The Interview | Chris Ball – Pushing The Boundaries
It seems like only yesterday when I first interviewed Chris, it was late 2012 and we were sat down in the workshop of a local bike shop talking about the proposed Enduro World Series (EWS). Back then every sentence was punctuated with the words “visions, hopes, goals and dreams”. Fast forward 12 months and as Jerome and Tracy climbed to the top steps of the podium to rapturous applause, the heavens opened closely followed by beers, and those visions, hopes, goals and dreams had all been realised. We had a World Series and enduro was here to stay.
As the EWS now rolls into its third season there is a feeling of change, it has evolved, grown up even, now brimming with confidence it has attracted new events, new teams and new faces to the global spectacle. We thought it was time to catch up with the EWS front man, Chris Ball, to find out what is changing this year, where to draw the line and what is happening with the UCI?
It is all about to start again for another season, are there any changes to the EWS team?
Yes it’s all really exciting, we are bringing video guys on board next year, and we will have a media person on site at all the events which is a big step for us in terms of supporting the events and connecting with the media; something the DH world cup never had. We have an Athlete manager, a Web manager, the team is certainly growing. However, we could do with a team twice the size, people presume we are massive, but in actual fact we are tiny.
That’s great news, will we see some familiar faces on the video team?
Exact details are still to be announced, it is a really difficult sport to cover, you need to know how the race works and plays out. We understand that it is a really hard job and we needed people with experience. Looking at how events were covered from Chile to Finale, you could see the improvements and we want to keep that knowledge in house.
So with the new video team on board, will we see live streaming this year?
Well Crankworx have done it, and they will be again at Rotorua and Whistler. It is an interesting topic, if you go down the live streaming route it brings in a lot of financial constraints, you also put a lot of constraints on the format of the race. At the moment enduro is perhaps a little ahead of the technology that is available. As wireless technology improves we hope to embrace it, but it’s perhaps too early yet
Entries go live in a few days, however the entry system for the 2014 season got a few folks hot under the collar, are you going to change anything this year?
It was an ambitious plan last year as we wanted to bring all the entries in house, so we could better manage rankings. It was an incredible amount of work and we had a great concierge with the teams. Then I guess it did kind of fall apart a little when it went live to the public. The system accepted seven different currencies, for seven different events in one go, and actually even though it was tough for some users, it did work. We had 2300 entries in 2 hours, going to seven different bank accounts. It was a nightmare, but it got there. But anyway, we admit it did not work well enough, so we have worked really hard on it and will be staggering events, giving ourselves and racers more time.
As the EWS becomes more populated with professional riders, do you think that the EWS should always be open to the amateur racer?
I love the amateur inclusion for a number of reasons. It does create some challenges when it comes to pushing the top end, and some people believe that it acts as an anchor for the pros, but that’s a really negative way of looking at it. I see it much more that the amateurs ground the pros, from a World Cup Downhill experience, it can become very easy to get wrapped up in your own professional bubble. What I love about enduro is that all those barriers are broken down. It can be quite humbling to be riding around a 50km loop and realise that the guy or girl behind you is a full time plumber or computer programmer. I love the vibe it brings to the event, making things feel much more open and accessible.
As the EWS becomes more populated with professional riders, do you think that the EWS should always be open to the amateur racer?
Did you have any stand-out characters in the amateur field last year?
Yes, we had heard great stories over the season. I remember one rider, Will Johnson, travelling to each event from Washington. He brought such an amazing attitude to the Masters category, just loving the riding. I actually lent him a helmet, when his half face fell off his pack after day one at Tweedlove. He is exactly the rider we need, what a legend! If we made it professionals only, that is exactly the type of rider we would lose and that would be such a shame.
So if you keep the amateur field, how will you push the riders at the front?
We are playing around with it, there are some contrasting opinions about timing, should we split enduro one and enduro two? The French think it should be the same for everyone and I completely respect that. For now it is something that we will keep flexible, which is why people enjoy what we do.
When it comes to how can we push the sport, well, I think we are pushing it enough. Whistler was too much, I don’t think we will do anything that hard again. The important thing is that we learn and we are always learning. We had a big discussion about liaison times, and I think we are more likely to slacken them this year. I don’t think we get much benefit from really tight liaisons, and perhaps lose some of the fun aspect. In the end, I think the pros will always push each other. Seeing racing begin decided by seconds – that is the sport being pushed.
The elites will be able to make less and less mistakes, look at the winners of the last two years, it’s always the racer who has the best worse result. Everyone had a bad round, but Jared had the best worse round, and that consistency will be pushed and pushed, coming down to equipment choice, preparation, you name it. It’s a cool way to push the sport without making the amateurs suffer.
What about the womens, field, you held an open forum at Finale, was that useful?
Yes, it was really useful, the feedback indicated there was nothing that needed to be dramatically changed, I see enduro as having the potential to offer the largest women’s participation in mountain bike racing; DH racing suffered over the years as the technicality and size of the jumps became more extreme, and I certainly did not want that to happen in enduro by accident. We pushed a lot of things this year, and the feedback was really important. As the EWS is run by four guys, a women’s perspective is vital, we listened and some really cool things came out. The women at the meeting loved that the liaison times were the same for everyone, a level playing field.
