Tips for Mountain Bike Racing

By Jessica McWhirt

Mountain bike racing for beginners is intimidating. I’ve only raced my mountain bike five times and any time I go to a new race, I’m constantly harassing my teammates for help and directions. Luckily, I have awesome teammates who are always willing to help. I signed up for the Winter Park “Point-to-Point” race after one of my teammates posted a BOGO coupon. I’ve always been turned off by the registration fees for mountain biking. Having to only pay $25 for a 17-mile mountain bike race, visiting Winter Park, and seeing my mountain bike friends sounded like a pretty damn good deal.

Here are some mountain bike racing tips for beginners:

I wasn’t sure where to park once I reached the resort. I continued driving until I saw several cars and then saw mountain bikers. The lack of signs for the mountain bike race had me wandering around aimlessly, asking folks where to pick up our bibs. The website said, “At the base of Winter Park Ski Resort.” There were a number of bases as I walked up and down flights of stairs, around gondolas and chair lifts, and finally seeing bike racers walking in and out of a building.

I picked up my bib and then asked where the start of the race was. Again, no signs. I kept telling Chris that as a beginner, this would turn me off had it not been for other mountain bikers helping me out. Mind you, I looked at the website for this information and couldn’t find it.

At the end of the race, it was up to us to find our way back to the start. I followed a friend and we aimlessly biked around, looking for signs to get to the podiums. While we biked, I received texts from my family saying they were going to call my name, that I was going to miss the podium, and to hurry up. I didn’t know where to go. With Nationals coming up and other bikers everywhere, it was a clusterfuck to get to the podiums. I grew increasingly flustered the longer it took us to get back to the podium.

My suggestions for beginning mountain bikers:
Don’t count on there being signs at a race
Go with a teammate who’s done the race before so they can show you where to go
If you go alone, don’t be afraid to ask others who seem to know what they’re doing

The Start
Once I found where we were actually starting, I got there about ten minutes early. Enough time for my legs to cool down. The official called up the novice women. I looked to my left and right to see my competition. Next to me was a 15-year-old who raced for Tokyo Jos. I (wrongly) assumed I was racing against her as well. I assumed that the entire race.

I’ve noticed, out of the five mountain bike races I’ve entered, that the races usually start with an uphill. I assume this is to thin out the herd before hitting the single track. I try using hills to my advantage as this is a strength of mine compared to other mountain bikers I’ve raced against. I also know that downhill is a big weakness of mine. I feather the brakes the whole way down. The turns freak me out. I assume my bike will slip out from under me and I’ll crack my head on a rock or rail myself against a tree.

Other than simply practicing downhill and gaining confidence, I use my strengths to my advantages. I haul ass uphill to make up for my turtle-like pace on the descents.

Know who you’re actually competing against
The starts are usually fast. Make sure you can clip in quickly in order to stay with the group
Don’t get to the start too soon or your legs will cool down

Be humble
I’m learning that mountain bikers are usually pretty chill and understandable. As someone who’s still working on technical skills on the bike to feel remotely confident in competing against really strong racers, I always feel like a jackass when I’m slowing someone down behind me. It’s unnerving to hear brakes and gears shifting right behind me.

We were on our first downhill section, which, if I was good at downhill, I would have loved to “rip it.” But I’m not yet, so there I was, attempting to gain speed, freaking out a little, and talking myself through it. Then I hear bikes behind me. The two girls kindly asked, “Hey, when you get a chance, can we pass you?” They were super cool about it and they were maybe 15. I said, “Yeah, I’ll pull over here.” The two thanked me and they were gone.

I know it’d likely be different if we were competing against each other and I have yet to experience that. But I mean, if you’re slowing the group down behind you, it’s best to just get over at that point, and let them be on their way, competitors or not. Mountain bike racing for beginners (and even for the pros) is a humbling experience. Jumping from a Cat 3 Road Race to a Novice Mountain Bike Race always checks my ego.

I take that with me as I pass people as well. I wait until there’s a safe opportunity, I announce my presence, and I let them know I’m passing. It keeps everyone on the same page and safe.

