Lockdown was a lot of things for different people. Many were furloughed, many had to work through and maximum respect for both pools of people. It came with a huge range of obstacles with a few left unseen, and that was definitely the case for me, having accepted to take on the Merida Ex Enduro before knowing fully what it really was…
[All images of the event courtesy of Paul Box | instagram.com/framedogs/]
I knew that the Ex Enduro was an enduro-style race that took place on Exmoor. What I didn't know is that it's a multiday enduro with an emphasis on endurance. Over the course of three days, 80 riders climb up to 2,000m a day, descend up to eight timed stages a day, blind and rack up 110km of riding. There were also a couple of night stages thrown in for an extra dash of spice.
The extent of the 'endurance' aspect of the event is something I was utterly unaware of before saying a massive ‘hell yes!’ when the invitation was extended to me. It was only after a swift Google when the full weight of what I had just accepted dawned on me. If it wasn’t for lockdown, I would have been much more confident.
When lockdown came into action, I was left furloughed, and I won’t lie, I welcomed what felt like a break after working six to seven day weeks elsewhere since the Christmas prior. Don’t get me wrong, I completely respect that lockdown was an incredibly difficult aspect of life for a lot of people, and well done to those who got through it. It certainly wasn’t easy.
During my time not working (… well, not full time), I did my best to ride every other day, of course as sensibly and safely as possible, and I only ever rode to my local trails. Though, those trails were incredibly mellow, with almost no line choice or elevation. That quickly affected my riding.
Pair that with a rekindled passion for Xbox, beer, and crispy m&ms; my fitness took a massive hit, and I had palmed off the idea of racing for the year due to that… And a smidge of social anxiety.
So, as you could imagine, the Ex Enduro was a super daunting task, but I was up for the challenge, imagining how awesome it would be simply to finish the event. I knew something had to happen to help me reach my goal of finishing, and that’s when I enlisted the help of Fit4Racing.
Fit4Racing is an online exercise subscription designed and developed by top blokes Pat and Jonny, who have helped the likes of Adam Brayton and Danny Hart get to podium topping fitness. Already, that filled me with a welcome level of confidence.
They happily popped me onto their Fit4Riding program, which is a slightly more relaxed version of the full-on Fit4Racing program. Being something of a hermit, I was excited to see that either subscription could be done completely at home and with the minimal kit, so that’s exactly how I exercised.
With the Fit4Riding program, subscribers are given three days' worth of exercise routines with each day and week concentrating on a particular aspect, be it endurance or strength. Those endurance days were particularly… Testing.
The exercises and movements are given out to subscribers through a weekly e-mail containing a link to a well-presented video where the guys will show you exactly what to do and how to do it, along with some alternatives in case you don't have the right kit. There’s a very healthy serving of bants in each video too. It’s almost as if you’ve got a couple of mates training you after a couple of weeks into the program.
As I only had a couple of months to get as fit as I possibly could, those top fellas at Fit4Racing kindly had a Wahoo Kikr turbo trainer headed my way. This was helpful both to get myself warmed up before a workout, but it also allowed me to squeeze in some intervals in between workout days and if I got up extra early before work.
Training started off with a benchmark test. This was to gauge a starting fitness and get some data that I could compare against should I decide to test my progress further down the line.
I won’t beat around the bush; it absolutely wiped me out. Recovery took the full week, and the mountain of a task ahead of me doubled in size because I wasn’t physically able to begin proper training as soon as I expected. Of course, this was just a benchmark, so the actual routines shouldn’t be much harder… Right?
Well, there was less running, and that was a massive positive, but to start with. The workouts were super intense, and I picked the warmest week of the year to start. But regardless, there I was, in my shed pumping out squats, chucking weights about, and smashing push-ups for as long as Pat and Jonny told me to or as long as I could.
The third or maybe fourth week came, and I hit a bit of a downer. Progress wasn’t too clear, and I was spending three evenings a week trying my best to complete these workouts. When I was riding, it was all about orienting the rides around training, putting in the sprints, climbs, and stopping as little as possible.