What about the long term plans for the EWS, are you still in talks with the UCI?
Certainly, we have never not been in talks with the UCI, people automatically assume that we are a breakaway faction from the UCI, but let’s not forget that I worked there for a long time and have an enormous respect for the challenges that they face. We did our own thing because we felt like the time was right, but always kept them in the frame as in reality you cannot grow a discipline of international mountain biking without the backing of the international federation who manages the other two main disciplines of mountain biking.
At the same time, we do not want to jump in there until the time is right. We have always kept an open discussion with the UCI, recently there have been a lot of positive changes within the UCI, and they are now looking at ways of working together to make it easier for the riders. This would help with issues such as the confusion with Italian licences, French licences and non-federated American events. I am also keen to see a more comprehensive anti-doping program and we cannot really work with WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) without some form of UCI affiliation. Of course this does not mean that UCI have to manage us in any form, we are just looking for recognition.
Globally there are few organised national series, is that something that the EMBA or EWS are considering?
Well, we have talked about it a lot recently, I think a stronger national structure is needed in some ways, although the fluidity and the way things are structured works well at the moment. Not having anything too rigid can be advantageous as different countries find their own trends, what their riders like and their racing culture. I think remaining open for growth is good just now, and we should not rush into anything.
At the moment the EWS does recognise certain series, those that stand out and we want to recognise, so we give reserved entries to the top two men and women. For 2015 we have added the NZ Triple Crown, Australian events, The Chilean Series, The Scottish Enduro Series and UKGE.
It was cool seeing the new trails in Finale, is that something that the EMBA could get more involved in?
We try as much as possible to promote organisers to build new sustainable trails, and often organisers use a World Series to sanction a previously illegal trail. It happened in Whistler, believe it or not two of the trails were illegal, to be used in the race they had to be mapped by the forestry service and are now properly managed. It was the same in the Tweed Valley where a lot of the stages were illegally hand cut, and are now recognised and more openly ridden.
We also gave away a $300 Trailboss trail tools to the key trail builders in each venue, it was a big expense for us but we feel that trail builders need to be recognised. In all the disciplines, trail builders build and people race, opinions are voiced but the actual work is never recognised. In Finale we got the entire trail building group up on stage, and it was the first time in 20 years of racing (in the region) that the builders had been recognised, and that’s huge.
When it comes to designing stages, for the first time 140mm and 160mm bikes have an elite race series, is the EWS being led by bike design, or driving it forward?
We talk about this at length within the World Series, and we are all really keen that we align with the brands, not just in a commercial sense, but more in filling that gap between DH and XC. If the series in some way makes the bikes we ride on our normal Saturdays better, for example reverbs and 1×11, then we are certainly winning. If we make our stages reflect real world mountain biking, then brands are forced to develop in line with that.
We have had some great chats with brands last year about how they have been challenged with increasing pressure on bikes and parts, some that were never originally designed to be raced, such as tyres and wheels. Downhill was never crucial on weight but required strength, XC was never crucial on strength but needed to be light, now bikes need to be strong and light, and it has to happen now. We must listen closely to the brands as it is them who are developing and fixing stuff. If we look at 4X, it was sad but it died as nobody owned the bikes, it was great to watch but there was no participation base for mountain bikers.
It takes a lot of funding to run the EWS, has the industry remained behind you?
It’s interesting as we have such a unique model, it takes a long time to explain our crowd funding ethos. We hope that our work benefits the brands, we promote teams, the riders and their bikes, and hope that our existence is so important to them that they are happy to contribute. No single brand sponsor is reliant in funding us in their entirety so we are more sustainable. We hope to be around for a long time, for the teams and the riders that have developed careers through the EWS. We had eleven supporters last year, and they were all fantastic. This year we are asking for more money to support the new video team which will benefit the whole scene. It is an odd system, as normally you sell ‘exclusive’ sponsorship packages but we are asking for the opposite, contribution to the events and contribution to the EWS.
And what about the EMBA, has it been as successful as you had hoped
It did not really change dramatically between year one and year two, but it was much more than was expected in year one. We don’t really offer a huge amount, it just allows us to keep track of people’s rankings and points, but we do want to build on that in years to come. I would rather do things right, rather than do things quickly. The riders that have shown their support have been amazing and we want to give something back to them. I think we have 330 members this year.
OK, so back to the racing, what sort of riding can we expect from Zona Zero?
It’s amazing, it is going to blow people’s minds. Those trails are so cool, nothing super steep, a lot of rock; it will be a very physical race. It is very beautiful, almost between Finale Ligure and Crested Butte, with long remote trails through deciduous forests, with ancient 800 years old trails. The local trail building community is also full of awesome people.
What event are you looking forward to most in 2015?
I think the new events are always really exciting, Rotorua will be cool and Crested Bute blew my mind when I was there in the summer checking out trails. It will certainly be an event that will break some hearts, high altitude, a real big mountain adventure. What is important to us is that each event brings something different. With Ireland I am hoping it will be a much more compact venue, more spectator friendly, shorter trails. Then Colarado is the exact opposite, it could be two days of three hour pedalling climbs in the middle of nowhere, it will be great to see how people react. I cannot wait for the season to start, it is going to be an incredible year.
For more information about the Enduro World Series, check out their website
Words and photos: Trev Worsey