It’s 24 hours before the first round of the 2014 World SuperEnduro Championship. We’re on Crosby Beach, just north of Liverpool with Emma Bristow. Time is strangely compressed, in every direction – it’s only eight days since Emma first rode an enduro bike, it’s less than one day to her world championship debut, and we’ve got just two hours to nail the first phase of our photoshoot.
And yet we’re stood on this windswept beach, around us some of the 100 cast iron figures that make up Anthony Gormley’s famous Another Place art installation and it’s as if time itself has stood still. The figures stand 6’2”, unless buried in the sand, and are arranged over two miles of the beach. Those that are situated lower than high tide are braving the cold of the Irish Sea, some up to their waist, some up to the necks, maybe a few are totally submerged, we don’t know… All look with unseeing eyes to the west (to the holy land that is the Isle of Man perhaps). They bring an air of contemplation and it’s not lost on us. And that contemplation makes the figures seem very human, quite warm, despite their iron construction. Other people have clearly felt the same way and the figures have been lovingly accessorized, wrist and ankle bracelets abound, one wears a construction hat. We adorn ours with a fur hat to match one Emma wears.
The setting is apt. Emma Bristow was this weekend, certainly in Another Place. Her place is trials. She’s very good at it, having been riding since the age of five and having risen to being number two in the world. But enduro is a new world, as we click through the photos she’s still yet to ride – race – her first event.
THE SCOTT MADE ME DO IT
How Emma came to be riding an indoor enduro race is a little confused and in fact there are many influences that came to bear, not just the one. Out there on the horizon, probably for some time, has been the X Games.
“The X Games is another indoor super enduro championship, but in America of course,” says Emma, her eyes bright and alive to the mental imagery. “I’ve fancied fancy doing it for some time – for the challenge, I think I’d do well and and it’s well paid too if you do well, although of course it’s a lot of money and time to do.”
So you can see riding a SuperEnduro would be like a qualifier to the X Games, a good result would enhance her likelihood of entry acceptance. Then there was her recent experience of riding the Scott Trial where she’d done exceptionally well.
“The Scott Trial is time and observation so you’ve to race to the section then ride the section well and onto the next. This year it was quite hard, seven hours non-stop and you do have crashes and you get to the point, even with a trials bike, where it’s a pain to pick it up.”
Emma had been attempting to become the first woman to win a Scott Spoon, so she’d ridden with the top guys and in fact was the 15th rider to make the finish line, but at some cost.
“Yeah, my observation was terrible this year, I don’t know why I struggled with it, I’ve ridden those kinds of sections so well all year, but it cost me too many places and in the end I finished just six places off the last of the spoons (in 31st).
It’s worth emphasizing just how well Emma rides. She was punting it with the Dougie Lampkins there at the Scott. At the Scottish Six Days Trial she’s been best lady for the last three years, but notably this year also finished in the Special First Class Awards that go only to the top 50 overall. She’s a top lady rider, but actually she’s top in comparison to the male riders too.
“The first year I did the Scottish I couldn’t believe how hard it was, but looking at my result this year it shows how much tougher I’ve got. These are hard events and they do prepare your body for hard competitions to follow.”
The final piece in the puzzle was a chance ride on an enduro bike at the recent Sherco Open Day. Emma had gone along to pick up a trials bike but gave the enduro a quick spin just out of curiosity. She was immediately impressed how stable the bike felt (as it would coming from a trials bike) and with a month off before further trials training starts (in Spain) she saw the opportunity to have a go at the Liverpool event. With boyfriend and trials ‘minder’ James Fry she put the idea to Sherco UK and was surprised when they gave the project a green light. They had a 250SEF-R waiting for her.
Stood on the beach such talk seemed so misplaced. Emma was doing her best to be the proper photographic model although we weren’t trying to make her look pretty, to objectify her femininity, rather looking to open a pictorial dialogue that said, ‘this is Emma’. Certainly she has the clear blue eyes of youth, the kind of youth that allows you to follow your goals without the distractions that can come later. Her life is simply that of a professional trials rider, has been for three years now, and having been twice runner-up in the world championship and this year becoming British champion (undefeated all year) she’s clearly become good at it.
She takes off a jumper mid shoot, revealing quite a muscled set of shoulders and biceps.
“I did work a lot on my strength when I turned pro, moving to Ossa in 2011, and it hasn’t really gone away. I wouldn’t do gym work but bodyweight exercises, like press ups and pull ups. I figure if you can pull your own body weight you’ll be alright. I’ve never really gotten on with weights, nor believed in them. I was doing gym over last winter with Albert Cabestany and Toni Bou but that was more cardio and core.”
