Monday, June 16, 2014

First Time/Entry-Level XC Bike Racing Tips

Two weeks ago was the first XC race of the season here in Anchorage, and the event had record turn-out: 154 entrants!

It’s really awesome to see all walks of the riding scene taking flight here.

A friend asked me for some tips before his first race, and in typical fashion, I probably gave him a lot more info than he was expecting. Later, another friend asked a question about passing etiquette. I thought I would unload a little of the decade-worth of experiences I’ve had as it relates to entry-level XC racing.

Try it:
Some people say racing is not their thing without ever really trying. There’s a lot more to racing than just trying to be the first one around a loop so many times though.
I had been mountain biking for 7 or 8 years before I ever raced. Partly, there weren’t too many nearby opportunities where I was growing up, partly, I wasn’t drawn to the idea of riding around the same loop with a bunch of people wearing spandex. The only reason I tried it is telling: I was a freshmen in college with no car and I had some new friends from college, and some more old buddies who I had grown up with, who were all going to the same race, hosted at a mountain I had always wanted to ride, but never made it to. Basically, I was going ride bikes and hang out with a bunch of friends, and ride some trails I wanted to check out.
Low and behold, I loved it, though I won’t say I was good. I don’t even remember how I placed, I just remember the course was super hard, super fun, and it was great getting to see some of my old riding pals, and bond with new riding pals.
I liked the camaraderie, both with the competitors, and my teammates; I liked going to ride places I probably never would have otherwise; and I yes, liked the competition and sense of accomplishment associated with it. Regardless of how I placed, if I gave it my best, I always felt really happy at the end of a race. More often than not, the atmosphere was one that pushed me to ride a harder than I otherwise would have, so I knew I had.
Here in Anchorage, mountain bike racing is more of a mid-week activity, and the races are held in a place where most the participants could ride any day they please. While the travel aspect doesn’t quite exist if you live in or near Anchorage, it’s doubtful that many people would race the courses that are put together for the races on their own. The inter-tie of ski trails, old-school rooty singletrack, and the newly developed STA trails, is pretty unique. The other aspects that first turned me on: camaraderie, and the feeling of accomplishment, definitely exist in the racing scene here, and I might say more so for the former since it is such a close community to begin with.
This is all a long way of saying that if you like riding bikes, my first tip is, give racing a try. If you hate it, you’ve donated $15 and an hour or so of your time to riding bikes.

Know the course:
Here in Anchorage, course markings are pink flags, and they are always on the right. If you don’t see a flag for more than a minute after passing any kind of trail junction, you may want to take note or turn around. The courses are usually pretty well marked, but it’s shockingly easy to miss a junction. Just because you are following someone doesn’t mean you are still on course either. It’s not uncommon for someone to lead a pack astray by accident. Also be careful about getting too close to the flags, I sucked one into my drive train once and that ended that race.
It’s really helpful to pre-ride the course. Maps are available a few days in advance, course set up often takes place on Sunday, or just arrive a bit ahead of time. For venues where you don’t know the trails at all, pre-riding is a must.
Often, I’m able to arrive early, and will grab some course tape and a few flags while I pre-ride, and look for parts of the course where markings are thin, confusing, or have a hazard I think could use extra marking.
Sometimes other park users will move the course markers, whether well-intentioned or malevolent, and sometimes, the volunteer markers don’t have a chance to get out to all nooks in the course. It’s an easy way to get more familiar with the course, and be proactive.

Race smart:
Later on in college, my single point of advice (believe it or not, I can be concise) to first-time racers was always this: Don’t race fast, race smart.
Some people think the point of racing is to go super crazy fast and pin their gas pedal to the floor. For most XC racing, the fact is, you are awesome if you can sustain even 10% more effort during a race than you could on whatever you consider to be a regular ride. In short-track events, full-throttle is the ticket, but the ST courses typically feature less technical riding than an XC course and are set to specific time durations.
For XC, you should make it your goal to have the cleanest, sharpest ride you can. Worry more about smooth bike handling, shifting, and riding than power output. You can control the first three much easier.
Push yourself up climbs or in sections where you feel like you’re falling off pace, such as double track, but the second you start to feel yourself surpassing red line, it’s time to take it back down. The more you race, the more familiar you will become with flirting with redline efforts.
It took me a few races to figure this all out. The first three races I just went nuts. The results were the same each time: the oxygen debt and fatigue caught up, often in less than 5 minutes, my riding got awful, and I’d start losing placements as I took bad lines or even crashed as my oxygen-starved brain went offline. I would have to spend the next 20-30 minutes trying to recover, and usually could never come back. Finally, I resolved to calm down and ride smooth, and see what happened. The result: my pace was slower off the start, but faster in the long run as I had more energy to drop the hammer when I needed to, I wasn’t trying to recover as much, and I found myself picking off racers who were sloppy and inefficient. As for the competitors who were just outright stronger, the only way to beat them was with what I did on the days I wasn’t racing.

