Enduring the unpredictable Enduro X
When early man discovered fire, it didn't take long to find the utility in his invention. Cooking and heating, definitely. (Some primitive form of s'mores, hopefully.)
Eventually, man would learn to burn wood, and the fireplace became the centerpiece of a dwelling. Big, beautiful cuts of split logs would stack behind the house just waiting for winter. For centuries, firewood served man faithfully, an unfailingly positive tool for the improvement of living standards.
But all good things come to an end, and at the turn of the century firewood was repackaged as a torture device in that unique form of dirt bike racing known as endurocross.
Despite the seemingly endless stream of obstacles facing riders as they navigate a typical course -- stones, boulders, tractor tires, a configuration of logs known as "the matrix," mud, water, sand and jumps (not to mention the competition) -- or their different moto backgrounds, divergent riding styles, and personal politics and movie preferences, there is one thing all 24 athletes competing in Men's Enduro X this June in Austin will almost surely agree:
They hate firewood.
Mike Brown has two Enduro X golds and a pair of silvers. "The firewood is always different," he says. "The first five laps of it are the hardest thing I've ever done on a motorcycle. You could go around 100 times, and it's going to be different [on each turn]."
Colton Haaker has a silver medal from X Games Barcelona in 2013, narrowly missed a podium in L.A. later that year and finished second in the first event of the 2014 season in Las Vegas on May 3.
"The pieces are so loose, they can catch you at any time. Going into the section, one can flip out and hit your front wheel and go down. It happens every race. That's bad luck. I have two firewood sections in my backyard [test track], and it's just so random whether you get through it or not. It's not like anything you can control," Haaker says. "It's just like, 'I'm going into this and hoping it works out.'"
Cody Webb wasn't the most dominant rider in X Games over 2013, but was probably the most consistent. Four races, four medals (two silver, two bronze). He started 2014 by finishing ahead of Haaker in Vegas.
"[The firewood] just sucks all the time. So if someone crashes in there, it's usually just tough luck. You hit the wrong log and it sent you wrong way," Webb says. "You concentrate, stick your legs out, and hope you don't mess it up."
The woodpile might be the most extreme example, but because navigating the course requires as much mental energy as physical -- and slinging a bike around these layouts for 10 laps is no joke -- riders don't have any spots on the course to exhale. Any slip in focus, wood-related or not, comes at a price. At Foz do Iguacu last year, for example, Webb ran a great race, twice passing Poland's Taddy Blazusiak, generally seen as the best enduro rider in the world, before slipping out on a flat-ground turn, one of the easiest spots on the course. Muddy gloves, bent fork, passed by Blazusiak once more, silver instead of gold.
"I think that's why they call it endurocross," Brown says. "It's hard. Everything through the course changes. You lose your concentration just for a second in those sections and it can hit you quick. It's happened to me; it's happened to everybody. You could be first on the last lap, and you get nailed."
The sport punishes mistakes, and sometimes creates them where they don't deserve to happen. That's the reality, and eventually they all just get used to it. Getting the hole shot helps, since at least the guy in front doesn't have to worry about his line being mucked up by slow or fallen riders, but isn't an iron-clad advantage like it might be in supercross. Some riders prefer to run near, but not at, the front, at least early, because it lets others test obstacles.
Like, say, firewood. "I hate being the first guy in it," Brown says.
The winds of chance aren't the only reason Enduro X has consistently been one of X Games' most wide-open competitions, with 10 different athletes landing on podiums since the event's inclusion in 2011. While Blazusiak is the sport's most decorated rider, he faces stiff challenges from Brown, Haaker, Webb and Taylor Robert, who won gold in Munich last year. The field in Austin also includes legendary trials pioneer Geoff Aaron, as well as Kyle Redmond and Canadian Cory Graffunder, all of whom have posted strong results over the last few Endurocross seasons.
In other words, there are a lot of dudes competing at a very high level.
Depth of field should only continue improving as more riders hone the skills to thrive in endurocross, which as a sport hasn't yet celebrated its 15th birthday. The guys with a background in trials riding (Blazusiak and Webb, to name two) are more accustomed to handling the obstacles presented to them on the course. "I don't make a lot of the mistakes that some of the other guys might," Webb says. "Pushing too much or doing a little too much. I ride within my comfort zone, which is still solid enough to compete for podium finishes."
The supercross elements of Enduro? "I'm learning the racing thing, and getting better at that," he says.
Those with stronger racing backgrounds, Brown for example, have to learn how to lay a lighter touch on the throttle. "I was always going out too hard. So being consistent, slowing down a little bit, making sure you get through the technical section [clean] has been important," Brown says. "I had to realize I can't go wild through these rocks, or through the wood section. I've got to slow down and get through it and build on each lap."
With each race, both sides get closer to the other.
Should you be looking to wager a few plates of barbecue on this year's final in Austin, figuring where to baste your brisket won't be easy. Unlike L.A., it's an outdoor event, and a larger, more open track favors strong racers. On the other hand, the local weather -- always hot, generally humid, often wet -- means tires could get less predictable navigating through the obstacles.
"It favors [Brown] a little more, it favors me a little more," says Haaker, who cut his teeth in both disciplines. "But there's still the elements of the rocks, and no matter how big the track is, trials guys are going to shine because you have to get through the hardest obstacles well in order to get on the podium."
In other words, it's anyone's race, with all the top riders having a hand in the outcome, and plenty of room for a surprise or two.
Certainly the firewood has a few in store.