Grand Lake high schooler wins motorcycling series national championship
Two years ago, a 13-year-old Riley Bender won the Colorado Off-Road Championship Series’ 12-hour endurance race by riding his motorcycle around a nearly 7-mile course for 12 hours and racking up 292 miles on his bike. This year, the 15-year-old Grand Lake resident added another biking accomplishment to his resume.
Bender competed in the Class B division of the U.S. Hard Enduro Series, and won the national championship — with over three times as many points as the second-place competitor.
“I started riding — just my mom and my dad got me into it,” Bender said. “They always rode. Then I slowly started working my way up through different styles of riding.”
With his parents’ support, Bender went from riding motocross, which he described as having set tracks and lots of jumps, to off-road, which goes through more varied terrain but is not as technical as what he eventually settled on — hard enduro.
“I started really enjoying the harder, really technical stuff,” Bender said. “Last year was the first year I was eligible to do the national hard enduro series. We did two (races) last year, and I just had a blast at them, so we did the whole series this year.”
The U.S. Hard Enduro Series normally has 10 races, split between east and west divisions. This year, two events were canceled, so each division had four races, with eight total in the series. Bender competed at all of the races for the first time, flying across the country from March to July.
Racers accumulate points throughout the season based on their finishes from each race. Bender won six of the eight races, which earned him 30 points each, and finished fifth and second in the other two for 16 and 25 points respectively. His lowest score was dropped from his final total.
Bender won the east and west divisions, which are scored separately, earning him the national championship. Although he was the only rider in Class B to race at every event, he beat every other racer at some point in the season except for one who only competed in the event where Bender placed fifth.
Going into the last race of the season — Locked and Loaded, in Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania — Bender had already secured the national championship. He said terrain differs between east and west courses, and since he already prefers the terrain in the west, the rain in Sugarloaf on July 17 did not help.
“(U.S. Hard Enduro) did an interview with me after the (qualifier) race,” Bender said. “I said, ‘I’m not really a rain guy, but I think the rain will make it quite a little bit harder (for the main event).’”
Bender rode for five hours in the main event race and finished in second place. He said he should have gotten first because the top finisher cheated, but he missed the protest period and could not appeal.
“After I got done, I went and talked to some of my racing friends,” Bender said. “They were like, ‘We saw this guy start six minutes ahead.’ So he got a six-minute head start. And not only does that get you time, but it gets you a much better course with no log jams, no people stuck in the course.”
The hard enduro races Bender does usually last four to six hours and have some extreme terrain. One race in Idaho is held at a ski resort and has the racers go up and down slopes, in and out of trees, while spectators can ride the ski lift to get a bird’s-eye view.
Racers often do not finish the races — Bender said only three competitors finished the 12-mile Locked and Loaded course. Races often have lap or time limits to cut competitors off. The courses have checkpoints, though, and whoever makes it the farthest the fastest in each class based on those checkpoints wins the race.
“I made half the course, and it took me five hours,” Bender said. “I think I did seven miles in five hours.”
Bender does other kinds of racing as well, in two series that have less-extreme courses. Endurocross is an indoor series, and National Enduro is outdoor. Both of those series have faster, tighter courses than hard enduro.
The schedules of the three disciplines combine to go nearly year-round, so Bender takes online classes.
“He’s a straight-A student,” Bender’s mother Tara said. “Always has been, knock on wood. He puts pressure on himself to, you know — almost everything he does, it’s got to be the best he can do.”
Going pro in this kind of motorsport requires being one of the best in the world, but that is Bender’s goal. He will race in the Class B division for hard enduro next year and hopes to spend two or three years at that level before becoming a pro around the age of 18.
Racing in the Pro division in hard enduro does not require any certification like it does in other series, Bender said, but it does not mean racers make much money. For this sport to be Bender’s job, he said he would have to make a factory team, which only seven racers currently have contracts for.
Right now, Bender is on the Sherco development team, which provides him with discounts on equipment and help with repairs on race day. Since it does not cover the costs for his equipment, though, Bender sees it as a stepping stone.
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