Last winter was an intensive three months of training in Spain before the world championships kicked off. Emma was in no two minds what kind of dedication it would take to beat Laia Sanz (who’s currently world trials and enduro champion) and Emma only just dipped out on the championship this year, just as fellow Brit Jane Daniels did in the world enduro championship. Emma acknowledges that Sanz maybe had her hands too full, with battling the enduro and the trials titles.
The shoot on the beach finished (and another at a cafe), we relocated to the Echo Arena. With the change in location you could see the professional rider in Emma emerge. Back in her Sherco jacket, pushing the 250SEF-R through scrutineering she was not the least perturbed by the new paddock scene and was itching to get a first look at the track and start figuring out the challenges. The guys were on full-noise complaining certain sections were too hard, Emma meantime looked quiet and confident.
“No, I don’t feel daunted by anything I see here as I ride over much bigger in trials, but in this the bikes are bigger and if it goes wrong – well, I’m quite small.”
Next morning she was back and itching to go. In practice she set off at a fair rate, immediately impressing all that were watching.
“To be honest, I might have pushed too hard in practice. But I wanted to get to know the track and being my first go at this I wanted to go out confident, so I tried to do as many laps as I could, where maybe Laia – wisely – saved her energy.”
Emma in fact qualified in pole position and elected to take the inside gate for the first race. She got the holeshot and despite the odd bobble she won. Her top flight trials credentials were immediately obvious as she hit the feared ‘Matrix’ log section (in fact a succession of tree trunks laid across the track) with expert timing and full-on feet-up technique. She wasn’t shy with the throttle either, using full gas to shorten up the straights where so many other riders (male and female) were guilty of using that time to get their breath back. Sadly the first race – conducted before the gates opened to the public – counted for little with all championship points being heaped on the afternoon race in front of the paying audience.
SHE’S GOT FIGHT
Anyone who was there will agree, the women’s race that afternoon was the most electrifying of the whole event. That simply doesn’t happen in womens’ enduro, there’s never the white heat – but with Emma in full attack the crowd were treated to a real roller coaster ride.
It helped, contradictorily, that she fluffed her start.
“My first thoughts going around the first corner were o-oh I’ve not started well, I’m going to have to catch up now, this is it, I can’t restart I’ve got to pick them off. I hadn’t been expecting to do a start like that. It’s something I’ve got to learn. First start I’d got a holeshot. But for that second race I think nerves did it for me, I was quite wound up, nerves wise. Maybe there was a bit of adrenaline too, they go together.”
Her fight back took the crowd’s hearts for one hell of a ride. Emma might be a trials rider but she’s got ‘racer’ right through her. She attacked the course, she attacked the other riders, leaving nothing on the table, it was total commitment. It was breathtaking to watch. Clearly this is what women can do when they have the strength and mindset Emma brought. Emma was quite forthright about where that fight came from.
“When you’re at the top of a sport you have some kind of a motivation and I’ve got that, if you want something you can’t just sit back. So I am naturally quite aggressive, I’ve got strength too. For a girl I’m strong.”
Her commitment involved risks and she was taking a few each lap, not all of them paid off and time and again she crashed to earth.
“Out there I had to take calculated risks. You don’t want to hurt yourself, I can’t count the amount of people who rang me up and said ‘don’t hurt yourself’ before I did this. But it’s difficult not to, you’ve just got to try and not put yourself into situations which are dangerous.”
And so the laps counted down and despite her crashes Emma was picking herself up, unfazed and her energies seemingly undiminished, and going again. When she caught sight of her nemesis, Laia, it was almost as if Emma hit overdrive, attacking even harder. Of all the places she could have attacked Emma picked the toughest, the Matrix. Jumping feet up from log to log she drew alongside Laia at the last log, maybe got half a bike ahead before her Sherco slid out from under her dumping her unceremoniously on the ground, her bike on top of her.
The crowd’s cheers had grown louder and louder as she’d closed on Laia turning euphoric as she overtook – everyone on their feet – then turned to that totally unconscious ‘ooooh’ as she fell.
“Before that race I didn’t think I’d hear the crowd’s cheers, but I did and they were replicating exactly what my heart was doing. When they were screaming my heart was racing.”
Incredibly Emma came back again, catching Laia another lap later just before a tractor tyre obstacle. For both the way was blocked by two fallen riders. When finally a lane was cleared Emma sportingly gave Laia first go. When Laia struggled Emma jumped up too, but with the Spaniard blocking her way she fell backwards. It was one tactical error too many. Laia got going again and Emma had to untangle her mess before having another go only to tangle with yet another rider.
