I couldn’t have asked for a better setting! Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort TX, about 30 miles west of San Antonio, was the perfect venue and Bryan Fawley and the Kodiak Tough crew went all out in preparation! I picked up big bro Rob from the airport on Thursday night and after our caffeine fix, we headed out to the ranch on Friday morning for a pre ride of the nine stages. As I suited up, it was pretty hard to contain my excitement for this round. It’s been a long off season of hard training and mental preparation. I was certainly confident, but I just didn’t know how it would shake out. My weapon of choice was the 2016 Giant Trance Advanced 0. It is a MASSIVLEY capable 27.5 wheeled trail bike. After hearing of some potentially super high speed sections, I decided to install a 160mm MRP Stage fork to slacken the head angle a bit more from what the stock 140mm fork provides. We headed out in a pretty decent sized group to pre ride the stages and my excitement was building after finishing each one. First, having Rob here was just so damn cool! He has this uncanny ability to keep me calm and focused and his bike set up skills are unparalleled.  Second, each stage was a great mix of fast with some “technical” sections and quite a bit of pedaling. It was a great combo of terrain for this area and this rider sub set, it also just happens to play pretty well into my wheelhouse.With four stages down and a boatload of confidence in the bank, we hit up Stage 2, “Goat Trail.” This was probably the rowdiest of them all, with a start section that headed almost straight downhill! Once you get to the bottom of the initial descent, there’s a quick right hand turn to a pretty decent drop. With about 25 people sizing up how to tackle it, our group came charging through. I slowed down a ton and floated off it. I was absolutely shocked at the sound of my fork bottoming out and my front tire burping about half it’s air. As I got up a looked at my brother, glasses and helmet crooked, I realized that my confidence level had just plummeted! All I did was roll off a bit too far left and with a little too much speed. Easy fix, but it toyed with me for the rest of the day. We finished the pre ride, packed up, and headed back to the hotel to dine on the amazing food my wife prepped for us.

I awoke Saturday morning feeling amazing! I was super confident and at ease, most of which was the result of my brother sitting beside me no doubt. We arrived back at the venue and stepped out of the race van and into the frosty morning air. After picking up my lucky number 49 plate, we geared up to shred the first five stages of the race. The buzz was palpable during the riders meeting and I was eyeing at least 5 hard charging riders that I felt could challenge for the top spot on the podium. We started the transfer up to stage 1 and all I could do was repeat the mantra I’d been thinking since last year, “to finish first, you must first finish.” 2015 was rough, crashes in every race left me battered and injured a few times. My biggest goal this year is to not repeat that scenario. Arriving at the top of stage 1 brought a flurry of emotions out and I did my best to keep things in check. One of the coolest parts of this series is the supercool SPORTident timing system. For those who don’t quite understand it, Enduro is a mixture of XC and downhill. You basically race multiple, gravity inspired stages and then cruise easy on the transfer stages. The idea is that you have to be a competent technical rider, but still possess a high level of fitness. With a chip attached to the bike, this timing system allows you to hammer it wide open through the timing beacon at the beginning and end of each stage. It was now time for all the hard training in the off season to be put to the test. I went “full Enduro,” affixed my goggles and dropped into the first stage of my 2016 race season! The upper sections included some really loose and rocky switchbacks and it ended with a pretty long and spicy pedal. My goal was to stay clean, get through the switchbacks well, keep the heart rate down, and open it up as much as possible on the pedal. Switchback after switchback, I hit every line and rolled through as smoothly as I possibly could! With mounting confidence, I got up out of the saddle, fought the lactic buildup, and gave it hell! I flew through the finish and threw a healthy fist pump as made my way over to see how Rob’s run went. It felt like a massive weight had been lifted. Getting through the first stage, and as well as I did, was exactly what I needed.

Stage 2, “Goat Line,” was playing some games with me. This is the stage that I had that dumb crash on. I was able to put it out of my mind and drop in with clear intent: “Slow down, get over that drop, then make up time!” The plan worked to near perfection. As I rolled through the finish timing beacon, I felt I could’ve gone faster, but I kept it clean.

Stage 3 was one of the longest and quite a bit of pedaling starting about halfway through. I dropped in and proceeded to breeze through the upper switchbacks and technical spots, then rolled into the lower portion of wide open pedaling. After a bit of time, I looked around and wasn’t quite sure if I’d hit the finish or not. I started to slow it down a bit to get my bearings and decided I just need to keep cranking until I’m CERTAIN I’m finished with the stage. A bit further in I realized I’d probably just given up a little bit of time because I reached the end of the stage and “hospital hill.” It was done at that point and there was nothing I could do. I figured I’d given up some time, but hoped it wasn’t too much.

Stage 4 was very short and had a wide open run down a jeep road from the middle to the end. To spice it up a bit, Progressive Trail Design out of Fayetteville AR brought out some super cool wood and metal features to place in the trail! So picture this, you’re all out in top gear down a jeep road, and here comes this behemoth of a launch ramp…it was awesome! Once the finish line was in sight, you still had one more of these boosters to hit and I sent it as big as I could and threw my inside leg out, sliding it in moto style to the switchback right before the finish!

Stage 5 was back across the valley and featured a pretty big drop section that had MANY people concerned. I was feeling good at this point and rolled off the start and picked up as much speed as possible into the rocky downhill section up top. I’d spied some pretty good lines on the pre ride, since this section would also be shared with Stage 8, and proceeded to nail all of them. It felt so killer to basically double and triple through this section and just rip through a couple berms towards the drop. At this point, you’re coming nearly full speed, perpendicular to this drop section. You roll through a left hander, hecklers all around, and decide whether you’re going to take the bypass or go for glory. I also eyed up a pretty solid line through this section and it worked to perfection. I carried a ton of speed and basically J hopped off a small shelf before the drop and got down the backside as quickly as possible. This helped me carry a ton of momentum into the bottom of the stage. The cleanliness continued all the way through the finish beacons and I was PUMPED to end the day with clean runs and no dirt samples.

