2016 was a hard year for first year Elena Melton. Suffering a broken wrist and fractured ribs towards the end of her 2015 season meant a long rehabilitation period.
“I had a tough season last year coming back from injury,” Elena said, “having a lot of mechanicals and crashes at races, and being on a massive learning curve”.
This year is Elena’s chance to hit the ground riding (definitely not running), and she is off to a flying start following a key victory over the weekend in the women under 21 class, coming in as second woman overall in the first stage of the Scottish Enduro Series (SES).
The venue: Nevis Range, Fort William – the (in)famous and much-loved playpark of many home-grown talents down the years, and an excellent place for recreational riders to test themselves on a course which has seen some of the biggest names ride its trails.
The event: The Fort William Enduro.
Enduro sees riders race over several stages in a day, with a liaison between each stage. The stages last between two and 20 minutes, with liaisons often taking riders up more climbs before diving back into the trails.
Taking the speed and fitness of cross-country riding and combining it with the technical and mental endurance typical of downhill racing, enduro riding is a taxing endeavour.
Elena, member of the University of Stirling Cycling Club, notes the growth of enduro over the last few years: “Over the past few years the strength and depth in the women’s field has grown massively. This weekend there were 22 women racing the full enduro and eight racing the shorter course.
“The quality of riders was high; there was really close racing, with just one second between me and the fastest woman, and then just 28 seconds back to third place.
“When I first started racing enduro I was often the only one in the U21 women’s category, now there’s always some serious competition at all the races. This is pretty amazing as these races are super super tough, technically, physically and mentally. Us U21 women have to do the exact same course as the best male riders in the country”.
Across all disciplines of cycling, female riders are becoming more and more vocal and visible, with more events being broadcast on national and international television. Recently, women’s cycling made the headlines after British Cycling rejected proposals by organisers of the Tour of Britain and the international governing body, the UCI, to extend the race to seven days.
Pressure is now mounting on BC to extend the race from all corners.
Leading women are commonplace in mountain biking, with female icons making a statement for quite some time. British names like Rachel Atherton and Manon Carpenter have both donned the rainbow jersey of world champions, and Rachel was last year voted BT Sport Action Woman of the Year.
Elena took the U21 crown at Fort William in the 2015 season, when she had just turned 18. She admits she was nervous before this year’s race: “Although I’ve been training really hard this winter, I was super nervous going into the race not knowing what was going to happen. It’s nice to have a positive start to the year”.
And positive it was, with her coming first in her class in all but one of the five stages in the race; one stage which many of the elite men described as “one of the hardest” they’ve ever raced.
Typically, Scotland’s classic driech weather of cloud, drizzly rain and chill made conditions muddy.
Elena said she thrives in these conditions: “Typical racing in Scotland really, especially on the west coast: Mud up to your knees, and rain covering your goggles so you have to take them off and throw them off the track mid-stage. I’m used to it though, I like riding in the wet and I love the riding at Nevis range, and it was such a fun weekend riding with everyone. The stages get your lungs bursting and your legs burning, with a mixture of terror and excitement”.
Returning to the point about women in cycling, Elena recently partnered with the Female Riders team. Originally a clothing distribution company, Female Riders established an all-girls mountain biking team, covering all mountain biking disciplines.
They have released several team videos in the last few months, showcasing the talent which exists in their small team of riders, as well as the beautiful landscape they get to ride in.
Elena said: “It’s so fun being part of an all-girls team and riding with and supporting each other”.
The SES takes in some of the best of Scotland’s mountain biking locations, and will next head to Pitfichie, near Abderdeen.
“I plan to race the full Scottish Series”, Elena said, “as they are such good courses, organised so well, good competition, and there is no British series anymore”.
The British Enduro Series was pulled for this season, following the withdrawal of key sponsors and diminished entry numbers.
This is not all bad news, said Elena, especially for the Scottish series: “Due to the collapse of the British Enduro Series, the [Fort William] race attracted some of the best riders from all over the country, quite a few which are competitive at international and world level. There were just under 400 riders competing and 100 on the waiting list for the race”.
This makes the field particularly competitive this year, but Elena has her eyes on the top position: “My aim is to race the full SES, and three of the Enduro World Series. Also, to do a few of the Scottish Downhill Series and British Downhill series.
“Ultimately, I hope to win the U21 women’s SES and get on the podium at Enduro World Series. Also, I would like to be fastest woman at a Scottish Downhill Race”.
If her first race is anything to go by, Elena is a commanding position for the next race. However, there are still five left now, and anything can happen in this sport.
Elena is a first year BSc Sport and Exercise Science student.