“You do lose a lot of energy when you have to pick the bike up and start it again. Mentally it was frustrating, too, but I thought I’ll keep battling. It was only after that last crash on the tyres with about a lap and half left that I knew I wouldn’t catch her. By then we’d all bunched up behind the crashed rider and Jane (Daniels) had caught me. My own lead was gone on everyone else so I had to be careful from that point on not to make any mistakes. What I’ve got to learn as well is that it’s a race and not to respect anybody, because they don’t respect you. It’s a bit different in trials. I’ve never thought that before, but if someone is in your way you can soon have them down on the floor!”
Jane Daniels, probably a bit fresher for not having crashed so often, actually passed Emma in the last half lap, but Emma – probably with nothing left in the tank – still found something to fight back with and found her way back into second within ten yards of the finish. Emma was exhausted. The crowd were exhausted.
“I was pleased with second, but a little bit gutted at the same time because I was so close. If someone had offered me second beforehand I’d have snapped their hand off! But when you’re in that race situation and its so close and it so easily could have been a win – well, then again it could have been a fifth…!”
The crowd departed the Echo Arena discussing what could have been. They’d watched Knighter – also Sherco mounted – attack Taddy, had cheered him on enthusiastically. But hands on hearts, it was evident Taddy had the better skills on the day, Knighter is still only just coming back into this game, there’s a bit of work to do yet. Emma though had been the real deal, she’d brought speed, skills and no small amount of daring to the game. Her commitment had been total and she had rolled with a ‘win or bust’ attitude from the moment she fluffed the start in that second race. With her fight back the crowd’s hearts soared, when she fell, they fell. It was, to quote a certain footballer/actor, ‘emotional’.
Of course back in the race pits everyone was asking would Emma follow it up with the rest of the SuperEnduro season – and probably the promotors were at the front on that line of enquiry.
“You know, I love my trials. I’ve seen a lot of trials riders convert to enduro but it’s typically when their trials career is ending. My trials career is still at its peak so I’ve no intention of giving it up yet. My focus is still to win the world trials championship and this winter will again be about that with more training in Spain.
“At the same time, I’m just turned 23, I’m getting on a bit, and it’s the right time for me to try other things. Doing this is another thing to keep me motivated and yes right now I’m second in the women’s SuperEnduro world championship – if I carried on and won the championship I can see that would be quite a feather in my cap, it looks good on the CV. But I’m struggling to avoid conflicts. I think there’s got to be a compromise somewhere, if I do this there has to be compromise. The last of these SuperEnduros ends in February and that’s awkward, being too close to the world trials calendar. Last year I spent December, January and February in Spain with Albert Cabestany practicing every day. To win the championship my plan was to do that again this winter. If that happens that’ll cut into this. I guess there’s what I want to do and what everyone else wants me to do. It might not even be my decision, much depends on what Sherco want. Whatever they say I’ll take.”
Emma says she’s not interested in the EWC though. She says she like her obstacles too much. So if she was to ride more enduro it would extreme stuff, be it the indoors or the extreme greats like Erzberg.
Before Emma left the stadium Jane Daniels happened by with a programme in her hand.
“Would you sign this for my gran, Emma?”
“Yeah, okay no problem.”
“She says she wants yours and Laia’s autographs. I said, why not mine, Gran? And she said, ooh, no ducks I can get that anytime.”
Delivered in Jane’s deadpan Wigan accent it was pure Northern humour.
“You know I met Jane two weeks ago,” said Emma after Jane had left. “We went to a quarry together and she helped me learn some of this extreme stuff, she’s really nice. It’s good to have people in the sport like her that you can get on well with, even if they’re a rival. It’s the same with Laia, we’re friends, I went to her last birthday party. This is so much of my life, so it’s important to have a nice atmosphere.”
Emma and James jumped into their plain black Vito and set off into the night, back to Their Place. For one day she’d turned women’s enduro – or just plain enduro, everyone’s enduro – on its head. She’d provided the most exciting ride of the 2014 World SuperEnduro Championship thus far. And now she was gone.
Honestly, let’s hope she finds the will and the way to come back soon. Very soon.
2020: Emma didn’t (well, hasn’t yet – we’re still hoping) returned to enduro. Instead, as she said, she focused sharply on her trials career and that following season, 2014, she became women’s world champion. And again in 2015, then ’16, ’17, ’18 and 2019. Yep, six times world champion! She is a quality rider, and human being, through and through. Like we said, one day we’d like to see her back. It may not interest her, but to see her in the GB ISDE team would be something…