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What a brutal weekend. Where do I begin? Valloire for Round 3 of the Enduro World Series lived up to the hype. You can't put on a bad race when you’re in the French Alps, and this race didn't disappoint.

As it has been mentioned, we descended more than the length of an entire season of World Cup DH over the two days. Needless to say, my arms still feel a bit wobbly as I type this. As with the typical French format, racing is largely blind, apart from one easy practice run before we race that stage. But, this weekend featured a huge amount of fresh trail, so it changed dramatically for the race stages after 300 riders took a practice run down them.

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We had three race stages each day, with Stage 1 being raced once and Stage 2/3 being raced twice.  We then moved to a different part of the mountain for the second day where we once again raced Stage 4 once and Stage 5/6 for a second time. I have to say that I really like this format. Trying to lay down a good time first time around is always hard and then it’s a different challenge for your second run when you know the trail a little and try to push harder. It’s just another way to bring in another aspect of the different skills required for Enduro.

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We arrived early in the week to get settled and check out the area. We encountered rain for the first few days, and Richie and Rosara went out on some rain missions. Richie gave himself a cold in the process, but it takes more than a headache and runny nose to stop this man-child. I headed out for some short mud sessions on whatever trail I could find, just because it was fun, but spent some time on the wind trainer ticking the legs over…what fun! By Friday, the sun was out in full force and made for a perfect weekend’s racing.

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Saturday

Saturday’s stages were on existing trails that had been used for French races before. It may have been a bit of an advantage for ones who had raced here before, but it was nothing worth worrying about. The trails were very high up in the mountains and certainly weren’t anything that were frequently lapped out by everyone. They were quite raw and fresh and damn good fun!

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Stage 1  - Probably the most fun stage all weekend with a good mix of some high speed open stuff, some technical rocks, and good flowy tree sections, with some Mach 10 fire road tucking to be had right before the finish. To me it was a really awesome mix of everything.

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My timed run went well, but it was a big reminder of racing and pacing at altitude. When you have a 15-minute stage, you really do need to start slow and build up. I was catching my 20-second man (Florian Nicolai) on a long flat fire road pedal in the middle of the stage, and I wanted to pass him before we headed back into the next tree section. I put in a big effort at the start of the fire road and got past, but absolutely popped myself in the process. From that point, I was just hanging on for the last 5 minutes to the finish. I was well and truly redlining and felt like I kind of blew it a bit, but I was 2nd fastest overall for the stage behind Francois Bailly-Maitre. All in all, a good confidence booster for the day.

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Stage 2/3 - Just brutal! The hardest trail on the arms that I have ever ridden with high speed, tons of rocks, and a lot of G-outs. Arm pump started to set in about 5 minutes into the stage and then you had to hope you are good at the inner thigh seat pinch steering method to let your arms relax at every moment. I knew this was a good run for me, and I really wanted to make the most of it and get myself to the top of the leader board. But the stage had other plans for me.

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So, it’s hard to explain, but about 100m out of the start was a short, deep and super soft snow section right before a climb. Needless to say, it was all about rolling the dice and getting through it. If you got through clean, you were pumped. If you didn't, you would lose 20 seconds before your stage even really got started. You really needed the momentum from getting through the snow to get up the next short climb; otherwise you were going to be walking. My plan was to come in hot, lean back, keep the front wheel straight and commit. It worked perfectly, except for hitting a super soft patch and finding my way over the bars before I knew what was happening. It couldn't have been a worse start to the stage and I was less than happy. Having to run up the next hill got me near redlining straight away. I rode the remainder of the stage well, but I just never recovered from the snow. A very disappointing stage, but we got to do it again and I was after some redemption.

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Stage 3 started in complete contrast to Stage 2, I picked a different line through the snow and got through it like butter. I was so pumped; it was such a good way to start the stage! I was careful with pacing this time and could feel really good flow and was hitting my lines; everything was clicking and I was loving it. At about 5-6 minutes in on the trail, I could feel my back tire was going flat. I hadn't hit any noticeable rocks or anything, but it was definitely going down. So frustrating!!! From this moment on, my whole weekend’s race strategy changed. I knew I could nurse the wheel down, but it was killing me to have to ride so conservatively to make sure I kept the remaining air where it was meant to be. I felt like I was bleeding time, but Nico Lau and Martin Maes had flatted, and Francois had some kind of mechanical which cost him time, too. So, you have to race smart, think big picture…not just for this race, but the entire season and get to the bottom safely to minimize time loss. I had to keep the wheel safe for the next day’s racing. With enduro, you aren't allowed to change any parts once racing has started. A busted wheel means a 5-minute penalty to replace it.

