The popularity of mountain bike racing is not waning, in fact it’s becoming more popular every year because there is huge demand on many types of bicycle rigs being sold today. There are also many up and coming manufacturers highlighting their latest bikes and innovations at many biking event and trade shows. Technological advancements in materials and construction techniques are being introduced alongside products with proven technologies and techniques that have been in use for decades. Media coverage, sponsorships, world class trails and world class racers have made mountain bike racing one of the most exciting sports today.
If you’re a newbie or a weekend trail warrior but thinking of entering your first race, then there are things that you need to do in order to enhance your riding skills, endurance, handling skills and mental preparedness. If you’re a newbie racer, in most cases the only goal for you is to finish the race or complete the intended laps needed for you to get a certificate. Yes, winning first place may be the best achievement but you have to conquer many levels and train the right way and enhance your physical skills in order to get the number one spot. This is certainly achieveable, but for now you need to learn and master the basics. If you have been biking and going out on trails for some time now, then you already have a head start. You’re one with your bike now.
You’ve been attacking the different trails and for different reasons, there comes a point in many riders’ lives when the concept of racing becomes more and more appealing. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear “slow down and enjoy the ride”, you just can’t seem to shake the thought of going fast and beating someone else in a race. After all, mountain biking is more fun if you’re going for a little more speed. It may not be true to some people, but if you are one those people who wants to challenge others and yourself, then you may definitely want to try racing. What have you got to lose, right?
What Is Your Riding Style?
The are many disciplines and riding styles in mountain biking; there is cross country (XC), downhill, cross country marathon (XCM), the Evel Knievel-style of dirt jump riding (DJ) and the new style of mountain bike racing known as Enduro. At present the three most popular MTB disciplines are cross country, downhill and enduro.
Cross country mountain biking is the most common and the oldest type of riding in the mountain bike world. Although at present, it’s less publicized as compared to downhill, it garners the highest numbers and levels of participation for both professional and amateur riders. This type of racing is held on varied racing terrain circuits or tracks and is normally a 6-8 kliometer race. A cross country race can be a mass start or a Lemans type start where riders will need to run to their bikes and starts racing. Cross country was accepted as an Olympic sport in 1996 and is the only form of mountain biking accepted and practiced in the Olympics since then. Cross country courses can be a combination of rough forest path, single or double track, fire roads and paved pathways that connect to other trails. Riders can use either a Hardtail or a full suspension bike in racing. Racing rigs can come in different wheel sizes from the traditional 26” wheel, to the new 27.5”(650b) wheel to 29” wheels.
For some serious thrill junkies, downhill mountain biking is the sport of choice. To put it simply, downhill starts by finding a high mountain, pumping up your adrenaline, following the designated trail down and being the fastest one among all competitors. To define more clearly, downhill mountain biking is a time trial race held on a steep and rough terrain that often features high jumps, rocks and other obstacles. If the race is set in an urban setting, in can include steep inclined roads and concrete stairs. Downhill bikes are the heaviest of all mountain bike rigs. Most downhill frames are constructed from aircraft grade aluminum with heavy welds and boxy structures. Carbon fiber frames are also used, but aluminum frames have better resistance to gravity. Frames are fully suspended with front suspension using a triple crown construction and long travel rear shocks. Front and rear suspensions will have over 8 inches of travel. The course is defined on each side using a strip of tape. The downhill run may take 2 to 5 minutes to complete. Riders are timed similar to downhill skiing and the rider with the shortest time wins.
Mountain bike enduro racing originated from France and is one fast rising mountain bike discipline. The sport took some inspiration from car rally and motorbike enduro racing. The race is a stage-race format where a rider with the lowest accumulated time from the different timed sections is declared the winner. Competitions are commonly 1 or 2 days long or a week long competition. According to Ross Schnell, enduro races are downhill races where fitness and endurance is as important as the rider’s technical skill. The best enduro racer would be a cross-country racer with the mad skills of a downhiller or vice versa. Enduro bikes are mostly full suspension bikes with at least 140mm to 160mm of travel with a remote-controlled seatpost that can be lowered or raised quickly. A lower seat post is safe when going downhill and a raised one is best when going uphill.
