Aiming High | James Shirley – A Life On The Road
The enduro season is almost upon us, a quick glance at the calendar shows that for the next 6 months there is an epic race almost every weekend. Just two weeks ago the opening round of the Enduro World Series brought the worlds best riders to New Zealand and it was a sight to behold. Enduro is now a fully fledged industry and careers are being made for a lucky few, but it’s certainly not easy to get a ‘dream ticket’ with one of the big teams. What does it take to turn pro? What sacrifices do racers need to make to raise themselves above the rest of the crowd, to score that elusive contract and race with factory support?
Well, it’s time to find out. This year we will be following one such rider, James Shirley as he takes on the full European Enduro Series (EES), his sights set firmly on winning the European Championship and taking the overall EES series. James will take us through the highs and the lows of racing at an international level, showing the preparation that goes into each and every round – but first it is time to find out how it all began.
James grew up on a croft (small farm) in a little place 12 miles outside of Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. He confessed that his first real passion was for Lego but he soon realised that there would be little chance of a career in that. As he grew bigger and more co-ordinated his aspirations shifted away from hardcore lego building and destruction and his focus fell to mountain biking. Driven by fierce competition with his big brother Gavin; the three and a half year age gap it meant James had to play hard or go home. Growing up in a sporting household (his father used to be a rally driver and passionate cyclist) James started doing national cross country events when he was just 11 but, like most young kids, he only wanted to go up to go down.
Around this time the Downhilll scene was picking up in a big way but James wasn’t allowed one because they were ‘too expensive’ and the sport was ‘too dangerous’. However after a lot of persuasion and an open minded mum, at 15 years old he was offered a healthy discount on a brand new Specialized Bighit (which came as standard with a 26” front wheel and a 24” rear wheel – how times have changed) from Foz, the manager of the local bike shop where James was working part time. That is where his story begins, doing laps of the gondola and going to the Scottish Downhill Association (SDA) races with his friends, Joe and Richard, who were already on the scene.
“As soon as I jumped on a mountain bike I knew it would become a major part of my life and the decision was made to take a year out between school and university. So at just 17 years old I set off on an adventure with Joe to race the New Zealand National Downhill Series. We bought a crappy old Toyota Hi-Ace van that burnt nearly as much oil as it did diesel and trucked round the North and the South islands. It was an incredible experience but soon enough we were back in the UK and it was time for life to get a bit more serious – I enrolled to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow to study a Masters of Mechanical Engineering. I was still training hard in the winter and racing cross country and downhill in the summer, focussing my aims on the more endurance downhill events.
The local No Fuss events were always on the calendar but for me it was all about the Megavalanche. This was the perfect race: a great combination of skill and fitness with the added excitement of mass start racing and speeds on the glacier of up to 100km/h! I still remember my first Mega experience… I travelled out with Tom Lamb and neither of us knew what to expect. We found ourselves on the top of a cold, dark glacier at 7am with a couple hours to wait until the entire grid had formed. A terrible combination of nerves, altitude and caffeine resulted in the worst pre-race toilet experience ever!
From out of nowhere, this new enduro discipline came along and everything changed. The year after my graduation was the first year of the Enduro World Series (EWS). It was amazing to finally have a competitive series that suited my riding. That year I spent just about all of my money doing as many races as I could in Europe whilst travelling and living in my van on a proper shoe string budget. In between races I would try and top up my funds by doing whatever was on offer: trail building, grass cutting, bike shop work and bike guiding/coaching. I even did a two week trail building contract in China between races to rake in some extra money!
I had some good results that year and I also made a lot of new friends – one of them being the Kiwi legend that is Jamie Nicoll. Jamie was also on a tight budget and he didn’t even have the use of his own vehicle. He would use public transport or blag a lift to the races and sleep in his tent. These extra challenges didn’t hold him back though – he kicked ass. What a character. One of the best things about him is that he genuinely says what he thinks and does what he wants. This may cause offence on the odd occasion but honesty is a great quality to have. Jamie is a free spirit but he couldn’t afford to ride for free for much longer and neither could I.
We teamed up in my van and set off for Eurobike in search of a solution. Jamie had gained a lot of contacts that summer and he introduced me to various companies including the German bike manufacturer Radon. Oliver Fuhrmann was the team manager for their Factory Enduro Team at and he seemed really motivated. I had some negotiations to make and a few different offers to choose from: Canyon asked me to ride their bikes to keep the Dudes of Hazzard on the same brand which would have been really cool but in the end I decided that I would rather be sponsored for who I was as a rider and not by whom my friends were so it was the Radon deal I signed.