It was now time to head back to the Expo area and drop my timing chip. I rolled in to a decent little crowd standing around the monitor that would soon inform me of how well I’d prepared for this race. Riding smoothly and keeping it under control rewarded me with 3 out of 5 Stage wins and a 17 second lead to start Day 2. I did my best to contain the emotion, but I was certainly feeling a flood of excitement as I walked back to our pit. The rest of the evening felt very good and I focused on what it would take to duplicate the effort on Day 2. I took some time to visualize each of the next day’s stages and focus on the particular areas that could pose issues. With my confidence high and my game plan sound, it was time to enjoy the evening’s festivities. Kodiak Tough does things RIGHT and the party got started with the Trail LED Nighttime Enduro. These dudes strapped super powerful lights to their helmets and raced down Stage 9 in a winner take all shootout. The double drop at the bottom of this stage provided some amazing excitement! Kansas City shredder Garet Steinmetz took the victory.  It was then on to the Progressive Trail Design Long Jump competition. Austin local Jeramiah Work busted big and sailed 41 feet for the win. The party didn’t stop there, but it was time for Rob and I to head back to our hotel.

As we rolled into Flat Rock Ranch for Day 2, I was starting to get a little uneasy. Thoughts of riding to protect my lead were creeping in and I was trying to keep them at bay. I know myself well enough to understand how important riding with confidence is. The pedal up to Stage 1 seemed to take forever. “Evil Plus” started out in what I can only describe as a mine field of massive rocks. I watched rider after rider bounce through, just waiting for that familiar hiss of air leaving a freshly sliced tire. Rob and I spotted what looked like a pretty solid line and I locked it away and headed back to the start to drop in on my run. It began decently, but I just couldn’t get into a groove. The solid technique I’d used yesterday to carve through the switch backs had abandoned me and I did my best to just keep moving forward. That beeping of my timing chip at the end of the stage couldn’t come quickly enough. I set my bike down and waited for Rob to finish his run. I finally saw him, head shaking, rolling to the end. He’d missed a turn and it cost him a great deal of time. I felt bad because I’m confident he had a good run in him on this stage. I can’t complain though, because he basically turned his attention to being my camera man at this point and the result of that is dang cool!

Stage 2 was more of the same and it was very frustrating. With some super high speed sections and a few cool jumps, I felt I could charge this section and really make some good time. I just never felt comfortable and just tried to ride not to crash. I rolled through the finish, shaking my head as Rob asked how it went. As we pedaled to Stage 3, I tried to convey my frustration and emotion to my big brother. It was at that time that he spoke the words that would cut deep and sort out my competitive compass: “Shake it off dude, you’re trying to protect that lead and you need to not do that. You gotta ride to win, don’t ride to not lose.”

My perspective changed instantly and I couldn’t wait to hit the last two runs of the day! I was pumped for Stage 8 since it shared its upper section with Stage 5. I even busted a pretty decent power wheelie through the start beacons. I was feeling it as I charged down toward the drop and split area. I floated down my line perfectly and proceeded to drop some watts on the pedal section at the bottom. Another fist pump at the finish and it was time to head to the final run of the weekend. As I sat on the top of Stage 9, I wasn’t too sure where I stood. I was completely confident in second place rider Garet Steinmetz and his ability to swallow up a 17 second gap. The dude is a super talented rider and his fitness is incredible. I just figured I’d ridden clean all weekend and it was time to finish strong and see where the chips fall. Win or lose, the weekend had been a blast and I wanted to hit the big jump and double drop on this last run. The upper section was some fast rolling single-track with a few switchbacks and a very loose over hard surface. I kept her upright as I skated through the turns and then pointed that Giant Trance Advanced 0 downhill and pedaled for all I was worth! The wooden ramp came and went without issue and eyed up the double drop before the finish and the large crowd that had gathered. My speed stayed up as I maneuvered through the right hander, pushed out to the left, and sailed off that rock shelf. Carrying my speed, I J hopped over the next drop and down the backside to hammer it through the finish.

The crowd had gathered at the Timing and Scoring Tent. Rob had the camera rolling as they dipped my timing chip to bring up the final result. After what seemed like an eternity, I was beyond stoked to see that I’d not only retained the lead from the first day, and I was able to add some more time on top of it and sweep the day’s Stages. The Pro Class was pretty stacked and the top five riders are some of the fastest in this part of the country.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the 2016 Race Season and the Southern Enduro Tour. My Giant Bicycles Trance Advanced was the perfect choice of bike and the Industry Nine Trail 245s handled the rocky goodness with ease. My hydration and fueling program worked flawlessly with Skratch Hyper Hydration consumed each morning and Exercise Hydration and Energy Chews throughout the day. The bikes looked killer on the Scorpion Stands and Rob and I both felt like fashion models in our Zoic Ether shorts.

I have to give a HUGE thanks to a few different people: Rick, Kyle, Tim, and the entire crew at Plano Cycling and Fitness. Brad Woolsey from Giant. To my big bro for making the trip out and being my Yoda when I needed it most. Lastly, to my amazing wife for her unwavering support and the amazing food she cooked to last us the entire weekend. We were certainly well fed!

It’s onto Round 2, The Rose City Rocket Enduro in Tyler TX, February 27/28.