No one really knows what to expect after the race that went down in the books as "Crankzilla" last year.
On the one hand, surely, it can't be as bad — blistering August heat, bone-dry dusty Whistler trails, a relentlessly steep climbing course, desperately tight transition times.
On the other hand, this is enduro, and, as the name suggests, this race is about pushing it to the limits to see who comes out on top. The SRAM Canadian Open Enduro is the sixth stop on the eight-stop Enduro World Series (EWS), a marquee event of Crankworx Whistler. Arguably it is the race that everyone wants a piece of, where the best in the world will lay it all on the line, in the bike park and up and down in the valley in an epic battle that sees riders spending hours in the seat, and in the heat.
Added to the challenge this year is an unexpected difficulty for the 300 athletes to overcome — during fifth leg of the EWS in Crested Butte, Colo., last week a racer died on course, prompting organizers to cancel the race. Details are scant as yet since no one saw 40-year-old Will Olson crash on Stage 3 on Saturday, Aug.1. Initial reports say it was a chest injury.
For the fledging EWS, just in its third year but growing in popularity and hype, it's just too early to tell how this will impact the world races in the years to come. But Olson's death will be keenly felt in Whistler this week as athletes travel from Crested Butte to Whistler, preparing to slay the myth that has become Crankzilla.
"I think when people arrive here they're going to be pretty sombre," says organizer Darren Kinnaird, adding that there are plans to have a counsellor on hand for the athletes.
Kinnaird and two other EWS board members were already planning on meeting with top athletes in Whistler this week to do what he called "a temperature check" on the series to date, to understand what's on the athletes' minds, to figure out how to make things better.
"It'll be a much different meeting now," says a solemn Kinnaird.
To recap: enduro is a race where riders are timed on downhill stages for a combined score. They must also reach each stage by a certain time. In short, it's all the skill of downhill, plus the endurance of cross-country, plus a sizable element of camaraderie and fun.
Whistler's top-secret course is all part of the spirit of enduro, building the tension and the nerves, and creating debate about what trails will be used, how much vertical to expect, how difficult it will be.
Yet, with ongoing chatter at the world series level about practice — should the courses be released ahead of time, should they stay secret, should riders be showing up weeks in advance to train in an area — the dynamics of the course itself have become increasingly important. Secrecy, say some, is paramount to keep a level playing field.
"I think the Whistler course is probably the biggest secret there is on the EWS, says local pro rider Dylan Wolsky, who rides for Santa Cruz.
"The obvious is never what it's going to be."
With the course just released this week, everyone is now in the same boat with days left to prepare for one of the biggest races in the Enduro World Series, and one of the biggest, most-watched events in Crankworx.
Will the legend of Crankzilla — with all the heat and all the steep — rear its ugly head once again on Sunday Aug. 9?
Even more than knowing how to design a legendary enduro course that can bring riders to their knees, Seb Kemp knows how to keep one under wraps.
It's important to him that no one gets an advantage.
"It's not really in the spirit of the sport," he says, of giving away tips.
But his task is no mean feat in a small town.
Riders have followed his Strava and his Instagram for clues; they've tried to weasel out a wink from him here, a nudge there.
It's no use.
Kemp, who has consulted with Crankworx Whistler for the past three years, has even gone as far as to work on trails that weren't on the enduro course, placing some red herrings along the way.
The beauty of the course, in a way, is its secret.
"This year it's all about trying to take everything we've learned (from Crankzilla) to create what we hope is the quintessential Whistler course," says Kemp.
What does that mean?
"To me, Whistler quintessentially is technical, it's aggressive, it's a lot of hard work, and it's long days. Partly that comes down to the legacy of trails we've got, that we all know and love and ride here, which, as we've seen from previous years, riders from out of town sometimes aren't ready for the style of trails that we have."
The other part of it, he says, is the breed of people in Whistler who are used to Whistler-style races — long and tough, with a good measure of fun.
"We found what the limits were of an enduro race last year," admits Kinnaird, one of the driving forces in creating the EWS.
The 2014 race was plagued by heat, stretched at least eight hours, and had a vertical climb of 760 metres (2,500 feet) — Kinnaird heard all about it in the aftermath of the race.
And yet... even with those complaints, the 2015 edition of the Whistler enduro sold out within a few minutes, just like all the other stops, with riders eager to get a piece of it.
Local pro Jesse Melamed, who races for Rocky Mountain, remembers the agony of his arms last year, so dead with fatigue that he was scared riding the fourth stage.
"I could barely hold on," he says. "I was basically bracing myself on my handlebars because I was so tired. It was insane."
Six weeks ago, in the middle of his season, Melamed was sidelined with a broken ankle. He won't be racing at home this year, won't be able to taste that sweet flavour of victory of winning a stage in the Whistler enduro race, as he did last year on Crazy Train, stage 2 of Crankzilla.
He called Crankzilla "a huge mission" — happy just to survive it, a feat in itself to finish it. It'll be tough to watch it from the sidelines this year.
"We definitely don't want to replicate that (race) this year," says Kinnaird. "We want to put the challenge of the race in the racing parts of it, as opposed to just getting to the racing stages.
"Will it be Crankzilla 2.0? Maybe... But probably for the right reasons."
The idea, as always, is to keep things fresh.
They're thinking like farmers rotating their crops — use a trail one year, give it a rest the next.
Kemp's only tip: be prepared for the heat. It caught some off guard last year and it could be a factor to make or break a race this year.
"People are going to hate being on their bikes at certain points of the day and other points of the day they're just going to be jubilant. That's part of doing these long races — these ups and down," says Kemp.
"We just hope this year that rather than people finishing the race and feeling beaten, we want people to feel like they've achieved something."
There's more than just a feeling of achievement on the line. To win, or to do well in Whistler, is to put your name on the map.
Recovering from knee surgery last year, local rider Leonie Picton raced as an amateur in Crankzilla's gruelling heat.
This year is different.
Picton started out this year primarily just to ride and to see how it would go.
And it has gone off: First place in the Sea Otter Classic enduro in April. First place at the Sunshine Coast enduro in May, the first stop in the BC Enduro Series. Top three finishes in the Phat Wednesday races this summer. And just this past weekend another first place in Rossland — just to name a few of the successes.
She'll be racing as a pro, though she works full time in Whistler, buoyed by her season to date.
"As the year has progressed, I now see (Crankworx) as more of a stepping stone to what could potentially advance a career in riding," she says.
"It would be amazing to have a really excellent result and be able to get my name out there and progress from there."
Fewer locals have secured a spot in the race this year, which could change as the day draws closer.
But that could mean an even bigger international field.
The big prize purse — $10,000 — and the exposure are tempting.
"Enduro was the butt end of a bunch of jokes for a couple of years," says Melamed. "It kind of insulted me because this is something I work hard for... it's something that I want to make my career of.
"I think it's establishing itself as a true sport."
Just as the EWS is getting bigger with more cachet, Whistler's Crankworx race is reflecting that growth.
"It seems like the competition might have stepped it up another level again, potentially," says local rider Shane Gayton, who like Picton races against the pros but works full time in Whistler.
Gayton came in 41st last year in a pro category, a result that he was "pretty happy" about, given his goal was the Top 50 finish.
This year he wants to do a little better, with a Top 40 finish, though he thinks it may be tougher.
"I think there are just more people coming into the sport," he adds.
"People are working the sport out a little bit more as well... And it seems like there are a bunch of young guys coming through now who are working out.
"Everyone used to pick downhill and there was enduro on the side. It just seemed like a few older downhillers were doing it, a few people chose to do it. But now it seems like a lot of people are choosing to do enduro over downhill as it gets more popular."
And therein lies one of the biggest issues with the sport today — with increasing popularity and more prize money, racers are ready to do whatever it takes to win.
And for some, on top of the natural talent, that means — practice. Practice. And more practice.
How much? How little? How safe is it to race without practicing much? How fair for racers as a whole? How much time do racers need to adapt to the different terrain of racecourses around the world?
For most of the races in the EWS, like Whistler, organizers release the course a few days ahead of time. Racers are allowed two or three days of practice, in advance of the race.
But that's not always the case.
At the French race, the fourth in the series, some racers arrived well before race day, to prepare, do some early training, get used to the terrain, the flavour of the trails. The same was true in New Zealand at the first stop in the world series — riders flocked there weeks in advance to get a feel for the terrain. And just last week in Crested Butte riders again arrived early, in part to acclimatize to the elevation, but also to gain a little edge.
"When you create a world series with money on the line, people are going to do everything they can to win," says Melamed. "We're competitive people, we want to do the best."
The problem is that practicing is a grey area.
"No one's saying it's against the rules, which I think is the biggest problem," continues Melamed. "I think they need to come out and say something, either yes we can, or no," he adds.
But how to stop people going to venues weeks in advance and riding the trails, trying to guess what the race route is going to be?
Kinnaird, though he says he's comfortable with the ways things are done in Whistler, wonders about the future.
In Whistler they are planning to have more patrol on hand during the course inspection days.
"Where is this sport going?" asks Kinnaird. "Is it a sport for professionals or is it still for everybody? Should the training be focused at professionals or should it really be fair for everyone? Should the amateurs have that same amount of training time?"
But do racers want to spend their whole year getting to venues early to get the advantage?
The challenge remains: creating a race for a diverse group of riders — professionals and amateurs, men and women, young and not so young. And keeping it fair.
Would more practice have changed the outcome in Crested Butte for Will Olson?
By early accounts Olson was an experienced rider, familiar with the Colorado trails. He was racing in the Vet Expert 30 + category and he had raced enduro events before.
There has been some blowback that races like enduro wreak havoc on the local trails, but the Crankworx event has helped Whistler's trails too.
There is no doubt the race changes the trails, chews them out and leaves them well-worn.
But consider: Would Crazy Train look like Crazy Train today had it not been Stage 2 of Crankzilla?
And no one really knew about BC's Trail (formerly Boyd's Trail) until last year's enduro put it on the map.
It's a work in progress with SRAM donating $10,000 to go back into Whistler's trails every year.
Whistler Blackcomb is also quietly toiling on trails — this year it's working on a Khyber-Kashmir connector built from scratch, which will be a huge asset to the riding community.
When it comes down to it, says Melamed, the enduro course in Whistler doesn't have to go out of its way to make a mark. It doesn't have to be a "Crankzilla" to be talked about on the world stage.
"Whistler just has to let the trails speak for themselves," says Melamed, who has ridden and raced throughout the world.
"They don't have to make the day memorable because it's a huge day; they can do it based on the trails that we have because we do have amazing trails that are pretty unique."
Enduro World Series
In its third year, the Enduro World Series has been making its mark around the world.
Five new venues were added to the 2015 calendar in addition to the Whistler race, Tweedlove in Scotland and the Super Enduro Finale Ligure in Italy.
The eight events this year sold out in minutes and the waitlist at various locations is hundreds deep.
"It's been awesome. It's been kind of overwhelming," says Kinnaird, one of the series' founders.
"We get so many enquiries about bringing the Enduro World Series to new venues and new locations around the world. It's pretty crazy actually."
This is part of the EWS's appeal and its success. It's all about adventure and seeking out new places to ride, he adds.
Last year, for example, Chile was the first round and a lot people were skeptical. But they got down there and were blown away, says Kinnaird. It was voted the enduro race of the year last year.
Each area has its own identity, its own flavour, changing up the pace for racers.
"The further we can go with the sport and take it into new locations, I think that's what's really appealing to people," adds Kinnaird.
Having said that, there will always be the classics. And Whistler will always be a classic.
Kinnaird adds: "This is one of the ones people really want to win."
In the meantime, the decision to cancel the 5th stage of the EWS in Colorado in the wake of Olson's death could mean a difference in the overall standings.
And yet, says Kinnaird: "I think it was the right call, for sure."
Crankworx World Tour
This was the first year of the Crankworx World Tour with events in New Zealand and France joining the well-established Whistler festival.
It's yet another sign of the success of this homegrown 10-day multi-faceted event that has transformed August in Whistler with a multi-million dollar boost in business for the resort.
This festival celebrates all things biking from the competition itself, to the arts, to the culture, to the new breed of bikers in the kids.
There are too many things to write about, but one of the biggest things to keep yours eyes on this year is the potential for Canadian Brett Rheeder to take the Triple Crown of Slopestyle.Rheeder comes to Crankworx Whistler with the slopestyle win in Crankworx New Zealand and in France.
Check out crankworx.com for more info and stay tuned to Pique for full coverage of Crankworx.
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