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The Evolution of Enduro Mountain Bike Racing

December 04, 2017
The Evolution of Enduro Mountain Bike Racing

If you are in any way enlightened about the joys of mountain biking, it is likely you have heard the term ‘Enduro’ thrown around in some context.

From humble beginnings as the rogue sibling of downhill, to a fully-fledged, professional world series – Enduro is arguably the most popular mountain biking discipline at the moment.

But what does the term ‘Enduro’ actually encompass? Does this term refer to the trail, a type of bike or a racing format? The meaning has changed over time as the sport itself has, which is the beautiful thing about mountain biking – it is ever evolving with new limits being pushed and technology changing the way we ride.

Just as mountain biking itself was founded by a crew of thrill-seeking, passionate cyclists in the 1970s, Enduro also began as a grassroots, rider-driven sport, established in the mountains of France.

Downhill Roots

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Image: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Most sources suggest that Enduro as a separate discipline originated in France in the early 2000s, borrowing the format from motorbike enduro - which essentially means the descents are raced and timed, and the climbs are not. Unlike Downhill racing, the race would take place on a series of different tracks, rather than just one. The different tracks were called ‘stages’ and would be longer in duration than typical downhill track, and perhaps a bit less steep, although still predominantly pointing down.

In the early days, the stages were raced blind, meaning the tracks couldn’t be studied or test-ridden prior to racing. Riders had no idea what was around the next corner, forcing them to rely on their skills and think on their feet to tackle the course. The stages would often be accessed via lifts (or in Australia or North America, shuttle vehicles) but soon enough riders were simply pedalling between the stages at a relaxed pace, enjoying the landscape and camaraderie amongst other riders before re-entering race mode when they got to the top of the next timed descent. The riding between stages came to be called ‘liaison’ which would see riders pedalling between anywhere from three up to ten timed stages.

Renowned races such as the Megavalanche and Tribe races in France sparked the trend towards longer, more pedally descents where riders were required to be more self-sufficient and carry their own spares. Although these races began to inspire more multi-stage races in Europe, this style of racing had its own following in the USA.

Super D and All-mountain racing

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These one-run, mass start timed descents were similar to what was called ‘Super D’ (for super downhill) in America, which would be the catalyst for the introduction, and eventual takeover, of Enduro in the United States.

Super D essentially saw a lower scale version of what Enduro is now; a ride up the hill only to race back down. Very often the trails did require some pedalling across flat sections or slight rises. It was more or less a one-run enduro, with either seeded starts or a mass-run-to-your-bike start. There was a national series with dedicated athletes, many whom of which have simply moved on to racing Enduro.

Super D was hugely popular in America, amongst downhill and cross-country (XC) racers alike, but the descents were not so advanced to that they were not able to be raced on a standard XC bike. This kept the appeal wide and accessible.

Although the Enduro style of racing was flourishing across Europe and Super D was developing into ‘Enduro’ in the USA, Australia was taking a little time to find its feet with this new format. Echoing the USA, Super D found its way onto the local scene but was soon phased out as other disciplines such as four-cross and then cross-country eliminator (XCE) were granted UCI status, which deserved them a place in the national series. These formats were also short-lived, which left a hole in the racing calendar for those not keen on the extreme ends of downhill or XC.

In response, a few local associations began running ‘All-mountain’ races as a sideshow to cross-country which encouraged a less elite field as a way to encourage more people to try racing.

The exact layout of an All-mountain race was loosely defined, but as long as the trails were mostly descents or at least a bit more technical than the XC circuit and didn’t include dread-worthy climbs, then it could fall under the All-mountain category.

The name All Mountain was chosen as the term ‘enduro’ at this time in Australia referred to what is now known as cross-country marathon (XCM) racing - used to describe a longer than average XC race, like a multi-lap, team eight or 12-hour event. The name eventually gave way to Gravity Enduro and then just ‘Enduro’.

The Enduro World Series

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Image: Tim Bardsley-Smith

In 2012, the Enduro Mountain Bike Association (EMBA) was born after some passionate riders saw the demand for this style of racing was increasing.

Just one year later, EMBA introduced its first world series race for Enduro, attracting world cup downhill racers looking for the next challenge. At the same time, it brought other ex-pro cross-country and downhill riders out of retirement and attracted a whole new generation of skilled mountain bikers who would make this discipline their expertise.

During this period of time, it appeared the deal was almost sealed that would see Enduro change hands to the UCI, but after assessing the realities of what this meant for the culture of the fledgling sport, EMBA backed out and set about their own path in creating the Enduro World Series (EWS), independent of the UCI.

Chris Ball, Managing Director of the EWS quotes on the official website;

“Enduro mountain bike racing is designed to be the definitive test for the mountain biker, with the focus of each event on creating a great atmosphere, community, competition and adventure for the competitor, including the best riding on the best terrain available in the host region.”

