Packing in a huge amount of riding and racing over three days, the recent EX Enduro proved that you don't have to travel to the continent or even further abroad if you want a seriously challenging multi-day, boutique enduro race experience.
The EX has been inspired, in part, by races such as the Trans Provence that are part race, part holiday and part adventure. The numbers are strictly limited for the EX, with just 80 riders taking part with a mix of seasoned racers and have a go heroes. Coming off the back of bike trade show season, I was definitely in the latter camp, having spent more time strolling around strip lit halls than sending lairy hucks or sprinting to victory.
The EX Enduro is based around Minehead and takes advantage of the rich and varied riding that Exmoor has to offer. Want steep, loose singletrack? Yep, plenty of that. Fast, open and naturally rocky descents? Fill your boots. Great big climbs? Very much so. If enduro is the race format that's designed to challenge you as an all-round rider, then Exmoor is the perfect backdrop for that. Okay, so you're not getting Alpine style 20-minute descents, but with each day having from 30-50km of riding, at least a couple of thousand metres of climbing and even more descending thanks to an uplift each morning, you'd be hard pushed to quibble about the amount of riding being offered up.
With the event running from Friday to Sunday, most riders turned up on Thursday evening where they were welcomed with free beer from event sponsors Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery. Seeing as I'd been otherwise occupied - yep, at a trade show - I turned up early on Friday morning, having spent most of the previous evening getting my borrowed Trek Slash 9.9 RSL in order. Instead of the usual sad burger van and instant coffee in a plastic cup of most races, the all-inclusive breakfast was just getting started, with a spread that had everything from fruit and porridge to a full English fry up. I usually spend the morning of every race I do frantically rushing about to try and get everything in order before a start that's always too early, but the EX kicked off in the most relaxed way I could imagine, which got things off to an excellent start.
With a full belly and a bike that I'd shod with conditions specific rubber - yup, ones that work in mud - and everything tweaked as best as possible within the time I had, it was into one of the uplift vans and onto the first stage. It was definitely on the pedally side, with some classic British soggy conditions leaving I'd fitted a mudguard as well the mud tyre up front, while stopping in time to use my wrist mounted 'dibber' to record my finish time was a slightly fraught affair - mostly for the marshall risking life and limb in order to record my time. As it happens, the person following me applied the brakes so hard they managed to send themselves over the bars. There's commitment.
In between each of the timed stages, there were decently long liaison stages, which offered plenty of decent riding in their own right as well as getting you to where you need to be. That meant plenty of time to reflect on the mistakes made during the race stage, chat with mates and generally suck up the atmosphere, which was surprisingly positive despite the drizzle and rather muddy trails. Certainly, I found plenty of time to reflect on the wisdom of racing on a bike that I'd never ridden before and had blindly trusted that the many damping settings were somewhere in the right place, what with it being an ex-magazine test bike.
Safe to say, trying to wrap my head around a new bike and also race down trails blind in soggy conditions as fast as I could was not a smart idea. Stage 2 saw the first of many crashes that, although not too painful, were very time and energy sapping and as the day drew on and the mileage built up, I started to tire. After burying myself on a super pedally stage and then following it up with a high-speed tumble that resulted in a broken chain within sight of the finish line, my initial optimism was turning into rather frustrated resignation. Even my hardy, fit riding buddy was starting to flag from the combination of a long, hilly ride plus sprinting six hard race stages, despite the rather lovely tea and food stop half way through the day. It's safe to say the EX Enduro requires a hell of a lot of endurance - and this was only day one. I've tried to purge the final climb from my mind, but the haggard faces of my fellow riders said it all - though most did brighten up when Rory from event sponsor DMR was waiting at the top with a van full of beer.
The sixth and final run of the day back to the campsite wasn't a timed stage, but it would be on Sunday, giving us a rare chance to scope out the trails we'd be riding before racing down them. In the half-light of the evening, that was less reassuring than you'd expect, what with all the roots, steep chutes and technical plummeting proving rather tricky even at a casual pace - and I hadn't even drunk any booze. I was extremely glad to get back to the campsite without having added another tumble to the days tally and even gladder when I saw the huge spread that had been laid on for dinner.
To say we were spoilt would be an understatement. There was simply masses of food and and it was delicious - and I'm not just saying that because I was hungry enough to eat a Ginster's pasty and think it was a Michelin starred feast. I'm pretty sure that the Heavens parted and angels sang as I got stuck in. That's certainly how I remember it anyway. After gorging myself to uncomfortable levels of fullness and then grabbing a wash in the proper, warm showers, I was very much ready for bed, despite most other people getting stuck into some beers. After a nightmare of a first day's racing, I was ready to put it behind me.
A new dawn breaks
The second day was set to be the longest and the toughest, with almost 50km of riding to be done. However, with the sun shining and the ground relatively dry despite rain during the night, I was feeling much more positive about life, the universe and bike racing, something that couldn't have been said the previous evening.
Once again, we were going to be ferried to the top of the hill before the day's first stage, which meant that for those unconcerned with getting going as soon as possible, breakfast was again a fairly relaxed affair and I did my level best to eat the event out of house and home. In the queue for the uplift, Tracy Moseley, champion downhill and enduro racer was busy mingling and despite not racing she was on hand to help out around the course.