This isn’t to do with Fit4Racing’s training being ineffective, far from it, in fact. It was more a mindset that I unknowingly put myself in. I piled the pressure on knowing that I wanted to be competitive and more than capable of finishing the Ex Enduro. Though, it was a mindset I needed to kick.
Then I went for a ride just for fun, and I made a massive point of that just to try and boost my mood. During that ride, I found that I could push harder and remain much better composed further down extended descents where I would usually feel the onset of fatigue. I could keep pedalling for much longer too. The efforts and workouts were working. The game was on.
At the point where the Ex Enduro was mere weeks away, bike set up was almost all I could think about during the weeks prior. As with all kinds of riding, fitness is only half of the battle. I knew that to finish the event happily, I would have to put some serious thought into my bike’s setup.
I started off focusing on my tyre choice as that is what would make the biggest impact on my bike’s speed on the pedals. Although the Ex is an enduro and having raced some of the stages before, I knew that grip was something I also had to consider seriously. I knew full well that I couldn’t simply go for an all-out grip tyre combo though as there are a number of feisty uphill transitions to conquer.
The race took place at the beginning of September, so good weather definitely wasn’t guaranteed. Because of that, I packed two tyre set-ups, one for dry, one for the wet. For dry, I went for a Maxxis Minion SS at the rear for its superior rolling efficiency but that was paired with a Maxxis Assegai at the front. The choice towards the Assegai was simply for all-out grip and some extra braking to make up for what I would lack at the rear. It’s a tyre that I get on really well with, and its behaviour in the corners is something that I particularly admire.
As for my wet setup, I brought along a Maxxis Shorty Gen 2 and a Maxxis Dissector. The former I picked for grip and mud clearance in slippery conditions. The latter, while designed for dusty trails, performs impressively well in the wet but for the grip it offers, it rolls mighty quickly.
Knowing that the Ex Enduro is such a big race where participants will be racking up serious miles, comfort was something that I had in the forefront of my mind, having picked my tyres. With that, I went for quite a controversial cockpit. On test I’ve had the Fasst Company Flexx Enduro handlebar, a bar that’s designed to offer five degrees worth of flex thanks to tuneable elastomers. During testing, I found that it damps repeating hits really well and staved off arm pump later into long rides. Arm pump could be detrimental to my stage times, so the better I could avoid it, the faster I’ll go.
It had to be included in my cockpit purely for the extra comfort. Though, that’s not all of the controversies to grace my bars as I chose to run handguards. Usually found on bikes piloted by the likes of Sam Hill, I made the decision to run them because I felt a lot more confident going fast through overgrown trails, of which there were a fair few during the race.
Cushcore was something that also added a level of comfort but of course, comfort isn't the only benefit. I ran Cushcore mainly to keep my rims in good nick should I plough into something extra hard. Because tyre inserts allow you to run lower pressures, rolling resistance also got a bit of a boost as the tyre was about to mould around bumps, rather than ping over them.
Funnily enough, if there were a handguards category, I would have placed slap bang on top of the podium. Not through blisteringly quick times though, for I was the only competitor out of around 90 overall running them.
Of course, along with the bike set up, I had to pack a lot more food, water and spares so a bigger bag had to make its way into my set up. For an idea of the kind of kit I brought with me, we’ve got an article about trail essentials you can see here.
The week of the race came incredibly quickly but rather than nervous, I was super excited. I was keen to get out there, have fun and get the job done. Don’t get me wrong, there were some nerves. After all, I knew only one person at the race and I’m not brilliant at tackling unfamiliar scenarios alone.
After a couple of hours in the car, I arrived at the Merida Ex Enduro’s arena, had a brief chat with that one person, signed on, and got my tent sorted for the weekend. Only one thing was left to do, and that was to get a beer.
While I was sat, alone, with my beer it must have taken only half an hour to get talking. It wasn’t much longer afterwards until we had a whole group on the go, talking e-bikes and previous experiences with racing. It was then when I realised the awesome inclusivity of mountain biking. Our mutual passion for riding meant that we always had something in common, something to agree and disagree over. Anyway, any remaining social anxiety was pretty mellow by now, especially after a few bevs.
I woke up on day one on a slightly deflated airbed with a plan for my weekend. Both the first and second day, I would take it reasonably easy in order to save my legs for the third. I chose this approach because I assumed that everyone would be totally cooked come the third day and this is where I would make up some time.
With my plan in mind, I trotted off to get some breakfast but the unimaginable happened. It was raining. All of my plans for a super easy day on the pedals were scuppered. I was stood in the queue for food telling myself that it would be fine to run a semi-slick at the rear, hoping that it would be the feather in my hat that no one else had.
I chatted to a few others about my tyre choice and got nothing but winces and a round of, “you don’t want to be doing that”s.
I heeded the advice of several and threw the Dissector on the rear as others were limbering up at the morning yoga session. After the day’s briefing, I loaded the bike onto the van and got onto my first uplift.
Uplift? Why yes! The genius organisers of the Ex Enduro had booked a round of uplifts to get our fresh legs up to the first stage. If the days weren’t already huge, this would have felt like cheating. There was an uplift on the third day too but that one was a lot more necessary.
My little but very rad group of new journo mates winched up the rest of the way to the first stage utterly soaked, but there I was, thanking myself for blowing up the Dissector tyre.
The first stage was exposed, rocky, classic Exmoor track that wound itself down after Dunkery Beacon. Though the beautiful views were replaced with clouds, and rain was whipping it down. The track was quick, flowy, with a dash of tech thrown in for good measure. Things were going well apart from an instance of dodgy line choice, which saw me jump off the bike and hop over a mini ravine.
Thereafter, the stages were definitely wet with plenty of roots to send you off line. Notably, stage 3 was absolutely littered with roots to the point where I would find a web of the things and just hold on, hoping that at somewhere, my tyres would grip. To be honest, that was pretty much the theme of the day. Thankfully, it wasn’t just me who had trouble with this particular trail.
Along with six damp tracks, Day one was also host to a couple of night stages after a welcome break back at the arena. Now, I seldom take part in night rides, so the idea of racing stages at night was pretty scary.
The first track was rife with switchbacks, and I’m sure in daylight, riders could find some decent flow, but there was a real curse found in riding brand new tracks totally blind and not being able to see much, even with the most powerful of lights.
Midway through the night portion of the event, I had lost my mates, and by itself, a dark forest isn’t the most comfortable place to be alone. After a bit of uphill, during the transition to the second-night stage, I saw figures draped in black cloaks with white faces. It sounds crazy, but they were definitely there. As I neared one, it turned away from me as I pedalled past. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t slightly freaked out but what really got me were the sound effects that played after I had passed.
Needless to say, this was the right time to burn my legs out and pedal as quickly as I could. Thanks, organisers.
After the previous horrors, it was time to wind down at a nearby farm and enjoy the barbeque that the organisers had laid out for us. I hadn’t been to a race and been treated so well.
My day one plan of taking it easy didn’t really go as planned. The rush of racing had me going as quick as I could, sprinting out of corners and through flat sections. It was fun, but my riding was reckless and ill-calculated. Something had to change.
Day two saw some of my favourite riding of the weekend but having placed 13th on the first day, I knew I had to do something to make up some time. On this day, I stuck to my plan however and took it easy hoping that I would regain some leg strength for day three.
The middle day took riders over eight stages with some of the biggest transitions so, to be honest, it was tough to keep some energy in the reserves because I needed it to get from stage to stage.
It started off dry though! You could feel the collective rejoice of all riders but as soon as we reached stage one, we were under rainfall yet again. This time, not for long though and throughout the day the trails turned into that lovely fresh loam that Exmoor riding is proudly known for.