The start:
I think the start is the most intimidating part of racing for any racer, first time or pro. There will always be a scrum. I would guess that no matter where you are reading this, the scrum is worst in the mens sport class. As a friend keenly noted, this class consists of people who range in skill from just a bit better than a beginner, to taking themselves pretty seriously.
There are essentially two things going on at the start of the race. Strong riders are trying to out distance themselves from their rivals, and everyone is trying to get a good position for when the course narrows, aka, the choke.
Almost all XC race courses will feature a choke. The choke can come as quick as 10 feet from the start line, to several minutes into the course. The choke may not even be a narrowing of the course, but instead a difficult obstacle, a sharp corner over loose sand, a rock garden, log barrier, etc. The farther into the course the choke is, the better spaced out riders will have become and the less chaotic it will be; the closer to the start, the more pandemonium there will be. Again, your knowledge of the course is key.
For strong riders, getting what is referred to as the “hole shot” through the choke is critical. If the course enters a long section of tough singletrack with limited passing opportunities, a rider may get stuck at a slower pace while their competition speeds away off the front.
When I raced sport, I usually sprinted hard off the start of a race to nail the hole shot. I’ve been racing long enough to know how deep into oxygen debt I can go and still pop back fine. Unless you train for those kinds of efforts, this is not advisable. My strategy in sport class worked well, but if I played the same game in the expert level, where there are riders much stronger than I, the strategy would leave me in a bad place.
Knowing where you are, and what your limits are, is the first thing. If you think you can drop the hammer and blow away most the competition, this is always the best attack. The problem is, 90% of the pack thinks this to be the case as well, and will be trying to employ the technique too, even though it will only work for a handful of them.
For a first time racer, regardless of how many years you’ve been riding bikes, it’s best not to tangle with the scrum, it can really foul the whole experience.
The better strategy is to ride at pace, and treat the start like you’re driving on a California freeway at rush hour: defense is key.
Pay attention to what other riders around you are doing and go ahead and judge them. Are they panting and wheezing, are they riding poorly and picking sloppy lines? Just like a bad driver, you should try and get away from these racers. They may go down and they can take you and others with them. Keep your eyes open to what’s up ahead too. The best thing you can do is know when this choke is coming, and get ready for it. If the course transitions from wide double track to single track, try to get lined up on center of the single track before you get there, be ready for the speed to drop and downshift in advance so you don’t get stuck in a tall gear, and be prepared for other riders to try to wiggle in and take your line.

On passing and getting passed:
Basically, there’s a balance here: on the one hand, it’s a race; on the other, common courtesy is expected.
The start and the end of the race are a free for all, the rest of XC racing is really a race of survival of the fittest.
Obviously, at the beginning of the race, it’s chaotic.
Passing etiquette is really only an issue on long sections of singletrack, and in situations where you are easily outriding someone. On double track, it’s up to you to make a pass regardless. If you think it’s a good idea, you can say something like “on your left” as you come by so the other riders don’t suddenly veer into you; this might be a good idea if you’re passing several riders in a line where another rider might decide to pull out and pass too. Common sense should be used, but beware that sometimes people will be so taxed from their effort and you may spook them: be ready to react.
On short segments of singletrack between segments of double track, it’s probably a better use of your energy to temporarily conserve and sit tight instead of taking a bad line to gain mere seconds.
That being said, once you’re into it, you may find yourself stuck behind one, or two riders who are losing touch with the pack, or riding too slow for your pace. Most people are cool, and will let you by if you ask. Be a little patient, they don’t need to throw themselves into the briars for you.
If for some reason they seem to think that this is a good spot and time to hold you up, or don’t feel like yielding, you may have to make a move.
Moves come with risk. Plenty of racers get nudged off course and hit an off-trail obstacle or suffer some other ill fate when they attempt to get ahead in the wrong place.
Likewise, if someone, or better yet, a group, is on your tail, and you’re losing contact with the rider(s) in front of you, it’s really no use being a jerk and holding someone back.
Additionally, if someone is bugging you by breathing down your neck, but hasn’t asked to pass, you can either slow and pull off to the side in a good spot and tell them to move up, or just ask, “hey want to pass?”
Sometimes they may decline as they’re actually liking your pace and lines. As long as they’re not grinding your tire or making you feel pressured to ride poorly, who cares, take it as a compliment.
As the race progresses, you will probably start to notice you are yo-yo-ing with a few of the same riders, so mutual respect is good.
All bets are off as you near the finish line though. If you are pacing or yo-yoing with someone and want to beat them, you may have to attack to get into that last section of singletrack, or up a climb first. You should aim to empty the tank.

