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Getting Dialed In for Mountain Bike Racing

Getting Dialed In for Mountain Bike Racing

A mountain bike race consists of dirt road double track and also a lot of single track. It is a lot harder to pass on single track compared to double track so you need to plan accordingly. Races usually start out on a double track dirt road so that people can fight for position in the first ¼ mile of the race. It’s crucial that you jockey for position once the race starts so that you are not trapped behind slower racers once you hit the singletrack.

When I first started racing back in the early 90’s mountain bike racing was in its infancy as the first world championship race was held in Durango, Colorado at the Purgatory resort.  

Shortly thereafter I remember my first race at Brian Head resort just outside of Cedar City, Utah.  I had mowed countless lawns saving up for my first nice bike and I entered the beginner class at the Utah Summer Games with my full suspension GT RTS with full XTR.  

The temps we’re chilly so I wore some sweatpants and a long sleeve shirt that was handed down from my older brother.  I took to the start line lining up with all of the other racers and then heard the gun and we took off up the dirt road. I went off hot and then fought to the finish breathing harder than I ever thought possible. When the results we’re tallied I ended up winning the beginner class and I was stoked beyond all reason to have won my first race.  There was around 30 racers that day in all categories so it wasn’t a huge race but it infused an uncanny desire to race that ran deep in my veins.  




Mountain bike racing has grown exponentially over the past couple years with High Schools throughout the country joining the NICA league.  Utah’s NICA High School league grew so much in such a short period of time that they actually had to split the league as it reached 1300 participants across the state after only a couple of years.  The league continues to grow at 30% a year and the current statewide participation is around 2500 for the two leagues.  Chances are no matter your level you’ll roll up to race and have a up and coming high schooler show you a thing or two.  


When you roll up to a local mountain bike race you will see people decked out with the finest of gear with the latest full suspension bike from Cannondale or Specialized and always a new matching kit.  Don’t ever judge a racers cycling ability by how pro their setup looks.  I know guys that have the nicest bikes and a fresh kit every season and some of them can hold their own but there are many others that have the best gear but fall mid pack.  On the other hand I know people that have a very basic bike and show up in jeans and a T-Shirt and they smoke everyone.  Don’t be fooled by the appearance of others.  For some image is everything when it comes to bikes and people just want to look good when they roll up to race decked out in the latest and greatest equipment.   


When getting to your first race make sure and arrive at least an hour before it starts so that you can get registered, eat a little food and do a proper warm up before you actually race.  It’s a great idea to drink plenty of fluids before you race so that you can get well hydrated before the race even starts.  I really try an avoid any energy drinks until about ½ hour before a race so that I’m really relaxed and calm until 30 minutes before when I need to hone in my focus and start to get amped to race.  A good thing to eat 30-45 minutes before you race is an energy bar or a Banana my favorite is a PROBAR Fuel Bar or a PROBAR meal replacement bar.  Bananas are a cheaper alternative and are also very easy on the stomach which will not cause cramping. Even though you’re probably nervous about your first race it’s essential that you eat plenty of food before you race.  A quick hour race you can usually get by on a minimal amount of food but for races that are 2 hours or more you really need to eat a full meal 2-3 hours before the race so that you have enough calories to carry you through.  


Once the race director starts bringing everyone to the starting line your time to perform has come and time to prepare has expired.  It’s a good idea to start your first race hanging with the group.  It can be tempting at times to want to explode off the start and try and dust everyone and this can happen from time to time but for your first race try and ride with the lead group as long as you can trying to stay as close to the top 3-5 guys as possible and ride with them for ⅔ of the race or more.  You can learn a lot from experienced riders so it’s good to ride and observe as you strive to hang on.  




A mountain bike race consists of dirt road double track and also a lot of single track.  It is a lot harder to pass on single track compared to double track so you need to plan accordingly.  Races usually start out on a double track dirt road so that people can fight for position in the first ¼ mile of the race.  It’s crucial that you jockey for position once the race starts so that you are not trapped behind slower racers once you hit the singletrack.  I have had to pass other racers that are getting lapped on shorter courses with multiple laps and it can be really tricky.  One of my favorite races is located in Park City at the Round Valley trail system.  I was lapping a rider and was with the top group of 3 and there was thick tundra on both sides of the trail which made it really tough to pass so I ended up passing in a small opening and the lady that I was passing sped up so I had to ride over a group of Tundra which caused my seatpost to break once I landed on the seatpost coming down hard and thrusting the nose of my saddle into the air.  I finished the race in 3rd position but I had to ride standing up for the last 5 miles of the race due to my damaged seatpost.  


