Enduro World Series (EWS) Round 5 was situated in the south of France, near Niece. Valberg is a small town at the top of the mountain, skiing is big in the winter but also mountain biking in the summer, with the likes of Nicolas Vouilloz, Fabian Barrel and also up and coming rider Adrian Daily all living close by.
I put lot of preparation and training in leading up to this race and I was super keen to see if the EWS lives up to its name as the hardest enduro mountain bike series.
Practice was over three days as the loop was big! Wednesday and Thursday would be practice for the first 4 stages, this would be Saturdays loop taking in 50 miles of riding and over 3,500ft of climbing.
The tracks were amazing, steep and technical while taking in a lot of scenery on the long and gruelling climbs. Just don’t look down at the steep drops either side of you.
Fridays practice was a 30-mile loop with 2,000ft of climbing, but would also include 2 chairlift assisted liaisons to help you after Saturday. These stages were completely different to the day before, shorter but no time to relax as the stages were fast and steep to keep you on your toes!
Stages 5, 7 and 8 were impossible to ride due to the rain overnight, I think everyone crashed on every turn…It was that steep!
As my 7am alarm sounded, I was exited but also very nervous to see what was in-store for us today! A heavy storm hammered the hillside all night so stage 2 was cancelled as it was un-rideable due to the amount of damaged it received overnight. That took about 15 miles and about 1,000ft of climbing out of the day!
8:30 start and by 9am I was ready to start the first stage of the day. I didn’t go full pace at the start as I wanted stage 1 to go smoothly to give me confidence. I kept my cool and was carrying good speed throughout the stage and even caught the rider in-front of me. A few hill sprints and it was over very quickly even though it was a 10 minute stage.
Due to the next stage being cancelled, it was time to start the harsh 4hr transition to the next stage (technically stage 3) Lucky I had some Brits around me so we all rode together to keep the climb entertaining. After the feed station half way up, it was a long 1.5hr push to the top of the hill. This next stage would be the longest of the day with the biggest vertical drop on a stage…1,100ft to be exact.
The black earth up top was truly amazing to ride on and also an experience, right on-top of the mountains edge with drops to the left that kept your fun concentration. after that, it was fast throughout the woods with rutted corners and off cambers to catch you out. Luckily I wasn’t one one of the riders that crashed out and I passed 2 riders.
There were about 30+ switchbacks with crowds on either side of the track making you push harder and harder, it was an experience I will always remember. I have never been so nervous riding through hundreds of spectators!
The last stage of the day was called ‘Grey Earth’ This stage is something special, a few jumps at the start followed by a fast and flowing middle section. As you make it to the top of a short climb you could hear people shouting, cheering along with a guy shouting your name over the mic as you drop into the middle of two canyons. This would be my favourite stage of the day, I just wished it was longer!
I was sitting in 33rd after day 1 in the under 21 category. I was pleased with that while I was constantly learning throughout the day. Now time to chill out and watch a few ‘old-school’ bike films.
Another early start and another steep climb to start the day! As I started stage 5, the track condition had improved due to the dry conditions overnight making the ground tacky.
I overtook the rider in-front all day yesterday and I wanted to do the same today, about halfway though it began to get steeper, I was in my element as I love steep trails… It was like being in my back garden! I also passed the rider in-front and held it wide open till the end of the stage.
I was grinning with excitement all the way down. I knew it would be a good day in the saddle.
Stage 6 was another long transition after the chairlift with a steep push at the top, we didn’t have much time to get there so speed was key. I wasn’t really excited to race this stage as its mostly flat out through fields, being light doesn’t help either. After the open field section, I felt smooth through the woods until something hidden underneath the loam decided to throw me over the bars. I got up as fast as I could with a spectator shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’ at me from the side-line. I pushed hard after that and sprinted where I could to try and up for lost time. I caught the rider in-front in the final few switchbacks which were very high and very hard to navigate while riding on slipper rocks and roots!
After a climb to the chairlift station, I could rest my legs before the most technical stage of the week. Stage 7 was ‘make or break’ for everyone this weekend. A long 100m sprint at the start dropped into some nice steep turns before riding at light-speed down a ski run. After this, its where most of the crashes would happen. Off-camber turns with no berms would be tough to navigate while my arms were burning as I tried to hold on.
I had a spill on one turn but got up quite quickly. Then, when I was pretty tired and had no momentum, in a split second my face was buried into the floor. I didn’t know what had happened! Getting to my feet with my head spinning was rather difficult, I just kept it smooth for the last few turns of the stage.
The last stage of the day would be the shortest of the day, only 4 minutes long but would be the hardest one after 75 miles of pain. After leaving the start gate it was pretty much flat up top so it was all about pedalling and being consistent. Then, after a 30 metre fire-road climb it got steep quickly. Pushing hard on the sprint I was pretty tired, I kept my cool… maybe too cool. Nearly hitting a tree wasn’t ideal but I somehow saved it in front of the crowed.
The number of people there was incredible, there must have been at least 300 people spectating in the trees. I kept is smooth and fast before hitting the first drop off into the field, the roar of the crowed was scary while creating the ‘Mexican Wave’ while I rode past. I could see the finish and decided to boost the finish jump for a bit of fun… and please the crowed of course!
I dropped three placed to 36th, 70 under 21’s started the race so I was happy with that for my first World Enduro Series race. I was happy enough just to make it around while enjoying myself throughout the week.
This has make me think about how to prepare, eat and train for one of these event and how much you need to push to get good results.
Next year I will try to get entries for more EWS rounds and push harder for better results now I know what the races are like. Time to go home, start Uni the race the Welsh Enduro round at Cwmcarn next weekend! No rest for the wicked as they say!
Photos by Jer Buff