If you walk through the pits at an Enduro World Series, it is clear that the sport has moved on a long way from the rusted camper vans and worn-out tents that defined its beginnings. Colourful whisper flags bristle in the breeze and huge inflatable branded domes fill the skyline. Where once there were old, beat-up vans, now there are polished articulated lorries, full to the brim with spare parts and technology. Gone are the feral camp fires and deck chairs, now replaced with hot tubs and sharp industry-logoed uniforms. Enduro has grown up and turned professional.
With the big teams now dominating the pits, has it all got too serious and has the spirit that forged the sport been lost in translation? Do the legends of the sport still ride for the same reasons as I did, or has it become about careers, money, and fame? I was about to find out.
I, like many, have always wondered what it would be like to be a pro rider, free from the trappings and distractions of working for a living, simply focused on being the best rider and athlete that I could be. What would it be like to show up to a race weekend without the usual worries? Are my tyres too worn, why is my shock not quite working right, and where am I going to get some good food? This was all about to be answered as for one weekend only; I would be stepping into the shoes of Jerome Clementz, our current World Champion, to see what it is like being supported by the Cannondale Overmountain Factory team. Not only would I be riding with the team, but I would also be racing Jerome’s very own race bike, in the La Thuile EWS no less.
As you all know, our current Enduro World Series Champion, Jerome Clementz, dislocated his shoulder in an unlucky crash while racing a blind French enduro. His simple pedal catch on a rock would see him sit out most of the current season. Accidents are an inevitable part of the game when racing at the highest level; sometimes you get up and dust yourself off, but sometimes your body tells you to stay down. Jerome rides for the Cannondale Overmountain team, and while he recovers and regains his strength, his race bike sits unused.
In an inspired idea, borrowed from motocross, Cannondale’s Sports Marketing Manager, Daniel Hespeler, was keen to see what a ‘normal’ everyday rider would make of the full factory experience. What would happen if you put a normal recreational rider into Jerome’s shoes, kit, and onto his 27.5 Cannondale Jekyll? The lucky rider would also receive advice, help, and guidance from Jerome himself and receive the same factory support and mechanical expertise as the rest of the team riders. Cannondale Overmountain wanted a rider to race in one of most demanding races on the calendar, Round 4 of the EWS in La Thuile, an incredible opportunity, and I am humbled to say that rider was me! Riding Jerome’s perfectly set-up bike, with full support, I would have nowhere to hide! It was going to be an exciting experience.
In the lead-up to the event, many doubts passed through my mind; would there be a miraculous transformation in my riding, would I now be able to out-power Jared, get looser than Martin, and out-skill Nico? Of course not! But the opportunity to taste a full-on factory racer experience would never come round again, and I intended to seize it with both hands. I may not have been able to threaten the podium, but I intended to listen to every shred of advice Jerome, Matteo, Ben and the rest of the team gave me, pedal my tiny lungs out, and try not to turn upside down too many times.
My adventure certainly had an exciting start. A short connection in Schipohl airport saw me careening through the terminals looking for my connecting gate–why does everyone move more slowly when you are in a rush? As I finally slumped into the seat on my plane, sweating from the race and with my belt still in my hand from security, I marveled at how my baggage had made the same journey in time. When I arrived I found out that it had not, so it was off to the lost baggage counter for me, beginning my weeklong journey with nothing but a laptop and the clothes on my back.
I needn’t have worried. As soon as I met up with the Cannondale Overmountain team, I was handed bags of kit from both Cannondale and Jerome’s partners, Mavic, Bliss, and Julbo. I emerged from my hotel room looking totally factory, clothed head to toe in fresh new branded gear. I am not sure what I expected from the weekend, and to be honest I was really nervous as I am only an average racer (and I knew that the racing was going to be tough), but I was also really excited to see firsthand what it would be like to ride like a pro. Almost as soon as I arrived, I was introduced to the rest of the team: there was Daniel the Team Manager, who looks after all Cannondale’s Race teams, Pauline the Road Manager, who is also Jerome’s partner and a fast racer, Matteo the Team Mechanic, and of course Jerome Clementz and Ben Cruz, the team racers. The good-natured banter started immediately and I could see it was going to be a great weekend.
After a morning working with Matteo setting the bike up, it was time to hit the stages for practice. Jerome had given me the useful advice that when racing full-gas, there is always a chance that you may crash, so keep a small part of your brain scanning ahead looking for safe areas. If it all goes wrong and you know you are going to hit the dirt, you have something soft to aim at. I am not sure if he was joking, but I was certainly not looking forward to the prospect of crashing his bike. My first run was pretty nervous. Everywhere I looked on the bike, I could see Jerome’s name staring back at me from the brake levers, frame, and bars. This was certainly one very unique bike. The last thing I wanted to do was send it into some rocks and gouge the frame.
As I joined the Cannondale Overmountain team for dinner after the first day of practice, conversation soon moved onto the topic of the stages. Jerome asked me, “Did you crash today?” While I was coming up with an answer that suitably indicated that I was looking after his personal bike, he cut me off with “Because you can if you want!” A funny conclusion to a great day getting to grips with not only the epic stages of La Thuile, but also one of the fastest bikes on the circuit, Jerome’s own Cannondale Jekyll 27.5.
