning, and preparation. Over dinner, in between the bombardment of Snapchat filters, I asked Lewis with a smirk but serious intentions about tactics for tomorrow, He was pretty clear in his advice. I shouldn’t go full gas all the time; ride around 95% on the technical, rest where I can, but when it comes to the climbs and pedaling give it my all.

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Not the Greatest of Starts

With my mind in overdrive, I lay awake waiting for my alarm to finally strike 6:30 AM. I wasn’t hungry, but knew that if I didn’t force myself to eat there was no way I would survive the day. Kitting up in the striking black and orange BMC colour scheme (which had already placed in the top ten at EWS and stood atop many podiums in the UK), I was hoping that no one mistook me for Lewis struggling to get up to pace after injury. Truth is, he’d still be way faster than me even with little mobility in his arm! Now this will sound ridiculous, but on the way to the start I decided to put my helmet on in the van, and as I did this I cricked my neck. The pain and stiffness was instantaneous; I could not believe it, but the day had just become even tougher.

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Trying to block out the pain as much as possible, I took to the start ramp and was introduced by Enrico like so many of the top racers before me… it’s a moment that will stay with me! It had finally started. In a way there was nothing else I could do. I just had to ride the stages to my best and whatever happened, happened. This was until on the first stage I got overexcited at catching the racer ahead; after I’d overtaken, I then proceeded to slam over the bars and then blow through the tape on the very next corner. Certainly not the greatest EWS debut ever! I had plenty of time to re-focus on the mammoth three hour climb to the next stage. I set off at a steady pace and hung off the back of a group of four riders ahead as we ticked off switchback after switchback until we left the asphalt behind us and started the long meandering track to the top. I tried to keep on top of eating and drinking, but could feel myself starting to slow. Each pedal stroke or push of the bike became an effort, I was dripping in sweat, and my neck pain wasn’t abating. I was more than happy to roll into the lunch stop to regroup and eat my own body weight of any food I could lay my hands on!

“I hit lines François had highlighted in head cams and definitely gained a lot of time.”

With one final slog I reached the grassy meadow plateau from where the stage had started. I bumped into EWS Series Director Chris Ball, who, looking at the team kit and bike jokingly mentioned, “I heard Lewis was back racing – he’s going a lot slower and put on a few pounds though.” After my first stage nightmare I felt like I rode the next two stages to near enough my potential. Except for a few mistakes, I hit lines François had highlighted in head cams and definitely gained a lot of time on racers around me who didn’t have one of the sport’s top racers at their disposal. I could also see a mini-rivalry brewing; the racer behind me had caught me on the opening stage, but after regrouping I managed to reclaim time and finish the first day ahead of him. Could I keep him behind come Sunday evening? I reached the day’s finish point in Guillaumes muddy, tired, stoked, hungry, and looking forward to letting the team physio loose on my neck!

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A Breakfast of Champions

Espresso, eggs, avocados, muesli, and a helping of paracetamol is how my Sunday morning started. By the time I’d slipped into my jersey and pulled my knee pads on for the last time, the sun had risen over the mountains and grassy knolls, breaking the frost’s grip on the ground. How much would the grassy and fresh-cut sections have dried out, I wondered?

Following Lewis’s advice, I decided to back off a little on the first stage of the day until I was comfortable with the conditions. After doing my best Sam Hill impersonation, just without the style or speed, I almost wished I was running flats! With the help of some heckling from my usual media colleagues (“Yeah, fake Lewis!”) I rode close to my maximum and got my best feeling on the bike all week, which set me up great for the rest of the day. It was not until the final stage that I felt my “rival” close in. “No way!” I thought. I gave it everything and managed to open the gap once things got more technical and gravity-fed at the bottom. This is perhaps why the EWS is so fascinating as a series: racers with varying backgrounds fight it out on equally varying terrain. The BMC Trailcrew is perhaps the definition of this – François comes from an XC background and Lewis comes from downhill, so they complement each other perfectly and push each other’s riding and racing forward as result.


Coming through the final grassy turns and drops lined by the boisterous French crowd was one of the coolest experiences of my life, and one I doubt I’ll have the privilege of experiencing again. Crossing the line, there was nothing more than quiet satisfaction at completing the race and an overriding respect for the level of talent and physical fitness needed for the guys and girls competing at the top. As for me? Well, I’m just your average rider who was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live the dream! As much as I may like to dream, I can’t see any contract offers flying into my inbox anytime soon….


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Words: Photos: Jeremie Reuiller