• Australia's Jared Graves shortly before he crashed out on his practice run (EWS)Source: EWS
The steep slopes of Cerro Catedral are not used to speed this early in the year. Winter is when the 2,400-metre-high mountain typically comes alive, blanketed in thick snow and hosting enough skiers to prove its reputation as one of Argentina’s premier ski resorts.
Robert Kidd

Cycling Central
6 Apr 2016 - 8:19 AM 

It is only 19km from the picturesque town of San Carlos de Bariloche, strung out along the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi and in the foothills of the Andes, and famous for its Swiss-style architecture and ubiquitous chocolate shops.

One of the most popular holiday spots in the country, Bariloche is bustling year-round with backpackers and holidaying Argentinians. The most recent high-profile victim of its charms was US President Barack Obama, who spent a few hours enjoying the scenery with the First Family during a visit to Argentina.

Down the road at Cerro Catedral, aside from luring the odd hiker, winter is its time to shine.

But this past weekend this patch of northern Patagonia was again filled with punters and adrenaline, even if there wasn’t any snow.

The Enduro World Series selected Cerro Catedral as the second event on its 2016 world tour just a week after its first, in Chile.

Established in 2012, EWS is an eight-event global competition challenging riders to take on some of the best trails in the world.

Enduro, which supporters say is the fastest growing competitive discipline of mountain biking, consists of timed downhill sections and untimed uphill transfer sections which may have a time limit to complete.

The two-day event, featuring three stages per day, tasks about 350 riders with cycling 49.2km and descending more than 2,700 metres.

Among them is Jared Graves, a rider whose career makes him one of the finest cycling athletes Australia has ever produced.

Graves, who added the 2014 EWS title to his list of honours that includes MTB World Champion and BMX Olympian, is a big advocate for Enduro.

“I love it. It’s the sort of riding I was into growing up. The more natural trails suit my style better ... and every stage is different, there’s something for everyone,” he tells Cycling Central.

“Maybe one stage won’t play to your strengths but there’s always something to even the field a bit. I guess consistency has always been one of my strong suits and I’ve just loved the format since it started.

“I think as far as mountain biking in general goes, it’s a format that a lot of sponsors are getting behind and it’s racing by doing what normal riders would do on an everyday basis, going out to their local trails and racing down them then going back up.”

Unfortunately for Graves, the unpredictability of the sport means injuries are always possible.

During a training run two days before the event, Graves suffers a crash after colliding with a rock that had been dragged on to the trail from a previous crash and hidden beneath the dust.

Dust becomes a theme of the event. Knee-deep in places and hiding ruts, rocks and branches, it catches out more than one rider and coats all of them, flying up in great clouds with every turn and landing.

At the end of day one, the organisers describe conditions as “perhaps the wildest the series has ever experienced”. There are several spills on both days but fortunately no serious injuries.

A shoulder injury rules Graves out of the race but he is optimistic of being ready for his next event, in the US in two weeks.

“It’s one of those freak things,” Graves says with a shrug, admitting his chance for the EWS title is likely “down the drain” in his first season racing with the Specialized team.

It is the latest slice of bad luck after another injury saw him, as defending champion, miss the first three races of last year’s EWS.

But the Toowoomba rider, 33, has been around the track enough to know how to recover.

“I just always take one stage a time and one race at a time and hopefully the result will follow,” he says.

“Hopefully I can win a couple of future events and be on the podium, that’s the goal.”

Day two starts with the sort of clear Autumn morning where you see your breath and the wind touches any uncovered extremities with its icy fingers.

The small ski village cowering in the shadow of Cerro Catedral, named for its spire-like peaks, feels a bit abandoned, with empty shops offering ski hire and closed cafes cruelly advertising hot chocolate in their windows.

A revolving set of cable cars, coloured in purple, green and yellow glides up the dusty brown mountain and over patches of forest showing the first signs of Autumn.

Below riders pedal hard up winding gravelly paths, legs straining and gritted teeth hidden beneath helmets.

At the top, you see why Patagonia’s scenery is legendary. To the left of the village, the bright sun shines on a shimmering Lake Nahuel Huapi and to the right Lake Gutierrez is shady and still. The mountains stand proudly behind both.

At the start of Stage 4, trees block the view below, no scenery distraction for riders trying to find focus. The riders line up, bright jerseys splashed with sponsors, and wait.

They take deep breaths as the timer ticks down from 10 before launching down the first incline of many, pedalling furiously and bumping along ruts in the trails before disappearing in clouds of dust.

Richie Rude, the US rider with the rock star name, practises turns on an adjacent path. He swings the frame sharply with such ease it seems the bike is an extension of his body.

By mid-afternoon the sun melts away the cold air and a crowd makes its way to the bottom of the mountain and the finish line for Stage Six. A few brave onlookers venture up a hill for a closer look at the penultimate turn, a sharp left taken in the air that leaves the steadiest riders wobbling, bikes bouncing up and down, before they steady and fly across the finish line.

At 5pm defending EWS champion Richie Rude is confirmed as the winner of the men’s open race, his second successive win in the series. Cecile Ravanel, from France, wins the women’s race.

The highest placed Australian is Josh Carlson, in 15th.

An hour later, with the team pits packed away and riders enjoying deserved beers, the mountain is quiet again. The dust has settled and Cerro Catedral waits for once more for winter.