Sanz-athon spices up X Games Barcelona

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Laia Sanz dominated the competition at X Games Brazil, winning the women's Enduro X by 32 seconds.

Less than one minute after she crossed the finish line in Foz, before the X Games rookie could even fully absorb that she became the first Spanish female to win X Games gold, "the girl who qualified first" regrettably said she would not be in her hometown of Barcelona on May 18 to try for a second consecutive Enduro X victory.

Instead, Laia Sanz said she would be in Portugal at Rounds 3 and 4 of the FIM Enduro World Championship, where she is the defending champion. Maybe it was all the extra media attention after Brazil, or the big payday and prestige that comes with an X Games victory, or ESPN's and the sport organizers' pleas to her sponsors, or all three. But Sanz has been persuaded to compete in the Enduro X event in Barcelona, which will become the middle piece of a week that is becoming known as the "Sanz-athon."

Yes, Sanz isn't completely skipping the FIM race in Portugal. She is missing Day 1 (Saturday), but to keep her championship hopes alive, she will compete in two races in two different countries in two days.

On Monday, Sanz will drive her van from Round 1 of the enduro series (Puerto Lumbreras, Spain) nearly 600 miles to the site of Round 2 in Torres Vedras, Portugal. In the three days following she will walk, study and memorize as much of the course as possible. Sanz said she walks anywhere from 24 to 31 miles to prepare for each round. After bike preparations and more walking on select sections, Sanz will race Friday night in the Super Test, a short head-to-head competition that counts toward the weekend races but is also meant to be a show for the spectators.

It started from the bottom. Pulling together and racing each other makes it way better, and it's been fun. The more girls who come out, the better for all of us.
Endurocross rider Maria Forsberg
At 9:30 Saturday morning she will fly from Lisbon to Barcelona for a full day of X Games Enduro X. A 9:45 p.m. flight will take her back to Lisbon, and on Sunday morning she will compete for about six hours in Day 2 of the world enduro event. She hopes her title chances will still be alive despite missing a day.

A late add to the X Games Foz do Iguacu lineup, Sanz was the only female European rider to go to Brazil, and if any of the other riders knew anything about her, it was that she was a pretty good trials rider. Then she went out and laid down a qualifying hot lap that was five seconds faster than second place. Her time of 1:03.768 in dry conditions was three-thousandths of a second out of third place in the men's class. Some of the other girls jokingly referred to her as "the girl who qualified first."

"I didn't know she won the Enduro World title last year, which obviously involves a lot of speed and technical stuff," said six-time X Games medalist Tarah Gieger. "That really surprised me that she was that good at endurocross."

In the Foz final, Sanz took over the lead on Lap 1 and had a 25-second lead before the end of Lap 2. That grew to 32 seconds by the end of the race, and on the last lap Sanz was looking around and even made gestures as she rode by the mechanic's area. "I was worried about the other riders," she said. "I didn't know what the [time] difference was, and I was looking to know if I had to go faster or if I could ride quiet. It was just so I could know where I was."

The first thing one will notice about Sanz is that she is tall (5-foot-10). The second is that she's humble. As good as the 27-year-old Spanish native is, she's everything but cocky. She's a 13-time world champion in trials and enduro, and in the one official endurocross race she had competed in before Foz, she lapped the second-place rider.

Yet Sanz was nervous in Brazil. The course looked fast to her, and there were jumps, her kryptonite. Even though she once finished fourth overall in the FIM Junior Trial World Cup series (18- to 23-year-old men), she also had no idea how she matched up to the pace of the other riders. She never assumed she had the race already won.

"I think that titles are things that can kind of change you, but I think it's important to always be the same and don't think that you are better than others," she said. "I just work and compete and try to do my best."

Sanz hasn't stopped since she returned from Brazil, where hundreds of fans greeted her at the Barcelona Airport. She raced against the men in Antas, Almeria, at Round 3 of the Spanish Enduro Championship, strutted the catwalk as a model during Barcelona Bridal Week and then swept the opening two rounds of the Enduro World Championships in southern Spain.

But Sanz isn't the only rider who has been busy. The morning after Enduro X Foz, two-time gold medalist Maria Forsberg, Kacy Martinez and Rachel Gutish all spent more than 24 hours in planes, airports and automobiles to make it to Round 4 of the Amsoil GNCC Series. Two weeks later, on May 3, they competed in Las Vegas at the Geico EnduroCross opener, then raced a GNCC race in Kentucky 36 hours later. It's an exhausting schedule, but in 2013 the best female racers in the world from motocross to off-road have banded together to compete against one another. It's strengthened their position in the sport and earned them more attention.

"It's definitely gotten better," Forsberg said. "It started from the bottom. Pulling together and racing each other makes it way better, and it's been fun. The more girls who come out, the better for all of us."

In September, Gieger was a top-three motocross rider in the AMA Women's Motocross Championship. Now she's fully focused on the four Enduro X events, which makes her chuckle when she tells the story of her mother being the reason she's here. Gieger said she was terrible on day one, couldn't ride over a log.

"I didn't know if I wanted to do it," Gieger said. "My mom said, 'Well, you have to do it.' We went to a local track in Florida, and [Enduro X sport organizer] Eric Peronnard was there riding. He and my mom kind of ganged up on me, and now I'm glad that happened."

Louise Forsley also will return to racing in Barcelona. In early April, the 2012 XG Enduro X silver medalist broke her right fibula. She's keeping her expectations realistic, as she won't know how much stress her tender leg will be able to handle, and she's not going to find out until she's already in Spain.

Only 10 athletes are invited to Women's Enduro X. Between Forsberg, Sanz, Forsley, Martinez, Jolene Van Vugt and Chantelle Bykerk, 53 world, national and European championships are represented. Competing on a big and fast course, the chance to win a major race in the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics, brings pressure and prestige. And maybe that's why so many of these women have been cramming as many events into one weekend as possible, no matter how much ocean or land lies between each race. It's the moto equivalent of two-a-days.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

Taddy Blazusiak won his second X Games Enduro X gold medal last month at Foz do Iguacu, Brazil.

Men's Enduro X
This 24-rider lineup includes champions of many disciplines of motorcycle racing, but the medal favorites compete regularly in the sport. Although riders such as extreme enduro icon Graham Jarvis will undoubtedly qualify for and be competitive in the final, the pace of this sport is so much different from the marathons he and Jonny Walker usually contest that it will be quite difficult for them to steal a victory.

The most accomplished rider this sport has seen is Taddy Blazusiak, but he's facing his biggest challenges in 2013. He is still the undisputed king but has not been the fastest rider this year. His victory in Brazil last month came after a back-and-forth battle with Cody Webb on a wet course.

Two weeks later in Las Vegas at the Geico EnduroCross opener, Mike Brown owned the day from hot laps to heat races right through the main event, where he holeshot the final with Blazusiak right behind him. On a very fast course, he led every lap for his second career EnduroCross victory.

David Knight, the bronze medalist from Foz, will not race in Barcelona. The British rider will be contesting the Enduro World Championships in Enduro 2 and will be in Portugal.

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