By Dan Atherton with Gill Harris, photos by David Evans
Last weekend Dan Atherton of GT Factory Racing, oldest sibling in the Atherton family and famous for his world-class bike handling skills across loads of different disciplines rode the grass-roots Dyfi Enduro, held in the Dyfi Forest, starting at the Machynlleth town center in Powys, Wales. And it hurt him bad! In this blog Dan talks about his increased respect for cross-country riders and the most hellish thing he’s ever ridden.
“First up, let’s get it out there; the Dyfi Enduro isn’t enduro as I know it! A timed, gravity enduro is an entirely different beast. This one’s been running since way back in the day, 14 years to be exact and when it started the new, Enduro World Series style enduro wasn’t even a thing yet. So I guess the organizers are right to stick with the name. It’s an endurance event and people know what to expect, in theory anyway because whatever they’d called it I don’t think it would have prepared me.
I really wanted to be part of this because Dyfi is where I live now and it’s become a real community focus with all the shops putting bikes with number plates on them in the windows and thousands of people flooding in. But it’s also cool to ride with the guys I see riding in the forest every day, the trails go right past my door. I guess a big part of me also wanted to do it as part of my training, it’s hard to replicate the intensity you need for racing when you’re not in a race situation, you always go harder and faster when you’re in a race.
Here’s another thing. It’s not technically a race, billed as a non-competitive, mass-start event. Not a race but when you cross the start line, the clock starts too so of course I had to try and race it! And trying to race it meant it was the most hellish 3 hours, 14 minutes and 33 seconds of my life. Because I’m a racer I made sure that I was there early enough to get a good starting position and I came off that start line racing, but after 40 minutes, maybe an hour, it became irrelevant whether there was two riders ahead or 22. Every ounce of me wanted to catch the guy in front, every fiber wanted to do better, but at that level of exertion that kind of motivation slips away; pretty soon it was all about setting a rhythm that I could cope with to get round to the end.
In an EWS enduro you can expect to ride 35 miles and ascend 6,230 feet, the same distance and climbing as this one, but the transitions in EWS aren’t timed so not only are you riding the climbs at approximately 25 percent of the speed of the Dyfi climbs, but you also have a 5-10 minute rest to chill before each downhill section—five minutes to let your heartbeat settle makes a big difference.
I’ve never raced cross-country before so I really didn’t know what to expect. Of course I knew that the XC riders were super-fit, but I knew it in an abstract, theoretical kind of way, until we hit the first climb. Thing is if you took any one of those climbs individually it’d be OK, it’s the mental challenge of knowing that you’ve got another three hours ahead of you with your heart rate at 170 bpm. I just wasn’t convinced I’d be able to do it. The downhill sections felt a bit more natural and I’d overtake loads of riders but as soon as we started the climbs they’d pass me back, every single time. Actually, not every time, on some of the technical climbs I was OK, where the speeds were lower and it was more about power than consistent cadence, but all of the fire-roads had just been re-graded after the Welsh rally so they were soft, it was really hard for me to stay on top of my cadence.
Just watching those XC guys ride gave me a whole new respect for them. Moving from downhill to enduro was a whole leap in fitness for me but this was ten times that. These guys are machines, not only fit but consider how hard it is riding these tracks on a hardtail? There’s no give in the bike and everything happens in a split second. This was just a local event too, I can’t even begin to imagine how a World Cup cross-country would be.
So it strikes me that I’ve painted a pretty dark picture so far, and that’s exactly why the organizers are so right to stress that this isn’t a race. You don’t even get a finishing position, just your own time. I know with absolute certainty that if I hadn’t been pushing it so hard I would have had a great time! Our GT Factory Racing Team Director, Dan Brown rode it and loved it. There were beer tents and food stops and a school brass band, live music all the way round and all of the local people coming out of their houses to cheer and wave.
You might kid yourself on the start-line that you’re going to race, like I did. Even as the rain pours down, the tracks getting muddier and tougher by the minute and the enormity of the task that lays ahead starts to take hold in your mind, the urge to race will be fighting with the realization of what a gnarly thing it is you have to do. You might be as naïve as I was. I talked myself into believing it wasn’t going to be that hard. I won’t make that mistake again but I will ride again, definitely. I also like to think I’ll ride it pretty chilled next year.”