In the hot seat: PMBA Enduro’s Kev Duckworth

How do you like your enduro? Big loops with plenty of pedaling? Pushing up for a steep and technical plummet? Trail centre flowiness? Whatever your chosen flavour, there’s something in the Hope PMBA Enduro Series for you.

Combining a laid-back atmosphere and tight organisation, the North West England-based series must be getting it right because it has now become the most popular in the UK (in terms of total volume of entries) – and organisers Kev Duckworth and Mike Marsden are stepping it up in 2017 by combining the two gnarliest venues in the series (Grizedale and Graythwaite) to create the 2017 British National Champs event – which will be held over three days and a monster 55km loop at the end of April.

Kev Duckworth of PMBA Enduro Series
Kev repping for sponsors Hope and Orange.

And Kev has been kind enough to give us the lowdown on that, as well as talking about the series’ evolution, the state of UK enduro and the delights of vanlife…

Happy new year Kev. A lot of people would rather forget 2016, but it seemed like a good year for you guys. I saw PMBA was the most popular UK enduro series (by total volume of entries) last year. How did it feel when you found that out? Was it a surprise?
Yes 2016 was a great year for us, really happy with the way the series has progressed. We took some risks with rounds at Graythwaite and Gnar but these paid off and we pulled off a series of massively varied events celebrating all that is good about enduro.
In all honesty I’d done some stats of my own back in July for sponsors, at that time it did surprise me that we had more entries per round that the superb Scottish Enduro Series. For our regional events to have grown in popularity to be a such a major part of the UK enduro scene, is a great honour, after all we after started to do them to fill a gap in the scene not planning to grow like it has.

What were the highlights of the year from your perspective as a race organiser?
Graythwaite – without a doubt.  Securing a brand new venue, being given free rein to build whatever we wanted and building five fresh-cut stages which the racers absolutely loved from scratch in just a few months showed what is possible. Have to thank the build teams, together we put in over 1,000 hours and they weren’t paid, without their support and commitment it would not have been possible.

Tracy Moseley
Tracy Moseley on her way to the win at Grizedale in 2015.

I only made it to a couple of rounds but it seemed to me there was a noticeable step up in the level of riding by competitors. Is that something you observed or am I just getting slower? Is the series drawing racers from further afield than previously?
We had a bigger difference between venues last year, marking some as less grass roots than others – and they were promoted as such. I think everyone has stepped up a little, bikes are more capable, but I think it’s only evolution and natural progression. Maybe like me, you are also just feeling older.

So you’re putting on what will be a very worthy UK champs in April – and anyone who’s raced at Grizedale and Graythwaite knows how brutal it’s likely to be. Is it just going to be a bigger loop than previous races or will the stages be tougher too?
Oh it won’t even compare to a normal PMBA, it’s not part of the series it’s a completely different format. I’ve modelled it more on EWS events like Ireland and Tweedlove than the events we’ve put on in the past. The main thing will just be the amount of technical stages, while it will still be fun it will be tough. I’ll expect a few to drop to the shorter non-championship lap on the weekend after practice.

Is that sanctioned by BEMBA or a unilateral thing? Is there a plan for national champs going forward?
BEMBA currently does not sanction anything, but that may change. It was agreed with all BEMBA organisers that only this event would be called the National Champs. It was also agreed that in 2018 a National champs event would be in Scotland and 2019 in Wales, so that’s a good plan for the future – and about as sanctioned as the young BEMBA organisation can do.

It’s great to see you and title-sponsor Hope teaming up to put on a women-specific event, did the idea for that come out of their women’s rides? How are entries going?
You would be best asking Rach at Hope that question, the idea/request came from her and Hope. I’d like to take credit but I was skeptical I could get the numbers to make it financially viable. Air Maiden had 63 entries last year and even Red Bull Fox Hunt only had 125 in its first year. Hope are not just sponsoring the event but have made sure the event won’t be a financial burden on me. Entries are going well despite being a secret till just the other week, with Hope pushing it I now feel confident we’ll have 250-300 women racing in October.