Throughout the race, I made sure to thank every volunteer I saw on the course. Volunteer work is not always fun and it’s usually unappreciated. I hope a quick and breathless “thank you” showed them my appreciation. It doesn’t hurt to be polite and grateful.

My suggestions:
If someone wants to pass, just let them. It’s one thing if they’re being a dick, it’s another if you two are on entirely different levels.
If you’re going to pass someone, don’t be a dick. Announce you’re there, wait for a safe opportunity, and thank them.
Be polite and show your gratitude. I get that we’re racing, but it also doesn’t hurt to thank people who’ve been standing around for hours making sure you have a fun and safe race.

The Course
I didn’t know what the course was going to be like as I signed up on a whim after being offered a discounted entry the week of the race. I wasn’t too concerned because mountain biking is more of a release for me. I take road racing more seriously (which is probably why I’ve burned myself out) so being able to ride a course with signage and people who will force me to ride faster is a win-win.

That being said, I relied on my teammate’s description and her confidence in my abilities to race. Because of this, I went into this race blind. I didn’t know where I’d be going uphill, descending, riding technical stuff, or where the finish line was.

The volunteers and race organizers did a great job with marking the trails and pointing us in the right direction. I was grateful for that instead of having to figure that out on my own or getting lost. There was only one aid station on the 17-mile course. I still had plenty of water so I ended up passing through without stopping.

Nature is fucking unreal though. When I reached this opening toward the end of the course, there were trees spread all around, bright green everywhere (trees, leaves, grass), mountain peaks in the distance capped with a touch of snow, and royal blue skies. If I wasn’t racing, I would have stopped to take it all in. I was damn near close to saying “Forget results. This shit’s amazing. I’m going to take a picture.” I did slow down enough to enjoy it just a few seconds longer. This is something I don’t get to experience in road races. Sure, there are some pretty spectacular views like reaching the summit of Mt. Evans, but they’re few and far between.

The Tokyo Jos racer and I continually passed each other. She’d get ahead of me on any of the descents and I’d catch up and pass her on the uphills. Because I didn’t know where the finish line was, the last section was fast and mostly flat. She was only a few bike lengths ahead of me and she was quickly getting away with her fearlessness. I heard cheering and cowbells and realized we were approaching the finish line. I was too far back at that point to pass her. I crossed the finish line and assumed I came in second. Had I known where the finish line was, I could have made a more tactical move to beat her.

Mountain bike racing for beginners is intimidating enough. Previewing the course beforehand helps ease anxiety and then you know what to expect.
Have the right amount of nutrition that works for you. Hydration pack? Two water bottles? Gels? Goos? Blocs? Know what works best for your performance.
Know where the aid stations are if there are any. You can better prepare your race nutrition knowing this.
Knowing where the start and finish lines are is imperative if you want to strategize your race.

Mountain bike racing for beginners doesn’t have to be intimidating. You can’t necessarily expect your hand to be held through the whole process. Sometimes we just have to figure it out ourselves.

Even though the Tokyo Jo’s racer wasn’t my actual competition, trying to keep up with her on the downhills and over technical sections made me faster. Assuming I was in second place the entire time forced me to go faster to catch the Tokyo Jo’s racer. At one point during the race, she dropped me on a downhill and got away. She was out of sight and I assumed I lost her. I was grinding up a hill, believing that I had the strength to catch back up to her, and lo and behold, I saw her ahead of me the moment I looked ahead on the trail.

Setting aside your ego to let faster riders pass you is yes, humbling, but who gives a shit? For many of us, this is a hobby and isn’t going to turn into a career. We’re all out there doing the best we can with what we’ve got. It’s why I haven’t signed up for the Sport or Expert category yet because I can’t confidently race downhill yet. As much as I want to be competitive at the Sport level, I also don’t want to cause a crash.

Mountain bike racing as a beginner reminds me that it’s about the journey and not the destination. Skills are meant to be developed. You aren’t born with them. And it takes practice. Have fun in the meantime.

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