The first stage was on a bridleway and while being timed, wouldn't count towards the overall time. That provided me with a much-needed opportunity to make some suspension setup tweaks to the Slash's Fox Float X2 shock. It turned out that the high-speed rebound dial was wound fully closed, which went some way to explaining why I'd been having such a hard time getting used to the bike - that's the last time I assume something is right, regardless of who's had the bike before me. Suitably fettled, I set off again and the bike felt much better. My day was looking up already.
The next stage was as much a test of a rider's nerve as bike handling skills, with a broad, flat-out high-speed trail that occasionally dropped away into a tricky blind corner or small rock section. Despite putting on my brave hat, I still finished the stage thinking I could have stayed off the brakes a bit more, but such is the world of enduro racing. Calculating risk and riding accordingly is as much of the skill set as fitness or bike handling.
As the day went on, we started to ride some more technical, steep and sloppy singletrack. That's much more my cup of tea, with tighter and twistier riding allowing me to claw back some of the lost time from the previous day. That said, the balance between giving it your all on the timed stages and realising you still needed a fair amount of energy in reserve simply to get around the route was tricky to get right as the day proceeded. Still, the rather charming tea and butty stock provided ample fuel, though this time with the knowledge that we had to go up a massive climb immediately afterwards. Indeed, we spent most of the day pottering back and forth across the valley to link up different riding areas. That meant plenty of variety, but when the day drew to an end, once again dusk was falling and my tummy was rumbling. My riding buddy looked rather wan, muttering something about the ride being harder than any Enduro World Series round he'd competed in. Not bad for a spin around Exmoor...
Yet again, the evening meal delivered in spades. As we inquired about the possibility of going up for seconds, the long-suffering caterer Ian Luff commented that he'd made enough for 150 portions for the 80 or so attendees but was running low already. The EX Enduro is certainly a good way to build an appetite, if nothing else.
The real treat of the evening then began, with a real-life harpist gently serenading the assembled riders as the evening wear clad event crew - including Tracy Moseley in a ball gown - served cocktails. Surreal as this was, yet again I could barely keep myself awake and once again snuck off to my tent without having consumed a drop in anticipation of a restful sleep and hangover-free morning. From what I could hear through my earplugs until passing out, it sounded like the party went on for a while...
The final day of the EX was thankfully shorter than the others at only 30km or so, but it packed in some of the most fun and technical riding to be had in the area, with some seriously steep and gnarly terrain that's hard enough to ride, let alone push on at race pace. happily, the gods were smiling and the weather held as dry and sunny again. Having ridden a few of the trails during another race, I was extremely glad of that as some sections would have been mostly about survival than speed.
As well as the end becoming nigh, I was feeling on good form, having finally got to grips with how to ride the big wheeled, big travel Trek Slash with a bit of pace. Being just a small 5'8 lad and built rather slightly, it required a much more physical and aggressive riding style to get the bike leant into turns when compared to my usual 650b machine, but it certainly delivered huge amounts of speed and mid-corner grip if you got it right. Being much happier on the bike meant I was slowly crawling up the leaderboard after my rubbish showing on the first day, despite still getting over-enthusiastic and making silly mistakes on almost every run.
By the end of the day, the atmosphere amongst riders was buzzing, despite big days and big miles. We were definitely ending on a high, with some of the best riding of the event being saved til last. I've got to say that as I gave it my absolute all down the last stage, I was relieved, in the best possible way, that the event was over. It was in turns brutal, fun, exciting and scary - basically, all the bits that make racing your bike such an intense experience. I was relatively pleased to have thrashed my way to 15th overall, but as ever, it was a case of could do better. Next time...
You might think that paying £250 to enter a race is a lot of money, but as I rode round, I had plenty of time to tot up just how much a long weekend of riding would set you back, even if you arranged and guided yourself. Once you've treated yourself to a full breakfast, a couple of coffees, a packed lunch and dinner each day, plus accommodation in a campsite, it's be pretty impressive if you had any change from the entry fee amount. That's before you factor in a few beers of an evening - or a harpist, should you so desire.
While the EX Enduro might not have quite the same romance or quite as epic a setting as some, when it came to delivering a demanding but enjoyable race but with all the amenities you could need or want, it delivered in spades. With an ethos of keeping it small and personal, I'm pretty sure the next instalment will sell out fast - but I'd strongly suggest you get yourself amongst those lucky few. I had three days of cracking riding, some very high highs and some fairly low lows to boot, but I'm extremely grateful to have been invited along. I've raced various UK enduro races plus a few Continental ones to boot and while Minehead isn't quite the Alps and is never going to deliver a 20 minute downhill stage, getting a solid 45 minutes of actual on-the-clock racing plus around 16 hours of total riding time, it can more than compare for a challenge.
THE EX enduro 2017 - The Highlights, by EX Enduro
- Jono Jones - DMR Bikes
- Matthew De Villanueva - Bad Ass Bikes
- Seb Stott - BikeRadar
- Katie Wakely - Team Skene
- Sasha Smith
- Alexis Mackie - Bad Ass Bikes
- Finley Clay - Wild Bike Ltd
- Tom Dunn - Hot Pursuit Cycles / bikeglovestore.com
- Ewen Turner - IMB
The full results can be found here.
DMR Bikes, TRP Brakes, Lezyne, X-Fusion, Bontrager, Carbon Cycles, Disco Brakes, Squirt Lubes, Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery.