How to prepare for your first mountain bike race

By Michelle Valenti

When competing in your first mountain bike race, be sure to relax and enjoy the ride!

No matter how many times you hear it, you just can’t seem to “slow down and enjoy the ride”. After all, you’re mountain biking, and mountain biking is more fun the faster you go. Okay, that’s not true for all people, but if you’re one of those people, you might want to try racing. After all, what have you got to lose?

These six tips will help make your first mountain bike race a great one.

1. Just sign up

“Don’t make excuses about not being fit enough or not having a nice enough bike,” says professional mountain biker Nina Baum. “It’s never too soon to try a race.”

Even if you decide racing isn’t for you, it’s a great learning experience.

“Racing teaches you more about riding a bike than almost anything else will,” Baum says. You’ll meet new friends, you’ll discover what your strengths and weaknesses are, and you’ll learn a heck of a lot about mountain biking.

2. Start local

Choose an event or series in your area, preferably one held on your hometown trails. Familiar terrain and fewer logistics will help you focus more attention on the actual race.

Start with a standard cross-country event. You can branch off into downhill, slalom, or another style of mountain biking once you get comfortable with racing.

If you enter a USA Cycling-sanctioned event, be sure to sign up in Category 3, which will ensure you're racing against beginners such as yourself. You have to qualify in order to advance to Category 2 and above.

3. Pre-ride the course

Study the course map. Make mental notes about where the biggest climbs are and where more technical sections appear. Then go out and ride it — several times before the event — if possible. Going through the motions will help with both muscle memory and strategy.

If you happen to get stuck behind a rider on race day, you’ll know how far you have to go on singletrack before reaching a spot that opens up and allows you to stage an attack.

4. Prep your bike

Make sure your bike is in good working order. You don’t want a mechanical to stop you on the course. If you take it to a shop for a tune up, give yourself enough time to ride it at least once before the race to make sure it’s shifting properly and all the right screws were tightened.

Baum also recommends getting a proper bike fit prior to racing. The saddle position and stem height should be adjusted according to your body.

Don’t let them simply glance at you on the bike: “Have them get out the plumb bob and watch you rotate your pedals,” Baum says.

5. Eat well

On race day, only consume the food and drinks you use in training. If you typically eat cereal before a big ride, eat cereal on race day. If you drink diluted sports drink on weekend rides, fill your bottle with diluted sports drink on race day.

It’s hard enough to keep the race-day jitters from messing with your digestive tract. Don’t give your stomach any other reasons to complain.

6. Relax and enjoy the ride

“Don’t put too much emphasis on the outcome,” says Baum, who during her first race accidentally signed up as an expert, missed the start, and hit a cow. “Think of it more as a social event.”

Mountain bikers are really laid back and mountain bike races tend to have a casual, fun atmosphere. Do what it takes to enjoy your race: Convince your mountain bike friends to sign up with you or plan to hang out after the event to chat with the other riders. You never know who you’ll meet or where your experience will take you.