Like a scout, be prepared, or not:
The reality is, for most entry-level XC races, the distances are short enough, that you really don’t need to pack for a big outing. Most entry-level races will be over in anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.
With the exception of very hot conditions, or more arduous courses, it’s unlikely you need to bring much, if any water, especially if you plan ahead and start hydrated. If you’re concerned, or know that you’re typically a water guzzler, than by all means, don’t dry yourself out, but try to downsize. A half water bottle, or a similar amount in a water bladder should suffice.
Additionally, you almost certainly don’t need food on the course for a race that will take less than an hour and a half. Do, however, eat in advance. This should be something you might normally eat on a ride and is known and agreeable, high in sugar, low in fiber, and consumed at least 30 minutes prior to the start. Never try out some new food before a race though.
Do make sure to purge in advance too, but not too far in advance. Carrying around certain, extra fluids or solids will not make for an enjoyable experience. Scout out the location of the facilities and try to hit them about 20 minutes before your wave is scheduled to go off. Keep in mind that other participants may have the same plan, and that often there is a pre-race meeting anywhere from 15-5 minutes before the first wave goes out.
As for mechanical breakdowns, if you have a major mechanical in an entry-level race, you are essentially done racing and just trying to get back to your car. In longer races you might still have a reasonable shot of maintaining or regaining some ground, even with minor issues, but most entry-level races are too short to regain any lost ground. More, in most courses, if the mechanical is truly a disaster, you can probably walk back to the start area faster than you can fix and ride out. It’s better to do your maintenance beforehand and make sure your rig is in top form than to plan to address issues on course. That being said, weird things happen in races, and it’s probably not a bad idea to carry a small multi-tool, spare tube, and CO2 cartridge. Anything more, and you’re schlepping dead-weight.
Something like a tipped saddle or leveraged handle bars or shifters could be fixed in a few seconds. Bigger issues may mean your race is over.
Not to be a pessimist either, just because you have a mechanical and might be effectively knocked out of the race does not mean you have to throw in the towel. You paid to race; if the course is fun, fix the problem and carry on.
As for dress: wear what is comfortable. Races are synonymous with spandex and colorful team kits. If you have these things and like wearing them to ride, than by all means. On the other hand, I would not advise spending upwards of $100 on some new lycra for a race.

Lastly, freaking have fun. That’s the whole point. Ride a little harder than you would on your own, meet some new people, enjoy a course you probably would not ride otherwise.

Other things I consider unofficial advice:
Talk to the competition: “Nice bike,” “keep it up,” encouragement etc if someone crushes something or rides a line well; the boost is nice to give and nice to get.
“Hey where ya from” or “how you like those tires” or other banter if they’re yo-yoing with you. You could make a friend, take your mind off some pain, or you could push someone over the edge into oxygen debt. I knocked a guy out of contention playing the name game on a long climb in a race once. I actually didn’t mean to, I genuinely wanted to know if we had some mutual friends, but I guess he had just been hanging on to my wheel, and when I started chatting, it was too much. It was hilarious, but I felt like I learned something in that moment.

If you do have a mechanical, just feel like crap, and can’t or don’t want to finish, tell a race official before you leave the course so they know you didn’t die.

Finally, thank the race director at the end of the race, regardless of how you thought the race went: I make it a point every week to go say thank you. If you think there was a problem with the event or something that could be done better, shut your mouth, get involved, make a difference. It takes a lot of work to put on most races, and except for a few big events, most aren’t exactly making a killing, if any profit at all. Your effort will always go farther than your hot air.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the advice

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the advice

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the advice

Unknown said...

I took this article to heart. First MTB race in 10 years, placed 15th... Unfortunately out of 24. BUT! I was able to keep all this in mind and take mental notes on what to improve on for next week!