If conventional enduro racing gets you into a stressful tizzy, then the Enduro2 Les Arcs might just be the race format that's right up your street, allowing you to race epic Alpine trails against the clock, just with a buddy in tow. Our Jon roped up Anna into taking part in the 2019 event in Les Arcs in the French Alps...
Conventional races make me very stressed. That's why I wouldn't really choose to base my summer holidays around a bike race - even at UK races it usually gets to the point of not wanting to turn up the night before and then needing roughly 8,000 little nervous wees as I wait around the start line. I'd just end up being low-level worried all the time, which kind of defeats the point of a holiday.
So why did I choose to spend the better part of my summer holidays out racing in Les Arcs? It's because Enduro2 is very different from any normal enduro race; well, apart from the fact it involves racing multiple timed, mostly downhill stages. It's a three-day event with more descending than you can shake the remains of a brake pad at - a good start - but the really key thing is that you do it with a friend, with the time of the slowest rider being the one that counts towards your result.
While that sounds like a recipe for big fallings out and a blame-game at the bottom of every trail, I'd heard from riders that had taken part in previous years that it was the complete opposite of that. Riding with a mate meant you had someone to share all the sketchy moments and sweet hucks of a race run with, helping you push your pace as you can follow - or be followed - on lines that might not be readily apparent. That's on top of basically getting a greatest hits setlist of trails around Les Arcs; somewhere I'd heard Very Good Things about for years.
Cometh the hour, cometh the (wo)man
My partner for the race would be Anna; she's not just (probably) the fastest woman I know, she was the fastest woman that I know that was also free to take a week-long road trip to the event - and she's full #enduro when she's not #influencing.
I was pretty confident that, if we kept it together, we could probably do quite well overall and maybe even see a podium. Despite still being on the mend from a crash where she'd (actual medical doctor's description here) smashed her kidney like a satsuma that'd been thrown at the wall, she was game.
Despite the emphasis being on fun, game is what you need to be for this event. How's this for some numbers: well over 8,000m of timed descending, around 110km of riding over the three days and three stages that drop almost 1,000m of elevation in a single go.
So with the dates set, the road trip fun-bus - a Hilux with 200,000 miles on the clock and no functioning aircon - packed for an Alpine road trip, we set off for the continent, via a few riding spots on the way down to have a bit of a warm-up. Seeing as we'd caught the continent in the middle of a killer heatwave, a warm-up is what we most definitely got, mostly during the drive. Still, with a lovely campsite all set up and much cheese inside us, it was race day eve and we were ready to go.
What have we got ourselves in for?
I'll admit to a bit of nervousness once the email with the full stage list had landed from the organisers. Seeing multiple days with multiple stages that are bigger in descending than the total in most UK enduro races kind of hits it home.
Once you've done a few big Alpine descents you start to realise just how hard doing 1,000m of downhill in a single hit is too; the braking bumps, the hand pump, the thigh cramp - the sheer bloody physicality of it. That's without the added pressure of timing forcing you to pedal hard and the worry that you might be letting your mate down, too.
Oh, and did I mention that the entire event is ridden blind? No practise, no track walks, just ride it as you see it. The spirit of enduro would need to be strong within us. And luck, lots of luck.
Anna and I had thought about our race strategy, which was something. The plan was to send me down in front, crash test dummy style, where I could then point out 'good' lines, whether jumps or drops needed to be hucked, rolled or avoided and generally make all the mistakes so she wouldn't have to.
It's the magic elastic theory basically; try and keep in sight of each other so that she'd have the confidence to go as fast as possible without taking any silly risks. I'd be all on my own, with nothing but 160mm of bounce to make up for my (many) shortcomings as a rider.
One slight fly in the ointment was that the funicular railway that headed from Bourg St Maurice (where the event started each day) up to Les Arcs (where the lifts to the trails were) was slightly out of action. I say slightly; it was still a building site as pre-season updates had overrun rather drastically.
Still, the organisers rose to the occasion and found an army of buses, uplift trailers, vans and more to take 300 or so riders up to the first lift, though some journalist types (ahem) still managed to miss their allotted uplift slot because they were busy doing important things like drinking coffee, having another pain au chocolate and chatting.
