Saturday, March 20, 2010

My First Mountain Bike Race in 16 Years

   It had been 16 years since my last mountain bike race and while I always intended to attend some races in the years in between I just never managed to get around to it. Finally I decided to "just do it".  It was fitting that the race I chose to enter after all these years was also the very first mountain bike race I ever competed in.  Although I did not finish the race (DNF) I did complete one of the two 7+ mile laps before deciding that I was either going to get hurt, or totally trash my bike, neither of which was acceptable to me.

   I've uploaded some of the video I shot on race day above, however, the youtube video from the Pedal Mashers team is a very accurate depiction of the course - even if it is a couple of years old (see the "brutal" comment below.)

   Anyway... here are some of the things I've discovered.  I'm going to leave out all of the standard stuff you've probably read a million times by now (get sleep, eat right, hydrate, don't make any radical changes to your equipment on race day..) and just give you some of the things I've learned the hard way:

1. Preride the course.
   Riding down a trail you are not familiar with at race speed is not only just plain stupid, it is dangerous.  I've only ridden this trail once (16 years ago) and single-handedly the biggest mistake I made was not preriding.  Of course, had I prerode the trail I probably wouldn't have gone through with entering the race.  So, in a way, ignorance was bliss in this particular case.
   By preriding you can get a rough idea of what to expect and when.  It's also reassuring if you make mental notes of various landmarks and where they occur in conjunction with the overall length of the course.  That way you'll know the "big gnarly tree with rope swing" indicates the half way mark, etc.

2. Don't Stop!
   No matter what happens keep going, or else you'll get passed too quickly by too many people. If you have to get off your bike and push, then jump off and RUN with it.  Jump back once you've gotten enough momentum to keep going.  Perhaps the second biggest mistake I made was stopping.  I didn't quite make the top of one of the "roller-coaster" hills so I had to stop and push the bike over the crest.  The backside was rutted and full of jutting roots and without any kind of momentum I knew I wouldn't be able to just hop on the bike and roll it down the backside (without doing a full-fledged endo).
   So, as I'm pushing along, first one rider zips past me, then another, and another.  By the time I was able to get back in the saddle and start rolling again no less than 10 riders had slipped past me.  It was at this point that I realized that I was going to be lucky just to finish and that the majority of the guys in my heat were now way far ahead of me.  It was demoralizing.

3. Don't race alone.
   Bring a friend, or even a complete stranger if necessary.  Having someone else to hang out with and provide moral support and possibly even SAG duty (if you're not in the same class) will go a long way to keep you in the game and keep pre-race jitters in check.  
   If I were going to race this course again I'd have someone acting as a domestique to hand up water (which would mean I'd have to stop and swap out water bladders) and the designated spot.  Even though I was wearing a Camelback containing 70oz. of water, I still managed to run out by the end of the first lap. 
   I went to the Warda race by myself and felt as if I was the only one there who didn't know at least one other person.  Next time I'll force some unsuspecting sucker to go with me.
4. Bring extra water, food, beer & clothes.
   Not only will bringing your own supplies make you self sufficient, it'll make racing much less costly, as well as providing you with a little bargaining power should you need help with a repair or something.  
   Being able to change out of your wet, dirty bike kit will be much more comfortable in addition to making you appear a little more experienced that the rest of your fellow weekend warriors. 
   I personally brought a gallon of water, a small towel, an ice chest containing a six pack of beer, a couple of sandwiches, extra energy bars and some clean clothes.

5. Don't expect to win (yet).
   Even though you may enter as a Category 3 (beginner/novice) rider, don't be fooled by the name.  There are going to be lots of riders who are way more talented than yourself.  Just remind yourself that you are there to do "recon" the first couple of times you race and just try and hang on.
   Of course that doesn't mean that the spirit of competition won't naturally take over either.  At my first race (Warda, 1994) I started out DFL (dead frigging last) and after I passed the rider in front of me it became addictive.  Our field started out with 105 riders and I still managed to roll across the finish line in 62nd place after starting at the very end.
   Also, don't let the guys up front (the ones covered in tattoos, talking smack) intimidate you.  Either they will be so far off the front you'll never see them again (unless they lap you), or they are going to go so hard, so quickly they are going to blow up in the first couple of miles.  As you ride along you will be surprised how many riders you see who have run completely out of gas.

Some of the other things I observed are:

  • I had forgotten how absolutely brutal mountain bike racing can be.
  • The quality of racers has gotten much better, very few riders actually fell into the "beginner" category, as it used to be known.  There definitely needs to be Category 4 (or even Cat 5) class in mountain biking.  As a side note: when looking up the stats from 1994, I realized that that race was only one lap (approx 8 miles) as opposed to two laps this time.  Now suddenly I don't feel like such a total loser for bailing out after the first lap.
  • Road riding has greatly improved my stamina and aerobic ability - I rode 40+ miles the day before the race and felt great on Sunday.
  • Road riding has greatly reduced my technical handling ability.
  • The GT is not conducive the racing.  The bike is set up with a very tight cockpit and low rise bar stem. It's very nimble in the tight twisty wooded sections, but as soon a the trail points downward it gets really sketchy.  I cannot race on this bike.  I need a more relaxed, up right geometry in order to feel more secure at that speed.  A 29'er would be more appropriate for racing (where brute force far outweighs finesse.)
  • There needs to be more "lead time" between heats in the various classes. At the Warda race there were multiple age brackets catching up with (and thus running into) each other.  Not only is getting passed by a twelve year old embarrassing, but it's not much fun for the kid who has to weed her way through all of the old, fat, slow guys in her way.
Hopefully I have provided some degree of insight into the world of mountain bike racing, and maybe, just maybe, we'll see each other out on the course some day.  I'd love to hear what experiences you've had with competition (in whatever discipline that may be.)


  1. Awesome post. There's really no subtle way to get back into racing... like the old boxing cliche goes, everyone's got a plan till they get punched in the mouth. Good on ya for jumping right into the deep end. I'm sure next time will be much easier.

    I know mountain bikers catch a lot of flak for the hippy stereotype, but every time I see a mountain bike course I'm awe struck by how technical they are. As a dedicated roadie, I now feel ashamed about complaining every time I see a pothole after seeing those videos!

  2. eh I dont mind walking tech parts and i don't mind getting passed by the teen classes.

    yeah in the 40s i'm fat and slow and carrying around an extra case of cheeseburgers in weight but is all for fun anyway. i just think of it as "it is just CALLED a race". I just "race" for the fun nd no DNF or DFL results.

    enjoyed reading about your esperiences. i will say i only race between 2 and 4 times a year on average over the past 8 to 10 years.