Have you ever done a race with a tea stop halfway through? Nope, me either but that was about to change as there was one nicely planned into day 2’s route. Here, riders stopped for tea, cake, and even scones (cream then jam). Halfway through the biggest day, this was the morale boost that everyone needed.
Believe it or not, day two ended with my best result yet, I was sat happily in 12th. Taking it easy was working but with day three looming, I knew that there were some serious efforts to be had to make up some more time. There was more fun to be had, however.
Day two ended with a proper, slap-up sit-down meal and a good old quiz to keep folk entertained. The food was seriously good but sadly my team didn’t win the quiz. The chance to test our mountain bike trivia was a great laugh though.
Day three wasn’t quite as big as day one or two, which in some way was a relief but in another way, the end wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Having met some lovely people, all but a whiff of social anxiety had gone and I was having an absolute blast sharing the experience with people I had met over the weekend. In passing, we all cheered each other on, even if we weren't in the same groups and there was always a joke to be had. Even though we were all competing against each other, the race felt like a huge, collective effort and an experience that everyone could share between themselves.
The third day saw a couple of repeated stages but most importantly, the driest riding of the weekend. So when we found that stage three of day one would be repeated riders were keener for the challenge. It would be rude to forget the Vominator too, one of the most horrible climbs I had ever had the pleasure of walking up. A full nine riders made it up the Vominator on legs that had seen almost three days of solid riding up to this point. Fair play.
Our small crew rattled down the final stage with little acknowledgement of the feat that we’ve accomplished over the weekend. 23 stages and 110km is an awful lot. It was only when dibbing out for the final time where the achievement was compounded and it felt just as awesome as I hoped before even beginning my training.
After we had dibbed out having completed the final stage, I was telling myself that I could even take on one or two more stages. This quick recovery of strength is where all of that training really paid off, so thanks to Pat, Jonny, and Fit4Racing.
I had finished 13th in my category out of 16 and a few DNFs, but having raced in a field filled with some proper handy riders, I was more than happy.
The best thing about the whole weekend, though, was how brilliant the event really is. It’s by no means serious at all, and every rider was as friendly as the next. There was no discrimination between slow and fast, e-biker or analogue rider. While I had approached the event with some lockdown onset social anxiety, my passion for riding bikes, along with everyone else's, conquered it and I very quickly felt at home.
During the whole weekend, people who I had spoken to about my training with Fit4Racing have asked how everything was feeling and being honest with you, if you had asked me on the first and second days, I would have said that I didn’t know.
It was only on the third where I was getting some mighty powerful sprints in where I knew the training had been worth it. It was also in my impressively speedy recovery between days. Without the training, I know that I would have been totally done mid-way through the second day, but thanks to those efforts that I began months before, I had the strength to remain composed and reasonably fast, even down the longer stages. Granted, my legs still ached before hopping onto my bike to start a fresh day’s riding but give it five minutes, and I felt super fresh.
For all of your training needs, Fit4Racing has been great and very easy to fit into my working week. Generally, each day's training takes an hour, maybe an hour and a half tops. For just £25 a month for the Fit4Riding program, it’s an easy and worthwhile investment if you’re feeling out of shape after lockdown, as I was, before a big race, or if you just want to become a stronger rider.
Upon reflection, a week after the Ex Enduro, I've reminded myself what an event like this is actually all about. It's about having a great time, regardless of results, and that's what the Merida Ex Enduro had totally nailed. Yes, it was a tough event, but there was a huge sense of accomplishment having finished it in one piece, and I've come away from the race with a mind brimming with awesome memories and vague ideas of where some super sick trails are for next time I'm in the area. The sense of being one with such a welcoming collective was huge and something I've not experienced at any other race. I can't ignore the awesome food either.
So, if you're itching to take on an event like the Ex Enduro or similar, while some preparation is a great idea, don't let any worries about your potential result put you off because it's more about having fun, enjoying yourself, and meeting like-minded riders above stepping upon a podium.
You might also like: