Nearly a perfect start to the 2017 campaign this past weekend at Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort TX. The “Return of the Zombie Goat” Enduro promised to be a rowdy and raucous affair with new trails, threatening weather, and a STACKED Pro field! The crew of Rob Drew, Scott Countryman, Zach Ply and I rolled in for Friday’s pre-ride and the ominous sky’s threatening demeanor caused some concern. Chilly temps were all we had to deal with thankfully and the smiles grew as we hit stage after stage of the freshly cut KOM goodness! It was quite obvious the Kodiak Tough crew had done their due diligence in preparing for this event.

I was super excited to run the #1 plate as the 2016 Series Champion and the pressure was certainly on with the deep field of talent. Kona rider Scott Countryman out of Flagstaff AZ is an absolute trail surgeon and his in season fitness is nearly unmatched in my opinion. My hope was that his fitness might not be up to speed being so early in the year and that I could take advantage of that. Add in Austin ripper Jeremiah Work, Moto Enduro Pro Cole Kirkpatrick, and young guns Jimmy Smith and Zach Ply, my work was cut out for me. The game plan was the same as last year, “to finish first you must first finish.” I fully expected to be ripping around the loose and fast Flat Rock trails on the Giant Trance Advanced, but I was moved to pilot Grey Matter for this event. The 2017 ANTHEM ADVANCED SX is an amazingly capable XC machine. Yes, XC! Giant’s website calls this an aggressive cross country bike and the 130mm front and 110mm Maestro rear travel certainly back that up. You want to talk about blurring the lines between XC/Trail/Enduro…this bike does exactly that! Although there were some very aggressive sections on each trail, I was more than confident in the bikes ability to soak them up and hopefully give me an advantage when it opened up to mashing the pedals at the end.

We awoke on race day 1 to dense fog and thick moisture. I immediately knew this would spice up the event and make conditions a bit tricky. After tossing on the new Zoic Beta shorts and Empire jersey, it was time to transfer out to Stage 1. “Canyon” starts with a short pedal into a hard-right hander that drops down into an off-camber limestone shelf. Affectionately referred to as slimestone by some, this stuff was brutally slick. A large group of riders had gathered to look for the fast line and witness some eminent carnage as the first riders worked their way through. Not wanting to let nerves get the best of me, I decided to be the first rider to kick of the 2017 Southern Enduro Tour and I did it with some PBA style cowboy flair! I came into that off camber section, both feet off, and proceeded to absolutely rodeo down the entire thing while miraculously staying on the bike. I knew I’d probably lost time, but I gathered my wits and did what I could to get back on track. I navigated the next couple of super loose switchbacks pretty slowly, but they were clean. I hit the last half the stage, raised my seat and started laying down the power. I was confident it wouldn’t win the stage, but It could’ve gone much worse. RESULT: 2nd, 7 seconds back.

Now it was time to head over to the other side of the ranch and climb up to the highly anticipated, and all new stage, PUCKER. Aptly named, Stage 2 has a short lead in to a hard right/left combo and into a 270-degree right which sets you up for a tricky drop down a sheer rock face. Now picture if you can, you’re coming at this section at a 45-degree angle, then you need to roll down it while turning 90 degrees left at the bottom. Then add in some slick conditions and you have the recipe for disaster! I decided to slow roll into it and do my best to stay upright and it worked great! Unfortunately, I lost my footing in the off-camber section immediately after and came nearly to a complete stop. I quickly shook it off, but the next couple of tricky switchbacks saw me make some more of the same mistakes. Again, I let it roll off my back and focused on getting through the next couple of turns quickly and picking up speed for the big booster that was coming up. Race run or not, I was busting BIG off this thing! You land this high speed downhill double and just rip through a right hander and into a very tricky single jump over a sideways tree. A hard-left hander brought me into the finish with a fairly decent run all things considered. RESULT: 4th, 2.5 seconds back