I’m definitely meeting more women out on the trails in recent years, it’s like the word has suddenly spread. But have they been reluctant to start racing? Is the women’s race seen as a safe first step kind of thing?
We hope it will be a place to start racing, make new race friends and go out and get women’s attendances up at events after a confidence boost. I think Hope’s Women’s rides, and Hopetech Academy for the kids is trying to bring riding to the whole family which can only be a good thing.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, young or old, doing it for fitness/health or just to enjoy the outside; if you ride canal paths, trail centres or natural singletrack – you should be having fun.  Racing can add to that fun but it isn’t for everyone, I’ve been racing (CX and MTB) since 1989 and it’s always been dominantly men at the events but there is no reason more women can’t start racing and if this event helps that I’ll be happy.

So the main series ranges from the relatively gentle gradients  of Gisburn and Kirroughtree to pushing up at Gnar and steep tech at Graythwaite – is this a conscious decision to find the best overall rider? To offer something for everyone? Bit of both?

The overriding drive when I’m designing courses is to make the most of the available terrain, it helps give each event its own feel and character. I feel less tied to a format or style now that the series is well established so can have the freedom to do this. Find a venue, use it to the max.

Hence we have the big moorland transitions and an adventure feel at Lee Quarry, 18 stages at Gnar Bike Park, a super tough but only six-mile lap at Graythwaite for last year’s Northern Champs. Whatever is the best format, number of stages, style of stages and lap length for an event I’ll choose that.

This does give something for everyone, and the series winners have to do well at everything.  I try and describe the differences between events so that people know what to expect.  About the only constant is for the PMBA one-day events I like to have 10 minutes of race time.

Any notable changes for 2017? Looks like the same main sponsors? Racing format and categories remaining the same too?
We are very lucky that our sponsors keep supporting year-on-year, so although there are a few changes it’s not been a struggle to get sponsors. We welcome back Mudhugger to the sponsor list after a year off, and the Sixth Element have joined us too.
Categories for the women are changing, we had one category in 2015, two last year and now three for 2017. U21 Women, Senior Women(19+) and Vet Women.(40+)  for the series and at the National champs also a Master category for the 30-39-year-olds.

Format is, as above something I’ll happily change to get the best from a venue. From the start we have been mainly a one-day event series and that won’t change this year or in 2018, but our Lee Quarry round has always been a 2-day event and this year the final at Grizedale goes to a two-day event too. However there are still three one-day events at Gisburn, Gnar and Kirroughtree.

What kind of feedback did you get on Graythwaite? I found it physically and mentally exhausting and it took me out of my comfort zone in terms of racing (which is not a bad thing).  
We got great feedback, but yes was tough especially for those not used to hike-a-bike transitions. Again that comes back to making the most of a venue, but this year linking in Grizedale and making the event a three-day event means there will be pedaling breaking up the occasional push up and that is what those who gave feedback asked for.

Feedback is one of the most important things, you’ll find me talking to a wide range of people at every event to gauge it. I always welcome racers’ view points, especially things people don’t like; you may find that odd but when 95 per cent of the feedback is “brilliant”, or “more of the same” for every event it’s hard to identify what we can do better. So racers, don’t be shy, publicly or privately please pass me your feedback.

Entries for the main series going OK? I’m always surprised there aren’t more high-profile racers – do you see the elite field growing this year?
I’m sure it will, especially at the final and it will be rammed at the National Champs, however it’s not a target category for me – I’d much prefer to see a growth in the junior and women’s fields.

We’ll have a press release going out soon announcing that every enduro under the Borderline events banner (Welsh Enduro Series, PMBA Enduro Series, Hopetech Women event) will now be insured for ages 11-plus  this doesn’t mean every event is suitable for every 11 year old, far from it. But the option is there and we’ll work with parents to find the right events for the young ones to do, more interested in this than doubling the elite field.

That said it’s always great to watch the fastest people race, and with BES being canned we have had more interest from Elites looking for the best events to showcase their skills and Hope PMBA Enduro series is where they are looking to do it.

stage two finish
Gisburn is where it all began for the PMBA series.

What’s your take on the BES cancellation? I know you’ve been nipping the doom-mongers in the bud, saying UK enduro is in a strong place now – has the strength of the grassroots scene meant there’s less demand for “national” events? Are riders’ needs being met locally?
I certainly believe 2017 will be the best year yet for UK Enduro, you can race every weekend from March to November, more events than ever, more choice than ever and a higher overall standard.  However it can be better, and a strong national series would help. There are options for 2018 and hopefully something will happen.

