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Haley Smith and Andrew L’Esperance create the Durham Epic challenge

Duo hoping to foster community through friendly and safe competition

Haley Smith Andrew L'Esperance

With the race season still on hold, Canadians are searching for ways to challenge themselves on the trails. Many have taken up challenges, like Everesting, huge climbing streaks, or trying to ride every trail in their local network. Haley Smith and Andrew L’Esperance wanted something a little different. With the Durham Epic, the Norco Factory Team duo are seeking to bring the community back into personal challenges.

“Obviously we are missing racing and the physical elements of racing. But we realized that we were more missing the racing community,” says Smith. “We were missing the feeling you get being at a race venue with a ton of other people and all being there for the same reason. That collective sense of purpose.”

Gathering mountain bikers together safely is difficult with COVID still lurking, so Smith and L’Esperance came up with the idea for the Durham Epic, a Strava-based challenge. Each week, a new segment will be posted to the Durham Challenge group board. Riders then have a set window of time to go out and try post their best time. The segments vary in length. Each one was created by Smith and L’Esperance specifically for the Durham Epic.

Fostering community through shared goals

We wanted something focused on participation. Getting out there, riding the same route as others and getting that sense of community, while doing so safely amid COVID,” says L’Esperance. He also sees it as a chance to connect with, and give back to the local riding community that supports them the rest of the year. “They are the ones cheering for us year-long when we are racing. It’s nice to be on the other side, in a way, cheering for them and encouraging them to get out.”

The pair have organized prizing for each week from Norco Factory Team’s sponsors, including a personalized NFT jersey from Jakroo, but both say the event is focused on participation, not just competition. There’s a leaderboard, but there’s also a random draw prize each week. Everyone completing the segment is be automatically entered to win.

“We’re hoping that it gives people something to work towards. Whether that’s trying new trails and getting more comfortable on their bikes if they’re new to the sport, or improving how they’ve ridden a particular rock garden if they’ve done the trail 100 times in their lifetime,” says Smith.

Haley Smith
Haley Smith racing at the 2019 Nove Mesto World Cup in Czech Republic Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool
Learning to care for the trails

“We are also hoping that people develop a stronger sense of connection to the rider community, and a greater appreciation for the trail networks, all the effort that goes into maintaining them,” says Smith. That includes, she adds, “a greater sense of responsibility to be an upstanding member of the local riding community. We’re all out there because of our love of the sport, and we hope that this will encourage riders to think more collectively.”

The unique situation with COVID has led so many new riders trying the sport this year. Others are finding more time to get deeper into mountain biking. L’Esperance says they’re also trying to connect the existing and potential riding community with a bit of race-like incentive:

“We want people to have fun and have a little bit of extra motivation to get out and ride or push themselves a bit harder. We also want to use it as an opportunity to create awareness about trail maintenance and support for the local trail organization, the DMBA. There’s been a very dry period here in Ontario lately. Coupled with more people enjoying MTB through this period, and the trails are showing this wear and tear.”

Andrew L'Esperance
Marc-Andre Fortier (L) and Andrew L’Esperance descend the Mont-Saine-Anne rocks at 2019 world championships. Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn
Epic challenge, epic response

Just a few days into the first challenge, and already the Durham Epic is taking off in popularity. While the two are no strangers to the stress of competition, both admit the surge in riders taking on the Epic has kept them on their toes.

“The response has been much greater than we originally thought. It has become something bigger than we had originally planned,” says L’Esperance, adding that it has been a really rewarding experience. “It has been very positive so far. Haley and I have received countless messages thanking us for putting the event together.”

Smith, too, is adapting to her new role on the other side of the course tape. “It’s been a really good learning experience so far, but also driven home for me that I don’t think I could handle the stress of being a true event organizer!! It makes me appreciate all the people who plan and put on the events I’ve participated in in the past. I definitely have a heightened appreciation for our local and national event organizers already”

Both riders-turned-challenge organizers are thankful they have the support of their own team behind them in the Durham Epic. “We have had some really great buy-in and support from the marketing team at Norco and the Norco Factory Team sponsors from the beginning,” says L’Esperance. The ready supply of prizing has helped them balance the reward for participating with the traditional rewards for race leaders.

For Smith, ensuring everyone feels like part of the Durham Epic is more important than who ends up setting the fastest time each week. She hopes the sense of community riders develop out on the trails continues when the Epic ends.

“I think that’s really what drove us to create this challenge. We wanted to give people a chance to be part of something that made them feel connected to other people while doing something they love.”