I think it has worked out well for everyone. However, the 2014 season was a bit more stressful than I had hoped for: there was a big delay with contracts and bikes and my schedule was really busy (19 races in total – partly my own making) with lots of new venues on the calendar. Despite the extra pressure I had some great experiences and I’m really satisfied with my overall 3rd place finish in the European Enduro Series.
So now I was a ‘pro’ rider, did that mean I could finally live the high life? It’s interesting because I don’t feel as though much changed between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. I still lived the hobo lifestyle in my van. In fact, I was even more of a hobo than I was before! This is because I was so busy racing that there wasn’t a long enough gap to justify travelling back home.
One significant difference was that I no longer panicked when the van needed more fuel and, every so often, I would go out and treat myself to coffee or pizza which was really nice. It’s great not having to worry about money so much but, at the same time, I know that if I was to use my degree then I could earn substantially more. This was a recurring conflict that ran through my mind. I think the seed was planted there by older ‘wiser’ folk who would continually ask when I would be getting a ‘real job’. One thing which I’m sure is true is that I would be very happy to have my own property one day and this goal would be a lot more achievable as an engineer.
However, I wouldn’t have the time to enjoy it because I know that if I was part of the ‘real world’ then I’d still want to escape and go racing. For a long time I was also guilty for having a compulsive necessity to feel ‘useful’. Again, I think that attitude was an off-shoot from the aforementioned mislaid seed. If someone was to ask me what I had done that day then I would feel guilty if all I said was that I rode my bike. However, the world has many problems. I have come to realise that even if I did have a ‘real job’ in the ‘real world’ then I’d probably be doing more harm than good anyway.
Business is driven by money – not by what’s right and wrong. It could be said that the same applies for me because, for the moment, I am a business too. If, one day, I can think of a genius plan to make the world a better place then I’d do it straight away but until then I am perfectly happy doing what I do now. I take satisfaction from my own personal achievements but I would also like to think that if I can capture someone’s imagination and inspire them to become a fitter, healthier and happier person then my job has been a success.
To keep my mind active in the off season I am going to learn a new language and since I have no strings to tie me down then I have decided to run away from wet, wild, wintery Scotland and move to Finale Ligure in Italy. Finale is an awesome place. For those of you who haven’t been then it has to go down on the bucket list. It is an ancient town of about 12,000 inhabitants located on the Mediterranean coast with palm trees and white sand beaches. The town itself has castles, cathedrals, cobbled streets, pizzerias, cafes, gelaterias and plenty more Italian good stuff.
The hillsides are covered in agricultural terraced farmland, which further up the slopes, has mostly been abandoned. The old paths and roads are therefore perfect for climbers to access the large numerous limestone cliffs. More recently, mountain bikers have started to use these trails and the industry is big business now. People from all over the world come here to enjoy the 1,000metre plus descents that start high up in the mature beech forests and take you down through thick Indiana Jones style vine covered shrubbery, over the terraces and back to the sea.
2015 has been a great year so far, I am staying with Radon and the team set-up is going to be bigger and better than before. Joost Wichman is my new team manager and I’ll be riding along side Petrik Brückner and the young female talent that is Raphaela Richter. The team is taking shape now and I’m looking forward to a successful season. I’ve ordered size large frames instead of medium ones this time for a 20mm longer top tube. That should increase stability for the faster alpine stages and we have a lot of new component sponsors which I am excited about using. My main aim is to win the European Enduro Series and I’d like to get some strong top 30 results in the EWS rounds that I take part in.”
Tune into the next part to find out what goes into preparing and racing the opening round of the European Enduro Series in Punta Ala
Words: James Shirley and Trevor Worsey
James will be sponsored by the following companies: Radon Bikes; Manitou Suspension; BBB Cycling; Winterberg Holiday Resort; Magura Brakes; SRAM Drivetrain; DT Swiss Wheels; Continental Tyres; Thirty7even Clothing; IXS Protection; Answer Components; Carbocage; Across; Fizik; RSP; Phidra Accountants As well as his own personal sponsors:
Ride100% Goggles, Ergon Bike Ergonomics Backpacks and Bawbags Underwear
Bawbags may not have anything to do with cycling but their boxer shorts are really comfy (even in the saddle – especially the ‘Cool de Sacs’) and a lot of their profits go towards cancer research so they’re worth promoting in my opinion.