A quick transfer brought us to Stage 3, Goat. I dropped in and it immediately points you straight down the mountain. Speed picked up very quickly and I rapidly approached the A/B line split. My two previous trips through were done on the A line and had no intention of doing otherwise, that is until we headed up the start and Countryman said he was taking the B line. I figured he was taking it for a reason and made the last second decision to also take that line. I was instantly stoked as it felt way faster and smoother than the A line. I worked through the single track and prepared for one of the coolest, and gnarliest sections of the race. A pretty big double drop leading into a very tricky tabletop nearly took me out in the pre-ride and I thought I was supremely focused as I approached it on my race run. As I launched off that first drop it was apparent that I’d come in WAY too hot! There was nothing I could do now but hope that Grey Matter wouldn’t buck me off when I came out of orbit. I was nearly shocked when it totally soaked up the landing with zero drama and propelled me into the next one. I scrubbed the table top as hard as I could and got back on the power for a pretty long and technical pedal. I rolled through the end and the beep of the Sportrident timing chip had me pleased. RESULT: 2nd, a 10th back!

Stage 4, Slalom, was one of my favorites! It starts at the highest point of the Ranch and proceeds to head straight towards one of the steepest parts of the property. After firing out of the start box, you click a few gears and pick up speed as you approach a super-fast, blind, left hander that leads into what might have been the trickiest set of turns all weekend. The Kodiak Tough course designers just love to add in off camber, and super technical, switch back turns to throw people’s rhythm off. I may have gotten through a bit slower than I’d hoped, but it was clean. I looked up the trail and pedaled for all I was worth! Cresting the top of a slight incline, it was time to manage my speed as I entered the segment that made this my favorite stage: Two pretty big water bar singles into a quick right hander, then you blast down a double drop at speed and into a 45-degree left hander. But this is no ordinary left hander! You really have to finesse into this corner because you immediately hit a little kicker that floats you over a step down. The smile on my face as I ripped this section hurt, it was awesome! RESULT: 2nd, 2 seconds back.

Stage 5, Speed, was a great way to end day 1. The namesake picked up quickly as you leave the start box and navigate a few turns and a really cool rock double. From there, it’s into the trees as you hammer down a catwalk of right/left turns and little inside line hits. The A/B split comes up quickly and you’re forced to get your eyes up and sight your preferred line. I blasted off the drop, kept it way high right, and dove back in to the inside of a loose left hander, leading back onto the single-track. The nuance was thick as the rest of the run had so many little tricky sections that could completely disrupt your flow. My focus was up the trail and I did everything I could to empty the tank and make up any time I could. RESULT: 2nd, 2 seconds back

A quick dip of the timing chip showed me in 2nd place, seven seconds back of Countryman. Happy and surprised at first, I quickly noticed that I’d gone seven seconds slower to him on Stage 1. It just goes to show you that you can’t make mistakes like that when you’re competing with riders at this level. I was, however, stoked that I was in the mix and even felt like I could make up the deficit on Sunday’s stages. Being confident in my fitness and nutrition certainly played a role in my mind set. Tomorrow would be when the off season training would pay dividends. The remainder of the afternoon was a major reason why this community is one of the coolest on the planet!! After a great Kodiak Tough provided dinner, it was time for the evening’s festivities to commence: High jump, long jump, and LED Dark Enduro were among the events the people took part in. My evening was filled with great conversation with some awesome people! I’m always blown away by how passionate these riders are, regardless of skill level.

Day 2 greeted us with higher temperatures and even thicker fog. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel, but I surmised that most people were as unsure as I was. We saddled up and headed up to Evil Plus, Stage 6. Again, I decided to get the day started by being the first rider to drop in. After navigating a small mine field of boulders, the stage dropped trickily into some single-track and I nearly lost the front end on the slick rock. After sorting it out, I just tried to stay smooth through the next 180-degree switchback and open it up on the proceeding catwalk. It worked pretty well and I managed to get through the next switchback filled section pretty well. After that, I got out of the saddle and just HAMMERED as hard as I could in an attempt to grab a stage win and pick up some time. I pride myself in an ability to temper my output to around 88-90% most of the time. However, I have no problem getting after it if I feel it’s there! I ripped through the timing beacon with everything I had and felt confident. RESULT: 1st, 4 seconds ahead.

