Remembering Willo

In the week before the Willo Enduro I picked up Enduro Magazine’s compilation of James Williamson’s writing and sat down to have a read. I got to know Jimi while working with him at Enduro so, for me, reflecting on his life through his writing brings up other memories that are special too.

In one piece, he hangs a story about riding the Mawson Trail in South Australia on a scuzzy, dressed up bear. In another, he takes us into his experience of the Otway Odyssey. It’s cleverly pinned on his fear of the final, hard climb: the Sledgehammer.

I was expecting to feel a familiar sadness while re-reading these stories. But I found myself caught up in their enthusiastic energy – laughing along with Jimi’s insights and honesty.

Jimi’s writing draws attention to riding’s simple pleasures. He would let you in on how hard he found some aspects of the tough races he competed in, but he also made you want to revel in the fun that a sport like mountain biking brings.

As I packed my bag for ‘The Willo’, it was entertainment I was looking forward to as well. Tough enough to keep you honest, but fun and satisfying in the way that makes every pedal stroke something you feel lucky to be doing.

James Williamson writing one of his many great pieces.

The James Williamson Enduro Challenge, or the Willo Enduro, is held at Wingello in the Southern Highlands of NSW. It marks the anniversary of James’ (or Jimi or Willo’s) death.

For people who have come to mountain biking since that time, Jimi died in his sleep at the ABSA Cape Epic in 2010. His heart stopped beating due to a condition no one was aware of at the time.

James was 26. It was an event that rocked Australian and international mountain biking communities.

As an annual event, the Willo Enduro is a time for riders to get together and remember Jimi, but also to reflect on what he loved about riding. And with several tough but fun distances on offer, that’s a nice amount of time to do so.

The race course is a 50:50 fire road to singletrack blend. One 25km lap takes in some of Wingello’s best trails, and there is an option to do this one, two or three times. A 13km option for junior riders and a kids’ race at the beginning of the day adds to the nurturing, family-friendly atmosphere.

At the front of the men’s 75km event a tight group of riders set the pace. ‘The race was basically eight of us; Sid Taberlay, Shaun Lewis, Dylan Cooper, Mark Tupalski, Jared Hughes, Andy Blair and myself,’ reveals Brendan ‘Trekky’ Johnston (Target-Trek) after the event.

The stacked field in the men’s race.

‘There was a lot of attacking going on for the most part of the race mainly coming from Blair and Cooper. On the last lap it split up on the longer climb with about 10km to go.’

After a solid three hours (almost), Taberlay outsprinted Lewis to the line for the win. Despite breaking a few spokes and swapping out his wheel before the final lap, Trekky held on for fifth and bagged the King of the Mountain prize as well.

‘The course is such that it allows for close, fast and aggressive racing which I know Jimi loved, so it’s definitely a good way to remember him,’ shares Trekky. It doesn’t take much to imagine what a thrill it would be playing a lactic game of chasies, with some of your best mates, through the tight, flowy Southern Highlands trails.

The speed of the racing up front was such that most of the top riders in the men’s and women’s 75km events would have podiumed in the shorter distances as well. But in the women’s event, things were more spread out.

2011 winner Michelle Ainsworth recovered from a snapped chain to bag second place. Jenny Fay (Swell-Specialized) dominated out the front, but looked more than a little smashed come podium presentations proving that riding that fast isn’t as easy as she sometimes makes it look.

First place Jenny Fay crosses the line.

Me, I rode by myself for most of the race enjoying quick chats with other riders along the way. The fire roads seemed to fly by, although some short punchy ascents made me feel like I’d climbed more vertical kilometres than I really had.

When the course tipped into perfectly groomed singletrack I found myself laughing out loud as I wove through its twists and turns. A couple of rocks in a row is about as technical as it gets at Wingello. But the speed at which you can move through the tight trees and countless corners makes riders of all types exit one section looking forward to the next.

Even the podium celebrations were more fun than usual.

Unlike other events where the focus is often on personal results, this one is more about having fun on bikes and enjoying the feeling of pushing yourself. The results side of it was almost incidental.

‘Everyone is challenging themselves at whatever level they are,’ says Meg Patey, James’ aunt and one of the key people involved in making the Willo Enduro a day on the mountain bike calendar to be proud of.

‘So we want them to know that all riders can come to the Enduro, enjoy themselves, and maybe find a little bit inside them that they didn’t know was there before the event. And to then spread the word and come back for more!’

Trekky elaborates, pointing out the example this event sets for riders who are still discovering what mountain bike racing can offer: ‘I think the event has an awesome vibe, so it’s an excellent event for newcomers. It really showcases the fun and relaxed attitude that mountain bike events can be run on.

‘If newer riders can assume that every event is as well run and enjoyable as this one then they will want to do more ­­– which is good for all of us.’

Brendan ‘Trekky’ Johnston (Target-Trek) after the event.

‘I love the energy of the day,’ adds Meg. ‘Getting all those people here, making a really good event and trying to create a great atmosphere which is professional, well oiled, and noticeable – because that would impress James.

‘James loved the energy of people. He would have loved all this.’

Like Willo, Meg shares his desire to keep improving, and to keep things fresh. ‘We want to add a bit every year to what we do so that the basic framework remains the same, but there is also something new each year. A time trial next year on the Saturday is on the cards.’

And what about rider numbers? ‘I would like to keep 600 riders if possible, as that is the number that comfortably funds what we are trying to do.’

The fun and energy of the day isn’t just for the adult racers, the kids get to share in the spirit of the event too.

Bringing together the passion and expertise of the Southern Highlands and Canberra Off-Road Cycling Clubs, this event is run by, with and for the mountain biking community. And its profits go back into this community. The James Williamson Enduro Fund was established to help with junior development and hosts an annual camp for developing young riders.

Meg now speaks on behalf of a committee that includes Willo’s family and closest friends, which was formed to run the Fund: ‘We focus on 22 juniors each year, who are on the cusp of thinking about taking up mountain biking seriously.

‘By exposing them for a whole weekend to some of Australia’s top mountain bikers, we hope to give them that extra knowledge, insight, contact and mentoring, that will help them to the next stage

‘We feel that a well-considered and balanced career in mountain biking, can give an individual so much more than just being able to ride a mountain bike fast, and we want to expose a select small number of juniors each year to this.’ You can pick these riders by the bright jerseys they wear with Willo’s name on the front.

It was great to see several of these young riders enjoying the event, with many of them standing on podiums as well. Meanwhile, other participants feel glad to know their entries are contributing to something so positive. The example the race sets for mountain biking more generally is a heart-warming thing to be involved in too.

Every single person who raced helped keep the memory of Willo alive – all in the same spirit that he would have loved.

In his editor note to Issue 9 of Enduro, Jimi reflects on the Aussie domination which was part of his big win at the 2008 24 Hour Solo World Champs. He contrasts his experience in Canada to the (then named) Anaconda MTB Enduro in Alice Springs, ‘one I’ll never forget and one that most Aussie enduro riders can experience for themselves.’

‘If there’s one race you should put in the diary with a big black permanent marker,’ he writes, ‘it’s the Anaconda MTB Enduro in Alice Springs…It reminded me about a thousand times a day why I love mountain biking. It’s rare that you get to be a part of such a positive environment and the week in Alice Springs kept me charged for months!’

I like to think that Jimi would be on a massive high from this event, for very similar reasons. So take that big, black permanent marker and write a note to yourself to come and experience this one again too.

Detailed results can be found on the event website.


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