However, once the racing began, things began to flow. The first stage was, unsurprisingly, a shock to the system; fast, techy and with a harsh 50m climb in the middle so that you could swap burning forearms for rasping lungs and then back again. I managed to smash my crank - hard - against an almost hidden rock and was lucky not to tear the pedal out. I was much luckier than the person that I saw being attended to with paramedics clutching an obviously broken arm; despite warnings to take it easy on the first stage in the course notes, when the red mist descends it's hard to reign it in...
Still, with the first stage out of the way, my nerves began to settle and having overtaken a few people on the way down, we were starting to feel much more confident about what we'd got ourselves into. The dynamic of the racing had totally changed - for me at least - as it felt more like the buzz you get after going for a flat-out hoon with a mate rather than the usual mental race run port-mortem.
As the stages passed by, we started to find our strengths and weaknesses, mostly gauged by whether we overtook or were overtaken. Anything steep, natural and tech was a-okay, despite the burning hands partially due to under-size, UK-spec brake rotors rather than big Alpine frisbees. Wild pinballing past other riders was par for the course, though everyone was very decent about it and none of the aggression that can often feature; quite the opposite in fact.
We weren't so strong on the bike park style trails that interspersed these chunky natural runs, however - while they didn't beat you up so badly, the constant flat-out sprinting needed to maintain pace was arguably harder work and I'm not much of a one for hitting jumps completely blind; I reckon it's much higher risk if you mess it up than most natural stuff.
A jammed chain cost us time on one stage but it really didn't feel like the end of the world. On a three-day race, what're a few seconds here and there? It's another advantage of the format; you can get some proper inter-team battles going. The lead might change hands, but usually still within the possibility of being brought back the following day.
The last trail of the day was a corker, however; long, scarily fast, super rough in places and extremely committing. It was basically enough of an adrenaline hit to make up for the fatigue and battered hands. Figuring out what the latest you can brake on a dusty, rough track while going around 70kph does tend to focus the mind, somewhat.
Crossing the finish line was both a huge relief and brought excitement; loads of teams high fiving, hugging and generally being stoked about having survived or thrived on a rad day's riding. We retired for food and beer, ready to repeat it all again the next day.
Rumblings from the mountains
The second morning followed the format of the previous, coffee down the bottom before a lift up to the top, though this time with my head a bit fuzzier from maybe a beer too many in celebration. The weather was looking much moodier too and, true to form, it began to rain just as we started the sprinty first stage, before the rumblings in the mountains across the valley turned into full-on bangs as the thunder rolled in.
Anna and I managed to get onto the second lift up and hit the second stage without hanging about, having a really solid run on the bike park trail getting back down to the lift station in time for the heavens to fully open and the lift to be closed due to the thunder and lightning kicking off.
While cowering under any available bit of cover from the torrential rain that turned into hail at one point, the mood was surprisingly jovial, with lots of chatting between all the riders, swapping stories, near misses and general bike-nonsense.
Eventually, the rain lifted and the lift restarted, but the knock-on effect was that the third stage that day was cancelled as there was no way the later start waves - now all bunched up at the same lift - would be able to do that, having lost so much time to nature throwing a strop.
Still, with a short pedal up the very scenic heights of the 'Lakes trail' - it does look remarkably like the Lake District as well as there being a lake at the start - and the weather settling down, it was all back on track for Anna and I. Well, until the back of my bike became very squirmy on the climb up and it became apparent that I had a cut in my tyre.
After stuffing it with tubeless anchovies as the rather rubbish tubeless sealant spurted out, it was holding pressure once again, but having a mad faff near the start line had slightly discombobulated me and I started the stage without my goggles on. This was especially silly as it was a rather soggy, rocky slippy stage, so I pulled over to sort that out and Anna took the lead.
Big mountain buckaroo
It was quite the stage too, with big, blocky rocks at the start to pump and bump through, before the gradient increased and the speed wound up. I popped back in front after Anna fell into a hole and was bumped to a stop and then got on with some of the absolutely silly line choices as the rocks gave way to grassy banks with cut lines aplenty.
I'm pretty sure that Anna wished she'd stayed in front because some of the 'lines' I took were just terrible, with what looked like a time saving straight line usually turning out to be a lumpy game of buckaroo with a compression that wanted to snap off your head tube at the end. Still, racing is racing...