But yes the grass roots scene is strong, a few years ago when I did the first “Escape to Gisburn” enduro there was basically UKGE and Mini Enduro. Now there are two great Welsh series, WES and WGES; the south has Southern Enduro, MAD and Pedalhounds as well as Mini Enduro.

In the North as well as the long-standing NDH series and PMBA we also have the biggest festival style event with Ard Rock, it’s sister event Ard Moors and Boltby bash. Up in Scotland the SES is brilliant, Tweedlove is now three huge events every year and Muckmeddon are putting on great events too. And even that huge list is not everything thats happening

A lot of people want the UK to have a national series of two-day races to act as a stepping stone to the EWS. But three organisers have tried to run a UK national series now, two of them with a deliberate focus on the elite end. Was it too soon? Would a “proper” national series need official EWS feeder status?

No, it was far from too soon. I’m not sure I’d want to say too much on why I think the national series have not succeeded but it certainly wasn’t for the lack of demand.  A national series has to be a challenge, has to be nationwide,  has to be that step between regional and international races yet accessible enough to get around 400 entries each round.  It’s a tough balance that wasn’t struck last year but maybe it can be in the future.

EWS qualifications are now on single events, and your best three count. In 2017 there is one in Wales, one in Scotland and of course the National Champs in the Lakes will be the English one. There are loads more in Europe and a total of 40 worldwide.

There’s been a lot of talk about a federal  or “virtual” UK national series, with suitable events cherry-picked from the different UK series. I know BEMBA is discussing it, but what do you think the challenges would be? And what would such a series ideally look like, in your opinon?
I’ve got to be careful here to be honest, answering may actually make it less likely to happen. First thing you have to consider is BEMBA is a group of around 20 organisers, all with equal standing and has zero funding.

We are all volunteers working to make enduro better, some have more time to commit than others. Unlike BC we are not independent of race organisers, we are the organisers and unlike BC/EWS there is no funding  or licensing of events. I still think we’ll sort something out despite these obstacles as overall we all want the best for Enduro. The calls for this sort of series from riders are being discussed so it’s a possibility it can happen.

Tell us more about how BEMBA’s working out generally? The enduro calendar looks pretty free of clashes for this year, but what else has it brought to the table?
Really good! Yep the calendar has been our biggest success, but the common rulebook and minimum safety and medical standards as well as sharing best practice is what I’m most proud to be a part of. They might not be exciting things but they were things that the sport needed and have been accomplished.

Graythwaite PMBA Enduro
Steep and awkward was the order of the day for Graythwaite – and most of the racers loved it.

Which other UK events are you looking forward to doing this year?

MacAvalanche and Endurance Downhill, are my top two I think. For the last few years I’ve tended to be in the Alps for summer but not this summer. So I’m really looking forward to be able to attend Tweedlove’s King and Queen, as well as Ard Rock and Isle of Man all of which I’ve never done.

And finally, you gave up your day job a year or two ago to go full time with the PMBA events. The series seems successful and I know from Facebook that you get to some great riding locations. What it’s been like living the dream? Tell us about the challenges and rewards.
I do a good job making it look like I’m a jobless bum and just riding, but in fact last year I did less riding than 2015 and only slightly more than 2014. I don’t regret giving up the nine-to-five at all but it’s not easy, learning to live cheap was the biggest challenge, although having paid the mortgage off a few years ago at least that big monthly bill hasn’t been a worry.

But yes the rewards are good too, seeing plenty of people and places and not just a quick stop – if I go somewhere I like to go for a week or so at least after paying the fuel to get there. Even with my summer Eurotrip yes it was two-months long, but actually spent less than two months in the UK.  That said I still haven’t done as much riding in the Lakes or Scotland as I would like so this year’s task will be to concentrate on that, after the last couple of summers in the Alps.

Biggest reward has just being my own boss, put in the graft and I see the rewards. I do enjoy the vanlife and simple pleasures of spending a lot of my time outside. I love designing and building the new stages for the enduros and seeing the racers enjoy them – that’s a big buzz.

I possibly try and do too much, involved with Gisburn Trailbuilders but not as much as I would like, involved with OpenMTB but cant do as much as I’d like, same with BEMBA, Lee Quarry, PMBA – all good advocacy groups I’d like to do more for. The bike-bum life is very rewarding, February’s reward is a few weeks in Chile and racing the Andes Pacifico hope it’s not too cold for you lot in the UK while I’m there!

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