The elusive Switch was Stage 7. Things could either go very right or very wrong on this tricky run. The start almost immediately drops into a super tricky rock shelf left hander. The line up to this point was to stay tight, keep it high, and creep down the rocks. The wet weather had me questioning that particular line and I stood among the crowd of top riders, trying to figure out where to go. Again, my thought process was to pick my line, get in the start box, and go! Big bro Rob decided to drop in behind me on this one and see if he could latch on for a quicker time. The confidence built pretty quickly as I crept through the upper section to the delight of the onlookers. It went away just as quickly though and my ability to get through the switchbacks absolutely escaped me. “GO GO GO” was all I heard from Rob and knew this wasn’t how it should be going. The mistakes just kept mounting and the end of the run couldn’t come quickly enough. My only hope was that this tough run would also cause the other top riders some issues. RESULT: 2nd, 5 seconds back.

Rattlesnake was Stage 8 and it also had the potential to cause some major issues. Even though it was on the shorter side compared to the other stages, the middle had a very tricky rock garden that could very easily rip off a derailleur or spit you off line. I also had visions in my head of Countryman ripping through it on our pre-ride and that wasn’t helping the situation. I got it out of my head and cranked out of the start box. The rock garden came and went without issue and I turned my focus to laying down as much power as I possibly could. I charged through the end and felt I had a good stage. RESULT: 2nd, a half second back.

Transferring back through the Expo area gave me the chance to swing by the Ford Transit Connect and grab my bottle of Skratch Rescue and a bag of Energy Chews. I was really excited about the condition of my legs, but I figured I wouldn’t take any chances and power down the Rescue just in case since Stage 9 was a tough one. All The Way down was just that, all the way down the mountain. The big buzz on this stage was the six foot drop that had claimed a few riders during the pre-ride. I made my way down the upper portion, which was shared with Stage 5, and eyed up the big drop. I barely noticed the crowd of hecklers as I floated off it and up the spine that followed. After dropping off a rocky shelf, it was back on the power through a series of loose, flowing switchbacks. The run then opened up and the speed increased rapidly. I drifted a bit too far to outside of the racing line and bounced between a few large sniper rocks. I checked it up a bit after that, gained my composure, and got back out of the saddle to finish as strong as I could. It ended up being a good run, but I felt I left a bit of time out there. RESULT: 1st, a tenth ahead!

The finale was Finale! Stage 10 would be the culmination of an amazing weekend of racing and I was excited to get to the bottom and turn in my chip! I dropped in after the rest of the top five riders and just focused on keeping it clean. The upper part of this run is super loose and there are many sections to easily throw it away. It was certainly difficult feeling like I could go faster, but I had to play it relatively safe and hope I could make up time on the tricky ending section. I came into it with my focus high and hit my lines really well, but I wasn’t able to get my left foot clipped back in before the final drop and I couldn’t hammer it out like I’d hoped. I don’t think it cost me much time in the grand scheme of things, but I certainly wanted to come into the finish as hot as possible with all the guys watching. RESULT: 2nd, 1.5 seconds back.

Round 1 was complete and I was absolutely pumped! Yeah, I could’ve ridden better on some stages, but I was pretty sure I’d accomplished what I came here for: A clean race and a podium. We headed back to the Expo area and turned in our timing chips. As anxious as I was to know the outcome, it was really cool to wait until the awards ceremony to know how it shook out.

The next couple of hours were filled with tales of triumph and adversity, smiles and laughs, and of course some beer drinking! It was so cool to see all the smiling faces and just watch everyone revel in the Enduro stoke!! It came time for the awards ceremony and a second-place finish, only 12 seconds back of Scott Countryman, was more than I had hoped for! MO shredder Jimmy Smith was a close 3rd, with Jeremiah Work nipping at his heels in 4th, and Cole Kirkpatrick a solid fifth on a brand-new bike! Kodiak Tough put on an amazing event and I’m beyond excited to see how the Enduro scene is growing in this part of the country! Round 2 in Rock Springs TX is assured to be even rougher and rowdier!