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is the worldwide governing body for events like this. British Cycling in the UK, NORBA Cycling in the US and Cycling Australia in Australia. Cross country and downhill races are sanctioned by these organizations while enduro is being looked up by the UCI to be an officially sanctioned international event.
Preparing For The Big Day
Most mountain bikers on the sideline are true weekend warriors that pick weekly rides that allows them to maximize the type of riding they enjoy most. Amateur racers that can’t afford professional trainers, pay that much attention to what they eat daily or training intervals. In other words, average Joes that want to get their competitive juices flowing by joining a couple of races. Below are some helpful tips on preparing and training for your first ever mountain bike race.
1. Sign up first
If you’re in a race mood, don’t make excuses about not being fit enough, or not having an expensive bike. It is never too soon or too late to try racing. Once you’ve learned what your bike discipline is, choose an event or series of events in your local area, most preferably held on your local trails. Being familiar with the terrain and having fewer logistics issues will help you focus more on the race.
2. Map out the course
Every competitor will have some anxiety leading up to race day. You can minimize this by knowing the course or mapping out the trail. Every professional racer (bike – road or off-road, rally, downhill and enduro) take account of the course and stay as organized as possible before race day. Find out where the race will be held, map out the directions, the turns and the jumps that you need to tackle during race day. If you’re not familiar about the location of the race venue, talk to someone who will be attending the race and follow them to the event.
3. Taper your riding intensity
Experienced and professional racers apply difficulty intervals during their rides leading up to race day. They dig deep and push hard and then bring down the intensity during the weeks before the event. This will allow the body to recover and be at tiptop shape at the starting line. Ride deep and then slow down.
4. Get all the sleep that you can
In the days leading up to race day, make sure that you get as much sleep at night as possible. The body recovers better during sleep. This will also make sure that your legs are fully recovered at the starting line. Make sure that you get 8 hours of sleep every night at least a week before the actual race event.
5. Do an inventory of your race essentials
Make a list and lay out everything you will need a day or two before race day. Bike wear, spare parts, hydration pack, food and other accessories. Keep these race essentials in an easy-to-carry tub so that everything will be accessible and at the same place during race day.
6. Eating and hydrating are keys in performing better
A week before race day, keep your body hydrated and eat plenty of protein and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates will fuel your muscles and protein will help in maintaining the muscle strength during the race and helps with healing post race. Some people just load on the nutrients and water the night before a race. This can help but nutrition and hydration should be built up over time. Start at least 7 days before the race to have a good base for your system. Once you have that base, eat a heavy dinner the night before and a good breakfast during race day. You need all the fuel you can get during the race.
7. Do a bike tune up
There is no use comparing your bike to other racers. Every individual will have their own levels of skill and endurance, but you need to keep in mind that your bike should be tuned for you to perform better. If you’re having issues tuning your bike, take it to a professional bike shop to get it tuned up. The last thing that you want happening during a race is a mechanical breakdown. It will sap your momentum and may take you out of the race. It will be a real bummer and realizing that you should have checked your bike for any issues during race day. Once you have the bike tuned, try to ride it around to make sure that everything is in place and functioning the way it should be.
8. Do a practice run if possible
Car rallies, moto GP, Superbikes always do practice runs. Mountain biking is not an exemption. Professional and expert cross country, enduro and downhill riders. This will be a tactical advantage over your competitors. Study the course and make mental notes about where the big climbs are or the big jump or the sharp turn; remember the technical sections. Doing a pre-ride run will help you to be familiar of the entire course and make the best strategies during the race. This will also help in keeping away the race jitters.
9. Pace yourself
You need to learn to pace yourself. Adrenaline will make you rush at the starting line and stay at the front all the time with other riders. If you don’t pace yourself, you will just lose steam halfway and not finish at all. If it is your first time racing, race your race and not your competitors. You may be surprised that you are passing riders along the way that were sprinting at the starting line. Know your ride, know your body and know your strengths. You will be more successful at every race. Pace. Yes, it is a bonus if you get first place in yout first race, but most experienced and expert riders will tell you that finishing the race should be your goal.
10. Enjoy the ride
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Have fun and think of it a social event or a game. Win or lose, chances are you will make friends with like minded people. Feel the relaxed atmosphere, have fun, drink beer and have a barbecue. The most important thing about your first race is the fun factor and the experience.
Go out, ride and pedal dammit!