How it Works

Initially, the format and race rules were decided at the discrepancy of race organisers, as how the race was run would depend largely on timing equipment, trail access, and logistics.

The EWS has since unified the format, which has inspired more local and grassroots races to take on board a similar approach while still maintaining a sense of social racing, which encapsulates the very attitude that attracts so many to mountain biking.

There is a ‘rule book’ available to read on the website, but in summary, the aim is that this format “ allows riders to compete against each other, starting individually, on special stages which are designed to challenge the rider’s technical ability and physical capacity.”

Key points to know about the EWS

  • The Enduro World Series overall title is awarded to the athlete with the highest amount of EWS ranking points after the final round. All rounds of the Enduro World Series will count towards the overall points total.

  • There is anti-doping policy in place

  • There are fixed start times

  • There are official qualifier events around the world including local and national Enduro races

  • There must be minimum of 20 minutes total timed riding (40 mins for 2 days events)

  • Maximum of 2000m elevation climbed in a one-day event

  • Maximum of 3200m (1600m/day) climbed in a two-day event

  • Minimum of 3 different courses must be used per event

In a nod to the original blind racing rule - the course map is released no earlier than five days prior to the event, meaning athletes can’t be sure to have their lines absolutely dialed leading into race day, besides, the weather can always turn and completely change the track by race day.

Another refreshing prerogative unique to the EWS is to respect the natural environment in which they get to race. It is even listed in the official rule book that riders cannot use goggle tear-offs so as to not discard the plastic in the environment, nor can they leave ‘food stashes (yep, that word is used) on the trailside for collection between stages. It doesn’t matter how pro you are, penalties apply for messing with Mother Nature!

Anatomy of an Enduro Bike

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Image: Andrew Threlfall - Intense Cycles Australia

When Enduro was a just a young pup and the trails were milder, a 120mm - 140mm trail bike was the ideal ride, as it provided a bit more beef than a racey XC bike and was easily pedaled compared to a DH bike. Around this time the trail bike as we know it was slowly overtaking XC and certainly DH bike sales, as it appealed to riders of all levels and was certainly the most versatile.

The modern Enduro bike echoes more of a downhill bike than the original ‘trail’ bikes that were used. Trail bikes are still very relevant for all styles of riding, but with courses becoming steeper, more technical and more demanding, the weapon of choice has been adapted.

  • Suspension Travel: 150 - 180mm

  • Wheels: 27.5 or 29, wide rims, alloy or carbon fibre, Boost Axles

  • Tyres: 2.25in - 2.6in wide, tubeless

  • Frame: Carbon fibre or lightweight aluminium

  • Seatpost: Remote dropper seatpost

  • Gearing: 1 x 11 or 1 x 12 (SRAM)

  • Handlebars: 750 - 800mm wide

  • Brakes: Hydraulic disc, 180mm - 200mm rotors

The Athletes

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Image: Giant Bicycles Australia

Being a purebred Enduro athlete by an EWS standard is arguably still a fledgling pursuit, as the sport itself is still rapidly finding new limits and tweaking the demands on riders. Consequently, scientific literature on enduro athletes is sparse.

However, one study by Kirkwood et al (2016) on the physiological characteristics of elite Enduro racers summarised the physical demands succinctly; “Enduro mountain biking is defined as requiring a high aerobic capacity with the ability to produce repetitive high-intensity efforts across a period of sustained aerobic demand, in tandem with the appropriate skill and technique to pilot the bicycle over challenging terrain.”

While many athletes such as current EWS champ Sam Hill and former EWS champs Jared Graves and Tracey Mosley come from the depths of downhill, other younger (and very successful) riders such as Adrian Dalley and Isabeau Courdurier have matured with the sport as mostly an Enduro athletes.

Additionally, some cross-country racers have moved on from their XCO (cross-country-Olympic, the official name for UCI XC) careers to race Enduro.

Australian 2013 Cross-Country Eliminator World Champion and multiple-time national XCO representative Paul Van Der Ploeg has just wrapped his first season racing EWS all over the globe.

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Image: Tim Bardsley-Smith, courtesy of Giant Bicycles Australia

A versatile rider, this man has over a decade of elite cross-country, road and cyclocross racing in his legs, but says that when it comes down XCO vs Enduro, the physiological requirements are not as easily transferable as one might assume.

“It has been a very eye-opening experience to transfer XC skills to Enduro, I didn’t expect it to be as big of a difference. I am not ashamed to say I struggled to get up to a decent speed on the downhills, holding speed in and out of corners, the demands are totally different”, admits Van der Ploeg.

Adapting as a mountain biker for Enduro goes beyond race day, as Van der Ploeg has seen other elements of his riding evolve. He says that Enduro has changed the way he views terrain, “your awareness of the trail is different, in Enduro you are trying to find time at every opportunity, find speed out of every corner."

He notes that in an XC race, the descents are used as a chance for a brief recovery, whereas in Enduro, the opposite is true - the descents are where it all counts, so you need to be looking for the fastest lines, shaving seconds wherever you can.

When asked about what it is about Enduro that he loves most, Van der Ploeg is quick to mention the enjoyment factor, “the tagline for Enduro is that it captures the fun of mountain biking, which is what it is for me, and a lot of other people,” to which he credits Enduro’s popularity. “You get to go out and ride all day with your mates, then there is the competitive element, only when you go through the timing gate.”

Van der Ploeg's teammate and friend Josh Carlson of Giant Factory Racing was also a cross country athlete until he caught the Enduro bug early and packed up his life in Australia to live the Enduro dream in Whistler (Canada), collecting some impressive results a long the way.

These athletes are truly world class, and have to refine a whole host of new skills specific to enduro that isn’t found in downhill or cross country. Most obviously, a fine mix of anaerobic and aerobic endurance is required, as well as new demand on different muscle groups, “you require way more upper body strength, and a lot more mental focus” notes Van der Ploeg.

As he mentions, the mental side is also new territory, as the riders need to be able to make gutsy line choices over large dops, navigate natural rock gardens and very steep terrain all the while managing fatigue from the long hours on the bike.

These elements echo downhill in their finesse, but the athlete must be able to repeat this effort over the course of up to seven stages while also pedaling through the liaison stage without burning too many matches. Although just the descents are timed, the liaison can include up to 2000m of elevation, nothing to sneeze at, especially when done on a long-travel mountain bike!

Additionally, the athletes need to be relatively self-sufficient on course, be prepared for changing weather conditions (this year's EWS was playfully and appropriately dubbed the Enduro Wet Series thanks to a large majority of the rounds being very wet on race day.)

Athletes travel all over the world with some locations such as the Iconic Finale Ligure being on the calendar every year, others, such as Australia this year. hosted its first EWS round in the small Tasmanian township of Derby.

Local Enduro goes Global

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Image: Dan McCallum

EWS Tasmania and Shimano Enduro Series Race organiser Ian Harwood jumped on board Enduro racing much before the rest of Australia was figuring it out. He and his team at Event Management Solutions have been integral in raising the profile of Enduro racing in Australia, and has attracted international riders to his races.

Harwood and his colleagues created Australia's first Enduro event in late 2009 off the back of a discussion with WorldTrail founder Glen Jacobs about the success of the sport in Europe. He says they “did some research and adopted the rules and concept from the SuperEnduro team in Italy. This gave a great pathway to keeping with the true form of Enduro.” Since then, Harwood and his team have seen continual growth in participation.

When asked about why he thinks Enduro is just so popular, he is much in agreeance with Van der Ploeg. “Enduro racing replicates what people are doing out on the trails any other day of the week. It is the most social form of racing that I have come across and that even applies at the highest level. The top guys are still just out there racing bikes with their mates. At our events, we try to keep things fun and inclusive for all involved and recently this has seen an increase in the junior and female categories which is great to see.”

Harwood also believes the level of professionalism that teams and riders bring to the EWS events has trickled down into local racing, affirming its place as a legitimate racing format here to stay.

What’s Next for Enduro?

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Image: Tim Bardsley Smith

As the sport continues to grow, the trails become more advanced and the level of racing more elite, there are questions over whether Enduro will, or even needs to be UCI sanctioned.

With the success of the EWS, many argue that it is best to leave well alone and not let the series fall into the hands of the heavily regulated UCI. Afterall, who does it benefit? As Van Der Ploeg points out, the EWS was created by riders, for riders, and retains a certain participant heavy feel that can be lost in the highest ranks of UCI elite racing.

What’s more, one thing the EWS is missing by its very nature is its ability to appeal to spectators. Afterall, a rider leaves the race village and returns some eight hours later, which is not greatly entertaining!

Van der Ploeg notes that this is negated by the fact that what is marketable about the sport is that the riders are riding bikes that people want to buy, which helps drive the industry, which in turn then helps support racers to forge a career as professional Enduro racers.

Additionally, he raises the point that the content generated from the events by mountain bike media is much more effective in raising the profile than the racing itself. This is key in marketing the sport to the public and attracting sponsors.

Although there is prestige and no doubt benefits of becoming UCI sanctioned, it would appear for now that the success of the EWS is on an upward trend in its own right.

As the sport matures and transforms, it will be interesting to see where it will go and how it will continue to affect the culture and climate of mountain biking, and to what level the athletes and trail builders can take it next!


Frothing on Enduro? You can shop a wide range of enduro bikes right here on BikeExchange.

Banner Image: Tim Bardsley Smith