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I eventually crossed the line, hoping I would be within 30 seconds of the fastest time still and stay in touch. To my surprise I was 3rd for the stage, just 12 seconds back over the 16-minute stage on Justin Leov in 1st.  Happy, yet fuming inside at the same time, a lot of seconds went missing on the Stages 2 and 3, but it definitely could have been a lot worse. At the end of Saturday, I was 3rd overall. Justin Leov was riding super fast (combined with being the only guy to not have any issues) and was comfortably in the lead. But, with how brutal the terrain was, no lead was big enough and day 2 was only going to get rockier.

Richie had an up and down day and was dead last on Stage 1, after getting a front flat. But, he came back strong to take 3rd and 5th on Stages 2 and 3. It’s only a matter of time before he gets through a weekend and is pushing for the podium.

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Sunday

Stage 4 had V-shaped rocks, scree slopes, off camber sections, fresh cut grass, and was steep! Justin was safely in the lead and it wasn't going to be worth it to push to try and catch him…there was just too much chance for mechanicals. I was going to play the safe game, and I knew I could stay top-3 and get good points for the overall. I would be content with getting away from this race with that. I rode the stage conservatively, while guys that weren't at the pointy end of the overall leader board pushed hard, took risks and set the fastest times. I also picked up another slow leak flat after something had cut into the very top of my tire, but I was able to make it down without it being an issue. It was a reminder of why I was playing the safe strategy and I was content to be just outside top-10 with a very safe run. I even moved ahead of Rene Wildhaber into 2nd overall.

Stage 5 will always be a classic, it’s so much fun! So much steep off camber grass, some more scree slopes, high speed, low speed tech, and a short power climb. It was really cool, but hugely painful to race!

Once again the race got flipped on its head on this stage. Justin had a 38 second lead before this stage and was playing it safe and still flatted. He's one of my best buddies of all time, and I was absolutely gutted for him, He was the fastest guy this weekend, but now the results wouldn't tell that story. It’s a frustrating part of racing, it happened to me a couple times with mechanicals and random incidents last season and it is a tough one. But he handled it like the champ he is.

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My stage went pretty well. I was fighting the bike too much up top and forgetting to do the little things right, making mistakes and wasting energy, as well as playing it too safe and riding tight. After the stage, Damien Oton moved into second and Rene Wildhaber took a few seconds back on me, which meant that now the top-3 were going into the last stage separated by only 4 seconds.

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So many thoughts were running through my head. We had a big gap back to Cedric Gracia in 4th and the top-3 was assured. I was in the lead, but only just, and really wanted to win. When your main rivals for the series overall have all had mechanicals and are well down on the overall results for this round, you know its a good chance to consolidate good points and get into the points lead. In the end, I decided to just go with it, not take risks, ride conservatively on anything high speed and rocky and then give everything I had left in the last 4 minutes when we got into the more pedaly part of the stage.

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The run itself was all a blur. I knew I wasn't riding my fastest, but I was going to get down in one piece doing what I was doing and that’s all I could think about. I crossed the line and had done the same time as Rene, so I knew I had at least second place. Damien Oton came down and was on the same time also! I had WON! 1 hour 20 minutes of race time on the limit, and I had won by 3.5 seconds…my first for the year and such a relief!

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It was such a stressful weekend; especially when I realized I could really capitalize on some good series points this weekend. To pull it off was such a great feeling. It was made even better by the two men running the show at Yeti, Chris Conroy and Steve Hoogendoorn, who were both over to watch the racing this weekend. Yeti is like my second family and it was really awesome having them there.

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Big thanks to everyone at Yeti…Conroy and Hoog especially. The Polar Bear was worked out of his fur this weekend keeping our bikes in top shape, and Albertross Callis was around to lend a hand when he could. After the race, we all had a nice team dinner, shared some bottles of wine and some nice Whiskey for a little celebration, and topped off an exhausting but awesome weekend!

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Bike Setup

Frame – Yeti SB66c (medium)
Fork – 2015 Fox 36 Float, 15mm axle, 78psi, 160mm
Rear Suspension – Fox Float X, 175psi
Seatpost – Thomson Elite Dropper
Wheels – DT Swiss 240 hubs, EX 1501 rims, Aerolite spokes
Tires – Front: Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5 3C EXO/Rear: Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5 3C EXO, 28/33 PSI
Brakes – Shimano XTR M-897 Race lever, Saint calipers, 180mm Freeza Rotors
Rear Derailleur – Shimano XTR Shadow Plus
Crank – Shimano XTR 170mm with Stages Power Meter
Chainring – Shimano Saint 38t
Cassette – Shimano XTR 11-36
Pedals – Shimano XTR trail
Seat - WTB Devo, titanium rail
Chainguide – E13 Carbon LG1 Race Guide.
Bars and Stem – Renthal Carbon FatBar Lite (740mm wide, 20mm rise); prototype stem 60mm
Headset – Chris King
Grips – ODI Troy Lee Designs

Text by: Jared Graves
Photos by: Sebastian Schieck

yeticycles.com

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