With a full day of practice, here's a snapshot of the EWS stages and what riders think of them.
No more track walks, no more riding similar trails, no more scouting runs from media crew - practice started today for the 2nd round of the Enduro World Series in Derby, Tasmania, and it's a chance to see how the world's best are racing on Australian soil. And it's our chance to see how quick people actually go when riding bikes is their job.
Enduro has continued to grow the town of Derby is full of riders, support staff and spectators right now. People are staying in Bridport and Scottsdale and anywhere inbetween. The EWS is exploding out of Derby.
We spoke to a few riders about the racing that is to come, after taking a look at the stages today and getting their thoughts on Derby.
“It's an amazing place," said Gabriel Torralba, from the Orbea Factory Team. "It's got nice ups and nice downs. It's super complete and nice. It's my first time here and I'm super happy with the team and how things are going."
The race in Derby is split into two days, with Stage 1 practice and racing taking place tomorrow.
"Today we practiuced 5 of the stages. I like the stages 3 and 4 the most. Stages 5 and 6 are more rocky and technical and I like that too."
If you have ridden at Derby before Stage 3 is Kingswall, Stage 4 is Return to Sender, Stage 5 is Shearpin, Stage 6 is Trouty. That leaves Stage 1 which is Kumma Gutza, and Stage 2 which is Detonate.
With Round 1 of the EWS at Rotorua just one week ago, the temptation to ask how it compares is obvious.
“Rotorua was all roots and mud, but here it's stones and dirt – it's really different," said Torralba. Because of that, the setup on his Orbea Rallon is different as well.
“I put the suspension a bit harder for pedalling, and for the tyres I fitted Maxxis with DoubleDown for greater strength – but with the suspension a bit firmer the bike is really fast in the trails. It's important that the bike is fast and not soft for here in Derby.”
As a multiple Australian National Champion, Rowena Fry knows what she is doing on a bike. And as she lives in Launceston she is also really familiar with the trails here at Derby, having ridden here since well before purpose built trails existed.
One thing we wanted to know was how she thought the trails would hold up under the onslaught from racers.
“I think the trails are holding up really well at the moment. A little bit of rain overnight would be really good for them."
Rain is funny like that. We need it to keep things together, but too much... well no one has forgotten 2017 yet.
"Kingswall is probably the trail that is cutting up the most as it's the newest trail. And it's really pedally and you have to work for it, so with the pros hammering through there it might chop up a little bit and the lines and edges of the trails might change.”
With some trails known to be pedally, and others to be super rocky, Rowena is certain that Derby is delivering on variety.
“The courses are really good though, with a bit of everything for everyone. That's the thing with enduro – you have to be consistent on everything. There are certainly some more downhill style trails out there, like Shearpin. If you lose it on there you'll be losing a lot of time and could be potentially hurting yourself. And then you have stages like Kingswall and Return to Sender that are really pedally and act more like endurance stages. So it will play out and be quite interesting. It's not just a course that will suit a downhiller.”
As for bike spec, Rowena is racing her Scott Ransom - and isn't really changing much.
“I keep my bike pretty well standard, but I put a little more pressure in the back of my Scott Ransom for the Shearpin stage, otherwise I like the consistency.”
Chris Panozzo is the 2015 and 2016 Australian Gravity Enduro champ, and is also part of the Panozzo gravity family dynasty. He's been racing really well so far this season and has built some incredible fitness over the past two years.
With the 6 stages split over Saturday and Sunday with Stage 1 on Saturday afternoon, Chris thinks it really makes the event more complete.
“The practice day is now not so big today, and it gives us something to do tomorrow without having to sit around all day. We rode 5 stages today, and practice stage 1 tomorrow morning and race it in the afternoon.”
Quizzed on whether one stage or another could be decisive, Panozzo was clear that there just aren't gaps in skills, fitness or time like that anymore.
“The way the racing is now you just have to be fast. It doesn't matter if a track suits you or not. In Rotorua the times were so tight that 5 seconds would split about 15 people, so you just have to be fast everywhere.”
And fast is what people are doing. In Downhill riders will work on sections and get into the race speed they need. But in Enduro, it's one sighting run then race day. So even in practice people are hitting things fast. Which means impressions of the trails come around pretty quickly as well.
“Some of the stages are really good," said Panozzo. "Some are less interesting but the majority are real sick and proper race tracks.”
Put a race on anywhere and the question remains the same - who can win? Panozzo did not pause before answering.
“Maes for sure. He's going to be the man to beat but Sam will really want to win on home soil and he will really give it the berries. So it will be between those two.”
Many people are saying that Maes is just so fit, but the reality is everyone is really fit. And Panozzo says you have to be - just to get through the event.
"To just be able to ride at 100% on 6 stages on race day you have to be fit. Everyone is at that point now that fitness isn't so much an overall factor – everyone has to be strong enough to compete at this level for 6 stages.”
We also caught up with Paul van der Ploeg, who is busy balancing MC duties and rehab from a broken leg here in Derby. That means he'll be doing anything from hobbling around on crutches, standing on a stage, or rolling around on his Giant Trance E+.
Paul would have been racing here in Derby if it wasn't for breaking his leg in two places. He moved into gravity enduro a few years back, having raced cross-country, eliminator and road at an international level. Plus he was CX National Champ in 2015. But he's seen some changes.
“It's gone a whole lot more gravity. Originally I believed the enduro stuff was going to have or was meant to have more climbing. So maybe 70 or 80% descending but the rest uphill during the race stages. But you could pretty much run a chainless bike on most of the race stages here and get to the bottom. It's made a bit of a shift to gravvity and a little bit of a different event to maybe what started a few years ago. But it's certainly a lot of fun and that's why you see Maes doing so well. He's one of the best gravity riders in the world right now. He showed that last year winning an EWS round and Downhill World Cup.”
That shift to bigger features and more intense stages has meant Paul took stock of where he was, and what he was aiming for.
“I'm having a lot of fun doing enduro, but doing the circuit last year I realised it's all gone a bit too gravity for my skill set. The technical side of it means that for me to get down I'm more in survival mode than race mode. It's a super fun circuit and everyone is super chill, all the teams are awesome. I really love the lifestyle that enduro has but in terms of me actually doing well in the races I can't see that happening – and not just because I have a broken leg.”
So, where to from here - can enduro take another leap? With some riders questioning the size of the gap jump near the bottom of stage 1, some wonder when things will go too far.
“I don't think it can progress more. Vital asked if enduro has gone too far last year, and it might have dialled back a bit since then. Whistler had 5 stages in 2018, and one stage was 25 minutes long. So it's pretty wild. Rotorua only had 5 stages, we have 6 stages here. We probably won't see those 8 stage epic days anymore. Having one stage the day before here is fun."
"It got pretty wild last year. In La Thuille they had to cancel one stage as it rained. It was just insane riding and all off camber and fresh trails. The riding and courses are probably at their limit right now.”
And when it comes to race favourites - Paul isn't revealling anything new.
“After what Martin Maes did last weekend it's pretty hard to go past picking him for the win here in Derby. He did a clean sweep of the stages. I've known Martin for the last few seasons he has been racing and he is such a confident and fit rider, and you need that for Tassie. The stages are very physical so there's not as much gravity fed speed and you really have to work for your speed. That suits Martin's style. But the Aussie in me wants Sam to come out and throw some punches and have a good race, but it will be super exciting have Stage 1 on Saturday. It's the Queen stage and it will be lots of fun it's like a mini downhill race with a hotseat, heckle zones and a bar and a DJ out on track. There will be plenty of vibe and I'm just excited to be in Derby. They really turn it on for these races.”