Four years ago when I just started cycling, I only knew two types of mountain bikes: cross country and downhill bikes. But now enduro bicycles are on the rise. I’d like to think of enduro as a full-contact sport. Because often when you ride trails, you get to hit the ground, the end of your handle bar, trees and bananas, and sometimes clash with other riders and their bicycles.
It is a very tough but un-glamorous sport: the racing is done in very remote trails and the only way riders can have a photographer is if they bring their own cameras. I have never seen a “photographer” brave harsh terrains and unpredictable mountain weather to take snaps at muddy and (occasionally) bloody riders.
The purest form of mountain biking
Cross-country (XC) mountain biking not always raced on technical tracks. It is sometimes raced on pavements and flat dirt roads. But enduro mountain biking is done mostly on technical trails found on remote mountain locations. It incorporates both technical skills and cardio performance. Hence, many enduro riders argue that it is the purest form of mountain biking.
Enduro is a time-trial, multi-stage race. Riders are timed on technical routes that are predominantly descending. Once they finish the technical route, they move on to the next technical stage. They have to pedal to the next stage within the given timeframe. There are no age groups or skills bracket in a race. Weekend riders battle it out with pro riders. It is a free-for-all race.
Training for enduro
Half of the time, you’re riding your bike; half of time, you’re carrying it. Upper body strength is very important in enduro riding because on technical stages, you have to ride on rocks, roots, uneven soil, and river crossings. Smooth surfaces are rare. If there are, they are hard-pack and very slippery on wet weather.
When I was racing for cross-country, I mostly did long rides and uphill intervals. Racing for a different format requires a different type of training. I still do uphill climbs and long rides on my chromoly road bike. But I have to do more runs and occasional upper body trainings (pro enduro riders do a lot of upper body workouts but I am not committed enough).
Training for enduro requires a shift to focusing on technical riding skills like cornering, braking, descending on steep, unpredictable terrains. A rider also has to learn how to fix common bike problems because up in the mountains, he is the only one who can help himself. There is no rest for the weary during race day. After getting beat up by technical riding, steep uphill climbs will burn riders’ legs. Climbing on most transition stages is tough enough on a cross-country bike. It is even tougher on heavy full-suspension bikes with long fork travel.
But there is only one aspect of enduro riding that no training can build: mental toughness. Sure, being fit does give a rider confidence, endurance, and resistance to fatigue and hunger. But fitness can never prepare someone to being lost in the wilderness. There is no training for coldness, solitude, and despair. “Inspirational” quotes will lost their power if you haven’t eaten lunch yet at 4pm.
Sometimes, the rider you’re following quickly disappear on forked trails, no trace, not even their tire tracks. But there is one technique in surviving this kind of race: if you only hang on long enough, you’ll eventually meet familiar faces preparing warm drinks (or cold ones, depending on the weather).
The enduro machine
Enduro mountain bikes are different from XC bikes. They are often full-suspension with longer fork travels. An average XC bike has a 100mm suspension. By race rules, enduro bikes are required to have at least 120mm of travel. Hard tail bikes must have at least 140mm fork travel. Safety is the main reason why these bikes need to have longer suspension. Riders can easily topple over their bike on steep descents if they ride on 100mm forks.
By regulation, tires have to be at least 2.35″ wide. There are no strict rules to the with of handlebars but riders prefer to have at least 700mm. Bikes are easier to control on rough terrain with wider handlebars. Because enduro bikes have long forks, heavy, fully-suspended bodies, and wide tires, they are very slow on climbs and flat roads. But the enduro machine is very fluid on tough trails, and they make a rider’s day a whole lot easier on the mountains.
The unique spirit of mountain biking
There is a pressure in mountain biking culture. Finishing alone does not merit recognition. You have to finish at the top three. If you can’t you have to give those people a reason to fear for their place in the podium. But it is not all about competition all the time. It is weird how riders can be so competitive during the race but be very friendly to each other off the race course.
If you want to prove something to other people, enduro racing is not for you. There are no photographers and people to watch you go the distance. But if you want to prove something to yourself, enduro is what you are looking for. You’ll see how you are when you are cold, alone on unfamiliar terrain, and under duress from competition. You’ll get to see how you manage yourself when you are lost and it’s about to get dark, with a heavy bike to drag to the end of the course.
Marshals are often few and far in between. The trails are insufficiently marked. There are tracks that seem to offer the quickest exit but they end up in valleys or rivers, where getting out is a lot harder. Enduro is a test of mental toughness, how you are when you are racing just by yourself.
The Biliran locals
The most recent enduro race is the Enduro Biliran staged on March 23. I have never experienced such rain before. It never stopped falling from 9am until I finished the race at 5pm. It was the coldest rain. Every dropped seemed to pierce coldness through my skin.
The trails were mostly hard pack soil. No rocks for tires to grip on, it felt like riding a road bike on marble surface. I only crashed once on the Cebu Leg of Enduro Pilipinas. But in Biliran, I lost tracked of the number of times I went over my bike or the times my bike went over me. The technical trail and the pressure of competition is a perfect blend for disaster.
On the third stage, my front tire slipped while descending. I landed on my knees with my hands still on the handle bars. The track was so steep and slippery that I kept sliding until my head hit a rock that was protruding on the side.
By the time stage 3 was over, I was so worn out, bruised, and hungry. We had lunch in one of the mountain barangays, where it was so cold steam would come out of our mouth every time we talk. I was already shivering, thankfully one of the locals allowed me to stay inside their house. They own a sari-sari store and asked me if I wanted coffee. They only asked me to pay for seven pesos for the coffee, they didn’t charge me for boiling the water.
At the end of stage 4, one of the school teachers opened her classroom to us for shelter. It was still raining moderately and cold wind rushed all over the place as we were surrounded by open rice fields. Ma’am Bella even boiled water for us so we can have coffee.
At the end of the race, I was so tired and hungry it felt like everything that happens around me was just inside my head. Thankfully one of our fellow rider’s family members were there to bring us bread and some hot drinks. I couldn’t have made it through the cold, hunger, and exhaustion if it weren’t for the help of people who I just met. I relied on the kindness of strangers to get through the race.