It’s really nice if you can pre ride a race course so that you can look for optimal places to pass and good sections where you can grab your bottle so that you can hydrate. When you are training it is good to practice eating, drinking and passing at really challenging times so that you can really master the technique and it will be second nature come race day.  Some people like to use Camelbaks so that they can have hands free drinking.  On longer races I really like having a Camelbak but for the shorter races 1.5-2 hours I really like to just use a bottle for the simplicity and it’s nice not having to carry anything on your back.  You should be consuming 16-20 oz of fluid every hour that you are on bike for normal conditions and if the temperature is really warm you should consume even more depending on your sweat rate.  


Now that you have a good idea on what to expect for your first race let’s go over some of the ways that you can prepare for racing.  Training pays huge dividends when it comes to racing and if you do it right you should be riding harder while training rather than racing.  As you start racing it’s good that you just get out and ride your bike so that you get familiar with different types of terrain and how to maneuver various obstacles.  It’s also good to have a couple of rides longer than your races so that you can know how your body responds to the distance.  It’s important while training to mix up your riding regularly so that your body can adapt to many different stresses and will really hone in your fitness.  Hill workouts will definitely make anyone stronger but if you are a natural born climber like myself then you should make sure that you spend a lot of time in the flats and brushing up on your descending skills so that you can minimize these chinks in your armor.  If you want to get fast then Intervals are a necessary evil that really hurt like crazy but they make it so you can push harder longer and will get you to the finish first.  




People always ask me when they start racing if they should buy a full suspension mountain bike or a hardtail.  The benefits of a hardtail is that you can build them super light and they have greater efficiency when you are racing smoother courses.  Hardtails are also cheaper most of the time and more simple than a full suspension bike with minimal maintenance.  I have been a diehard hardtail fan for years but now that XC courses are becoming rougher and more technical I have started to opt for a full suspension bike on most of my training and racing.  The New Cannondale Scalpel SI is really the best of both worlds as it climbs super efficient and has a snappier hardtail feel to it but when the going gets rough it descends with excellence and gives you confidence all around.  


XC full suspension bikes are extremely efficient these days making it so the extra weight of a full suspension bike isn’t a burden anymore. Full suspension bikes make your rear wheel track better over terrain so that you can focus on cranking the pedals rather than negotiating your line.  Most companies have started putting remote lock outs on there XC race bikes so that you can lock out your suspension at the push of a button when the terrain is smooth. These new remote lockouts make riding extremely more efficient and snappy giving full suspension bikes that hardtail like snappy feel.  




The industry has done away with the front derailleur even on sub $1,000 mountain bikes. Front derailleurs have always been cumbersome to work on and while riding it’s not a matter of if you’ll get chain suck but when.  Front derailleurs are nice when you go on long rides but for racing a 1x setup is ideal with a 30 or a 32 tooth front chainring for XC racing.  A 32 tooth front chainring paired with a 10-42 cassette in the back gives you a wide range of gears for cross country terrain so that you have a nice top end descending gear and an excellent climbing gear.  XC races are the most accessible with several series throughout Utah making it super easy to head to the races.  


The Weekly race series for Utah Valley and the MidWeek race series for Salt Lake have made mid week racing affordable and super fun with racing lasting around an hour for all categories and having a sweet raffle afterwards with countless prizes.  These weekly races are on average $15 and they are well attended so you can see how you measure up against the locals.  The Midweek race series in Salt Lake has also started doing an Enduro event in their series so that you can try your descending skills if climbing really isn’t your thing.  




New Mountain Biking niches have really started to blossom throughout the racing world. One of the most popular up and coming niches is Enduro.  With Enduro you ride a bike with 140mm suspension travel that climbs well because you have to climb to the top of the course with Enduro racing even though you aren’t timed.  The Cannondale Trigger has really dominated the Enduro world series due to its ability to climb like an XC bike with the flick of a switch and descend like a downhill bike.


Most XC race bikes have 100mm of suspension travel or around 4 inches.  Aggressive XC bikes that are more for aggressive terrain without really any big drops utilize a 120mm suspension platform and Enduro bikes tend to have 130mm to 140mm of suspension travel. Freeride bikes have 160mm-180mm of suspension travel and Downhill bikes run typically 180mm-200mm of suspension travel.  


XC races are held throughout the state with the Intermountain Cup series carrying the big race scene throughout the state for races on the weekends.  Midweek MTB is held on Tuesday nights at several venues surrounding Salt Lake and the Weekly race series holds their races on Wednesday nights alternating between Sundance and Soldier Hollow resorts.  The Enduro series has several races around the state along with Nevada, Idaho and Colorado having a couple of the bigger events.  For Downhill racing there is a couple of races in Utah but for most races you will have to travel out of state to Nevada, California and Colorado.  


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