How to Start Mountain Bike Racing


by Mary Topping with Lea Davison
Mountain bike racing takes place off-road, usually on dirt, where cyclists pick lines over natural features like rocks, roots, sandy sections and water crossings.
Where to Start Riding and Racing
Olympian and multiple-time national champion Lea Davison says there’s no need for beginners to worry about gnarly features like rock gardens. Get going where she did: on very flat, smooth trails.
“Start on double track. Then practice riding on one side of the double track, which prepares you for single track,” Davison advises. City dwellers can roll on bike paths and explore adjacent dirt tracks or ride on biker-friendly park trails and grass. Tap friends for advice.
Davison also suggests seeking information on group rides, women-only rides, beginner trails and clinics from bike shops and local International Mountain Bicycling Association chapters.
After some experience in the saddle, progress to more technical terrain.
Bike Selection
Mountain bikes come in many models with different wheel sizes such as 26 inch, 29 inch (“29ers”) and 650b/27.5 inch. Most have front suspension only (“hardtail”) and many sport front and rear full suspension.
Davison learned on a rigid bike without suspension or shock absorbing parts, which she says forces a rider to build more skills. “Don’t let bike type and choice become too overwhelming or a barrier. If you get out there and you are on two wheels and you are off-road, that’s fantastic.
“But if you have the luxury of choosing a bike, I would say 29 inch wheels all the way. I still exclusively race on 29 inch wheels, so I think it’s good for a beginner and up through the ranks.” The benefit of a 29er for beginners is stability; larger wheels roll more easily over trail obstacles.
Types of Mountain Bike Races
While newbies may select a style that matches the type of riding they enjoy, Davison says Cross Country is a great option for them. Beginning mountain bike racers slot into USA Cycling’s category 3 classification and usually tackle less distance than advanced athletes.
Mountain bike racing has grown into a number of formats:
  • Cross Country (XC). Multiple laps around a three to five mile circuit. Beginners tackle about eight to twelve miles total.
  • Short Track Cross Country (STXC). Repeated laps of a very short loop lasting two to three minutes. Total race duration ranges from 20 to 30 minutes for category 3 cyclists.
  • Marathon Cross Country (MT). A marathon consists of 37 to 62 miles on a point to point or circuit course. Ultramarathons exceed 62 miles.
  • Cross Country Eliminator (XCE). Multiple riders race together in a short effort on a loop course. Slower riders are eliminated with a winner decided after a series of heats.
  • Downhill (DH). Descend for about two to eight minutes with very few pedaling sections, one rider at a time. The fastest one down wins. Downhill is one of several “Gravity” events which include Dual Slalom, Four Cross and Enduro.
  • Dual Slalom and Four Cross (4X). Riders wind between downhill gates, head-to-head in sets of two and four respectively. The courses feature jumps, turns and berms.
  • Enduro. A combination of the Cross Country and Downhill formats. Competitors usually pedal uphill or take transport. Results are based on one or more timed descents.
  • Multi-Stage Race (XCS). Individuals or teams complete over up to nine days of racing.
  • Team Relay (TR), Time Trial (TT), Hill Climb, Observed Trials and 24-Hour Racing are more types of mountain bike competition.
Additionally, some events schedule fun or citizen races for individuals or teams to encourage the leap into competition.
Race Preparation
Because cyclists usually push themselves harder in a race, Davison advises beginners to dismount for parts of the course they couldn’t ride during practice. “And that’s OK,” she says. “Things become more challenging and more technical when you’re pushing your body and your heart rate is high.” To get a feeling for this before that first race, try a familiar section of trail to see what it’s like at a leg-burning pace.
Check tire pressure before heading to the event or bring a pump. Pack bottles, drink mix, water, shoes, helmet, cycling kit and eyewear protection – along with your bike, of course. Davison strongly advises wearing gloves; they’ll protect hands during a crash and improve handlebar grip by absorbing sweat that would otherwise make for a slippery connection to the cockpit. Carry flat-fixing equipment: a quick-fill device like a CO2 cartridge or small hand pump, tube and tire levers.
To help riders stay hydrated, races designate a feed zone area where crews hand bottles to riders. “It’s more fun if you bring someone with you to be in the feed zone, but it’s not necessary,” Davison says. She’s often raced with one water bottle on the bike, plus another in her jersey pocket if she thinks she’ll need it. Davison also never travels without snacks.
“You have to look at food as fuel,” she says. Eat before a ride or race and snack every hour to half hour on the bike. “And make sure you get some food afterwards, because if you bonk or run out of fuel, it’s just going to make it a miserable experience.”
Finally, be a good-mannered knobby tire athlete by giving way to a faster competitor. The overtaking rider should voice intention to pass. The slower rider should verbally acknowledge him and if the overtaking rider doesn’t pass, find a good place as soon as possible to slow down so he can get by safely. And among other rules of the trail, riders in the saddle have the right of way over those pushing bicycles.

This Article Updated April 6, 2016 @ 05:28 PM For more information contact: