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Friday, July 10, 2015
Big Mountain Enduro series returns to Keystone July 11-12
Summit Daily file photo
It’s two days before the Big Mountain Enduro series comes to Keystone and local pro-downhiller Nate Hills is in his element.
Around 3 p.m., he stops for a quick breather near the halfway point of the Keystone Bike Park, found a good 10,000 feet above sea level. He pauses just long enough to grab a drink and chat with a reporter before donning his full-face helmet for the final push to the base at River Run Village, a cruise he knows like the back of his hand.
For nearly two decades, he has called the trails at Keystone his home. It’s his style of riding: big, bad and burly, with roots and rocks large enough to swallow a bike — and the attached rider — whole.
“I’m not big on the smooth berms and jumps,” says Hills, a 38-year-old Boston native who’s been on the pro downhill circuit since 2005. “I’m good at that, but my passion lies in the technical, natural terrain. I just like smashing rocks, and Keystone has that appeal. It’s a legit downhill track.”
And, he’s damn good at defending his territory. Last year, he won first place in the men’s pro division at the Big Mountain Enduro — a 3-year-old series that took over for the now-defunct Mountain States Cup. The Keystone event is also a stop on the national North American Enduro Tour.
Under the direction of Brandon Ontiveros — himself an adrenaline junkie with more than a decade of race experience — the BME series is a slight tweak on its predecessor. Rather than fall back on old-school events like slalom, the enduro features six stages spread across two days, a European-inspired format that’s winning converts across the U.S. Each stage is timed individually, adding just a touch of strategy and stamina to a run-of-the-mill race format. Pros like Halls take runs throughout the day, shaving a few previous seconds here and there to claim a slice of the $8,000 prize purse.
“I do the pro downhill and pro cross-country riding where you focus on one event, and that one special run consumes you completely,” he says. “With the enduro you have more time on the bike. You’re riding all weekend, and that’s intriguing to me, trying to wrap my head around several runs. It’s a more complex chess game than just taking a single run and calling it good.”
For competitors, the enduro pace keeps the adrenaline flowing from the first run to the final stage. More than 300 riders have already registered, including 50 junior racers and nearly 100 women. It’s easily the deepest field since the series began, and everyone in the pro division — male and female — will compete for the same amount of prize money, along with nearly $50,000 in prizes for amateurs.
“What’s really cool about this stop is our junior numbers and women numbers are drastically increasing,” Ontiveros says. “That is massive for our sport. The juniors are the bread and butter of our sport, the future; and, it’s always good to see even more women coming out.”
For spectators, the enduro pace can be just as intense. There is no sitting around, waiting for a peloton to whip past and pedal into the horizon. No, this is mountain biking at its purest — mean and fast and just a little unnerving.
“Keystone is known for their raw, very technical fall-line terrain,” says Ontiveros, who compares the Keystone park to high-end terrain at Whistler in British Columbia and Angelfire in New Mexico. “Enduro is gravity focused, and Keystone is always recognized as one of the best bike parks in the country, with lots of steep terrain. That terrain keeps people coming back, and word has started to spread across the country. The cat’s out of the bag.”
ROUGH COURSE, STACKED FIELD
Like his home park, the BME format plays to Hills’ strengths. For the past three years, Keystone has been the second stop in the series, rounded out with events at similar downhill Meccas of Aspen-Snowmass, Crested Butte and Winter Park. But, when racing is spread over six stages, the reigning champion believes the resort’s gnarly terrain can stump racers more familiar with clean, crisp, manicured trails.
“These are good, long, physical tracks, and the timing can be critical,” says Hills, noting the majority of BME routes take about 10 to 18 minutes from start to finish. “It’s hard to manage your output for 20 minutes and still feel good when you get to the bottom, leaving enough in your tank to be ready for the next track. But, I have enough runs over here that I know what the lines are like, know what I want to hit.”
That first-hand knowledge will be invaluable this weekend, when he goes head-to-head against a few of the biggest names on the big-mountain circuit. For the first time, the field of 300 riders is rounded out with pros like Curtis Keene, who competes for Red Bull and Specialized, along with Jared Graves and Richie Rude — two longtime Yeti Cycles riders.
All three boast intimidating pedigrees — they’re fixtures on the Enduro World Series circuit — and each one could take a swipe at Hills’s crown. Australian native Graves is the reigning EWS champion, and 20-year-old Rude became the first American-born Junior World Champion in 2013.
Is Hills nervous?
“I don’t think too much about the competition,” he says shortly before heading back on the trail. “I’m more excited to hopefully beat those guys on my home track, so I see it as a challenge. I’d rather be racing the best in the world, and I’ve been aching to take a shot at some of the best at home.”