After crossing the line and trying to get breath back, we had the rather surreal experience of being interviewed by someone from the local TV station - hey, I've always wanted to be big in France - and then it was lunchtime, which was laid on at cafe owned by a competitor.
While some got stuck into a cheeky beer, I was much more in the mood for all the fizzy pop I could fit inside myself. We also met up with some friends and, as the final stage of the day wasn't open as timing kit needed to get there ahead of us, we decided to catch the lift up and ride the stage we'd missed out.
A bit of light blagging got us up the lift to the start and while it was a great stage to ride - especially in a big train of riders jumping, whipping and occasionally tumbling down the big, machine built features - I suspect it'd have been a right handful to race on, with a fair bit of snow at the start, plus more big, blind booters than you could shake a stick at.
That complete, it was on the last stage of the day, which easily counts the best race stage I've ever ridden. Superfast singletrack was followed by insanely quick double track sections, then back into loose, loam-tastic straight line sections where I swear my eyes must have been bulging out as I tried to spot the inevitable switchback turns that were coming and slam the brakes on in time to get the bike turned in, while shouting to Anna so she'd do the same before running into the back of me.
With a full kilometre of vertical height, this went on for quite some time and I was actually pretty thankful for the small climb/push section in the middle, where I swapped the hand-agony for a very strong need to be sick inside my helmet. We managed to catch two teams on this section, which was enough of a morale boost to keep pushing on despite a noise in my head that sounded very much like an 808 drum machine and felt very like an impending heart attack.
It turned out we'd had an absolute flier on this stage - it very much suiting our riding preferences - with a time that put us second in mixed for that stage - only behind full-blown EWS pro racer Monika Buchi and her partner - and into fourth in the overall mixed rankings.
With the possibility of a podium finish in sight for the following day, I started to get rather amped for the following's day racing and probably bored Anna rigid with chat about how we needed to throw caution to the wind the following day - it's not like we'd been taking it easy, with Anna putting in an exceptional ride.
In reality, with a gap of six minutes between us and third place, we would have needed the team in front to have had a serious issue of some kind to make up that sort of time over the three relatively short stages that made up the last day.
That said, we gave it our all but there just wasn't enough time to make up that sort of time. Still, the last day did have some incredible riding, with the very final stage - Black 8 - being a particular highlight, especially as we'd finally ended up riding with our mates Mick and Jon plus Rene and Francois, who were battling between themselves for a podium place - or possibly two - of their own.
We pushed as hard as we could, with plenty of sketchy lines between us and hammered through a mix of wider built jumpy bits and rough, rocky and rooty sections - the whole works. I am not one of life's natural high-fivers or fist bumpers, but when we were spat out at the bottom, I was bro-ing is up with the best of them.
Back at the event HQ for the prize-giving, which also had a BBQ laid on for us, three day's worth of rad riding and adrenaline manifested itself as an urge to drink one - or possibly quite a few more - beers. I suspect dehydration played a part too.
In the end, Anna and I missed out on the podium, despite me being pretty hopeful that we might just be able to pull it out of the bag at the last minute. With beer flowing, that was no great disappointment as we - Anna especially - had turned in a very respectable performance and, more importantly, had had a whale of the time. That said, with Mick and Jon making it on to the podium in third, we got a bit of vicarious victory from that, with a huge dinner and the evening's beers feeling very well earned.
All in all, it was a hell of an experience. There's nothing quite like racing to make you push yourself and riding trails blind is something I really love; it's totally absorbing, mentally all-encompassing and physically challenging. What I realised is that doing it with a mate is even better; you've got someone to buzz off the near misses, witness the 'did you see that?!' moments, commiserate the mistakes and celebrate the successes. Times that feeling by 100 odd teams and you're getting the idea of the atmosphere - all that's on top of amazing trails in an amazing location.
I think Enduro2 is my new favourite race format, which is just as well as it'll be back in Les Arcs 2020, with the likelihood of another event in Europe and possibly one quite a bit further away too.
Big thanks to Ali and 4Event for organising and running the event as well as inviting us along - despite having a few spanners lobbed into the works by external events, it ran like a dream for our point of view. Also big thanks to Anna for being a top racing and road trip buddy and putting up with a stressy racer!
If you fancy a bit of this, head to the site below, where you can sign up for news of the 2020 event.
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