At first, I felt a bit of a tit riding Jerome’s bike. People would see it, then double take as I rolled by…but I soon got well into it and after posing for a few ‘fake’ Jerome photos, and signing an autograph, it was time to head back to the pits and get set for the next morning. This is where the ‘factory rider’ part came into play. As soon as I rolled in, Matteo took the bike and started working on it. I felt pretty guilty letting someone else work on a bike I had been riding, so I hung around uselessly in case he would let me wash it–but there was no chance.
While he was checking it over I admitted to hearing a big rock flick up and hit the BB, and Matteo’s eagle eyes instantly diagnosed a cracked chain device. I started thinking how I would pay for it, but “No problem, I will change it before the race” was his quick response (phew). With the bike fully inspected and checked over, I was free to head back to the apartment, chill out, and get ready for dinner. As I left Matteo started to scrub off the scorched surface that my overzealous braking had left on the rotors.
For the entire race weekend Matteo, despite my repeated attempts to break things, kept the Cannondale Jekyll in perfect working order. Not once did it creak, squeak, or grind; it looked like a new bike every morning and the setup was perfect. It was a huge advantage not to have to worry about the bike all weekend. At the end of every day I would sheepishly hand over the muddy, wet machine, and in the morning it would be sitting there on the A-frame, looking showroom fresh. The indexing was always razor sharp and everything worked perfectly. There was an endless supply of coffee on offer from the team camper (Matteo takes his espressos seriously) and Jerome passed on some amazing riding tips.
Riding Jerome’s Bike
So what does it feel like to ride a World Champion’s personal race bike? It was time for me to find out! The 750mm bars were a little narrower than I was used to, and the grip shift travel adjust was confusing the hell out of me, so my first few minutes could only be described as stiff. But as I grew more familiar with the bike, it all started to make sense: when you need full power on the pedals, roll the grip shift back, moto style, and the bike moves to 95mm travel and you can smash down the power. Hit something steep and a quick forward flick of the grip shift opens up the full 160mm of capable travel, correcting my creative line choices.
I am not sure if it was partly psychological, knowing it was a championship-winning bike, but it felt fast–really fast. The Fox Dyad shock offered almost coil-like sensitivity off the top, and the bike never felt like it was at the end of its travel or running deep. It sat high and poised, and travel was always there when needed; it certainly wanted to press on. At first, I was dragging the brakes and felt stiff in the corners, but as soon as I started letting it run, the 27.5 Jekyll kept true to its name and just accelerated forward. The suspension is so balanced it reacts almost imperceptibly to impacts. As I started running faster, I would sometimes find myself on the wrong line and heading unstoppably towards a large rock; I would wince in anticipation of the big kick from the rear, but each time there was nothing more than a soft thud and I was rapidly onto my next line choice mistake. The Dyad offers near-coil performance and the stiff frame operates almost silently.
It served to show how important a proper suspension setup is, and how much impact it has on the bike’s performance. I was not running the crazy-high pressures and super-fast rebound favoured by Jerome, as that would soon result in an expensive helicopter flight, but I was soon enjoying late breaking into turns, blind jumps, and playing with the traction through the switchbacks. The poise of Jerome’s bike is insane; the ride is so smooth, it makes you want to ride smoothly too, copying Jerome’s distinctive style which Matteo calls ‘doing the turtle.’
We are all riders
At the end of the weekend, I looked back on how it had all gone. From a racing perspective, I started to see how important the team structure was. It was amazing waking up on race day morning with nothing to do. Normally race day is panic-filled with last-minute mechanicals, problems, and confusion. Riding with the Overmountain Team, everything had been done: the bikes were perfect, numbers had been attached, and start times had been collected. All I needed to do was eat, relax, and take in the atmosphere.
My result, although mediocre by a top racer’s standard, was the best I have ever had at an EWS. I was exhausted but delighted. However, it had become far more than just a race, more than a great bike and mechanical support. I had been witness to the inner workings of a factory team at the highest level, and had learnt that the spirit of enduro still burned strong. Racers from rival teams were considered not as competition, but as comrades in arms, to be helped when in need. The Cannondale Overmountain Team had taken me under their wing, and into their family. Ben and Matteo had been there every step of the way with jokes and smiles, Jerome and Pauline had supported me with awesome advice, and Jerome even cooked the essential porridge. It had been an insightful education into what goes into putting a rider on top of the podium.
Looking at the times, I could not believe how close the racing had become. After over an hour of racing the top ten were separated by mere seconds, showing how just one mistake on a corner could make all the difference. It gave me renewed appreciation for the athletes at the top of their game. However, what would impact me the most is the fact that the pros are just riders too! It does not matter whether you sit in the cool shade of a factory pit, or are one of the guys trying to squeeze bikes into the back of beat-up hatchbacks. Both are united in a pure love for riding bikes, and respect is earned not by kit or sponsors, but through effort on the mountain. I had worried that I might find elitism and competitiveness on the other side of the pit wall, but I found generosity, family, and a true passion for the sport’s future!
When you next walk around the pits and see the top pros in their team areas, don’t be intimidated by the ‘factory’ look. They are riders, just like you and me.
Words: Trev Worsey | Photos: Jérémie Reuiller
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