Back in May, the North American Enduro Tour (NAET) kicked off its season in Whistler with the Whistler Spring Classic.
The riders were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of hope, but with many miles pedalled between then and now, this weekend's Whistler Fall Classic will welcome back some contenders with dreams of the overall title in mind. As the sixth of eight races on the calendar, points are at a premium for riders in the mix.
One of those is looking for a third title. Two-time defending champion Kyle Warner of Chico, Calif., is surging in the standings after a slow start, currently sitting 180 points back of leader Josh Carlson.
"I was planning on doing more of the Enduro World Series events but after the first two in South America, I didn't generate as much speed out there to make it worth the investment. I figured I might as well bear down and try to chase a third NAET title," he said. "It has been the premier series in the U.S. and in Canada as well, so it's been super cool.
"The first three races didn't go super well, but I've hit the (top five) in the last two. I'm starting to finish out the season strong with the last three races we have."
The 24-year-old suffered a concussion earlier this year and has spent much of the season battling its effects, and although he is still looking to feel his absolute best, he's back to being capable of great things on the course.
"My processing speed has picked up again. Earlier this season, I still had a head injury and it was lingering pretty bad. It affected me in a lot of ways both emotionally and little things, just trying to spell words. I couldn't spell words I'd known my whole life," he said. "Time has helped me heal a little bit and I'm able to just ride smooth and have fun and focus on what's ahead."
Women's overall leader Porsha Murdock of Bend, Ore., is looking to not only extend her 250-point lead on Salt Lake City's Lia Westermann, but perhaps secure an Enduro World Series (EWS) berth as well. The EWS announced before the season that 16 races across the world will serve as qualifying events for the big tour. This weekend's race is the third NAET event to serve this purpose.
Competitors must race in at least four qualifying events and their top three results will be considered at the year's end. In the pro fields, the top 80 men and 30 women will be added to the tour's reserve list. While Murdock would have attended as many NAET races as possible, her determination was steeled by the announcement.
"It definitely upped the ante. I wanted to do well at them so I could qualify for the EWS races," she said. "I tend to follow series more than picking and choosing races. Some racers will pick their most favourites or just go to select races, but me, I've followed a full series."
Warner feels the bulk of NAET riders who want to regularly race on the EWS are already eligible to do so, adding even those who qualify must still hustle for funding to make the globetrotting worth their while.
"For me, it's not a huge deal because I've always been able to race the EWS events," he said. "There are a lot of people that end up on the waiting list and in the lottery system that need the points so I can totally see how it's a valuable aspect that draws people in for that.
"The main reason I race is because it's the North American Enduro Tour. I don't care about the EWS qualifier. I don't care about getting points for that because I'm just trying to compete in the highest level in North America."
However, Murdock explained in a follow-up email that as a relative newcomer to the circuit, the qualifiers are a major draw for her.
"Since this is my first year in the pro field, I didn't have any previous results helping me get into the two North American EWS stops. I got into Aspen EWS but I was on the wait list for Canada EWS and didn't know if I would be attending until two weeks before. Having qualifiers would help me get into the EWS races that I am able to travel to," she noted. "For the majority of the top five-to-10 racers, yes, they are already qualified but for those of us who haven't had as much exposure to the circuit the NAET qualifiers are great."
Though they don't help him on a personal level, Warner sees a benefit to making qualifying a real grind and replicating what the world stage is like, especially after competing at the EWS opening races in Argentina and Chile this spring. In Chile, between practice and racing, riders rode 210 rugged kilometres over 22 hours.
"Half of the field dropped out after Saturday (the first day of racing)," he said. "It's cool that they're preparing people a little more for that."