Riding Sludge at EWS 2 in Columbia

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Words by WTB athlete Matt Koen ( @koenmatt )
Photos by Sven Martin ( @svenmartinphoto )

Coming from the world enduro in Chile, my confidence was high. A 3rd place finish in U21 Men meant I was carrying momentum into the next round, and after a long off season of training, it was good to know I had the speed to be at the top. However, preceding Chile, I had been full of nerves and self doubt: Was I fit enough? Had I trained enough? Did my competition train harder and were they faster? I quickly found myself lost and climbing deeper into a weird mindset that, upon reflection, may have actually been beneficial to my racing. The uneasiness forced me to do everything in my power to ride as fast as I could; I hydrated properly, practiced smartly, prepped my bike perfectly. Everything was dialed in. But Colombia felt a bit different. I don’t know if my body was tired from back-to-back races or if I was struggling with being away from home, but something felt off. I hydrated the same, made sure my bike was dialed, everything I had done the week prior. Yet still, I didn’t feel on it as I had the week before. Maybe my racing thrives on the insecurity that I'm slow?

We arrived in Pereira Airport in Colombia on Tuesday, and for most of the flight I was anxious my bike wouldn’t arrive. I had checked it in back in Chile with around 60 other bikes, and I figured it was unlikely my bike would be chosen to be put on the plane. Even after heckling the check-in assistant for a priority tag, I felt uneasy. Luckily, it showed up on the other end, along with the rest of my luggage. It was a huge relief, to say the least.

The first things I noticed when leaving the airport were the humidity, heat, and classic South American tight-loose style. While packed tightly into the shuttle and sticking to the sweaty arms of my fellow teammates, I stared out the window with fascination. Sketchy motorcycles stacked full of families, plumbing supplies, groceries, or the occasional chicken flew past us on either side. It was a shit show, yes, but the chaos of motorbikes and cars almost felt fraternal. As if to join in with his brothers, our shuttle driver began speeding down the other lane to pass slower cars, dipping into the correct lane split seconds before a would-be head on collision. After an hour and a half of near death experiences, we made it to Manizales.

Manizales was the opposite of what I expected. My eyes were met with a relatively western town, as if a piece of San Francisco had been dropped in the middle of a rainforest, had fewer building safety codes, and more street vendors. However, when I later explored more and rode slightly outside of the city, I was met with more poverty. The juxtaposition of racers and shacks made me more uncomfortable that I would have anticipated. I wasn’t uncomfortable because I was seeing poverty, or because I felt unsafe. Instead, I was met with a harsh realization. I realized how fortunate we all were. Having the opportunity to ride bikes and travel the world, having the opportunity to have had a bike to start riding, to have had parents who could afford to take me to local races. If I had grown up like the majority of the world, like the majority of the people I saw living in the outskirts of Manizales, I would never be in the position I am today. Put simply, this trip gave me perspective.

Practice rolled around on the Friday, and I was stoked to get going on this foreign dirt. High levels of stoke remained, but began to be tainted by an ever-growing feeling of concern. During my first lap, I crashed 3 times. Second stage, 2 times. The day continued in this fashion. I couldn’t figure out how to ride the slick dirt. I felt like I was riding fast when upright, but out of nowhere I would lose the front end, or the back would swing out from under me. I tried riding lower tire pressure but had no success. I thought I knew how to ride mud, but this was a different level all together. Maybe I need to go spend an off season in England.

After raining all night, race day rolled through. Knowing I wasn’t confident on these trails, my strategy was to ride super mellow. I figured riding slow to a 10th was better than a DNF from crashing. This strategy didn’t really work. The trails were absolutely destroyed after a full night of rain and 500 riders practicing them. Ruts deeper than my cranks ran down the entire trail, and tricky conditions meant us U21 men were catching Master 40+ men. After riding for a minute down the stage, I rode straight into a Master 40+ guy's bike, forcing me to get off and run up a climb in the stage. This continued down the rest of the track after I caught two others.

Frustrated but determined to finish the day, I kept going even though I knew I was going to be off the back. The next few stages were littered with crashes as I struggled to negotiate with the mud, and after bending my derailleur with a crash, I went full survival mode. I bent it back but it still didn’t want to really shift, so I decided to just chill for the rest of the day. I finished up the race, but not in the fashion I would’ve liked. Even though this race didn’t go my way, I had a blast attempting to negotiate with the muddy ruts, and learned a ton in the process. While I'm shooting for a top 3 spot in the U21 overall, I'm also gaining experience before my first elite season next year. So while disappointed, I'm not too upset with my performance last weekend. It happens, it's racing, and I learned a ton in the process. At the end of the day we’re all just riding bikes in cool places, and I need to remember that. It’s easy as an athlete to get caught up with results and to not realize the great life you are living. This trip really helped put things in perspective for me, and I'm grateful for that.

columbia enduro world series EWS manizales marin matt koen muddy round 2 vigilante 2.3

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