Although I have been mountain biking for as long as I can remember, I did not start racing cross country till I was 20. As my friends and I bailed out of an old Skoda five minutes before the start and rushed to the line it was clear there were a lot of people who knew far more about what was to come than we did. Since then I have picked up a few things through mistakes, advice, experience and working at TS Cycling so I thought I would share some of my own thoughts on the subject and hopefully help the first time racer.
Loose the Excess Weight:
If you are doing your first XC race, then you are probably not going to have the lightest bike in the start pen but there are a few things you can do to shed that weight and give yourself some "marginal gains". First, don't be afraid of the lycra, it breathes and wicks up sweat far better than your baggy trail kit and you will appreciate this at the top of the first climb. Also, stream line your ride kit, so consider losing the camelback for a water bottle and just put a few repair essentials in your back pocket instead of a weight pack with enough kit to last you a week (we will come back to the repair kit point a little later).
If you do have a bit of spare funds and want to put your bike on a diet then, my advice, is always start with your wheelset, then your forks, now move on to your carbon bars and seat post, you will probably want to upgrade your brakes and bearings at this point and off course you can't forget your saddle. This is a topic that deserves a blog all to itself and everyone you meet on the trail or in the pub will have their own opinions on it so I will just leave it here.
In the mountain biking world there is a bit of an outdated view on XC racing. Long gone are the days of just riding gravel tracks in a big loop with just a few slippery climbs to contend with. Most courses now are technically challenging, just watch a world cup race to see this. The best example of this in the UK is the Altura Nutcracker Series which always delivers technically challenging courses and has put me over the bars many, many times.
However don't be put off, although it can be daunting for a first timer this could actually be your secret weapon. Practice riding natural trails with lots of off camber sections, roots and rocks as well as going back to basics and practicing manuals, bunny hops and cornering so you feel confident on technical terrain. If you are at least semi- confident climbing and descending on technical single track you can often make up for a slight lack of fitness. (I will also use this point to shamelessly plug our mountain bike skills packages http://www.tscycling.com/solutions.)
As mentioned in point one, you don't want to carrying enough parts to re-build a bike, as most XC races are an hour to an hour and a half, you won’t have time to fix any major issues and it will weigh you down. That being said, unless you are lucky enough to have a have a full support team behind you, a mechanical can ruin your day. When I race I have a small bag stuffed into the back of my jersey, in this bag I carry a spare tube, gas canister for inflating a flat tyre, a small multi tool with a chain tool on it and a quick link. You may want to add some tyre levers in to that if you are not happy taking the tyre off with your fingers. The other point I would make here is if you are unsure how to fix something or use a spare part then don’t pack it, general rule of thumb is if you can’t do it in the garage confidently then you will probably struggle at the side of a trail watching other riders over take you.
Don't Be Afraid To Run
Like most mountain bikers out there I have a habit of trying to ride everything without getting off the bike. Although this is good out on the trails with your friends in a race this is not always the best move. Slippery roots, choke points on the trail and riders falling off are all common in a race and will stop your race rhythm. Instead of trying to ride around or track stand it is often quicker to jump off, run around it and jump back on. During your training a good skill to practice is mounting and dismount on the move.
Ride Your Own Race
Very few people turn up to their first race and win it. Don't get disillusioned if the racing snakes in your category shoot off up the first hill. Obviously, you want to put in your best effort but you know what that is. With this is mind try and manage your pace so you have something in the tank for the last lap. A common fault with first time racers is they shoot off at the start and run out of energy half way through. Pacing yourself and not getting swept up in the moment does come with practice and experience.
A bit of an obvious one but put some practice in before the start of the race. Get use to riding the length of the race without stopping, at a fast pace or some HIIT training in the gym (for more information on getting race fit check out our website and Facebook page). Although you’re not aiming for a fitness level to rival Nino Schurter, if you can make it to the top of the first climb without being completely knackered you will enjoy the race more and be able to concentrate on the technical sections far better.
Final point is a small but key one, be nice to your fellow riders. Although it is a competitive event, everyone is there for the same reason, to have fun and race their bike. I am not saying you shouldn't be competitive but if you see a rider in front of you go down or someone on the side of the trail with their bike upside down just ask if they are OK, 9 times out of 10 they will give you a thumbs up or say its "all good" and it won't affect your race but it all gives out good MTB karma.
There you have it. Hopefully there are some hints and tips that might help you if you are thinking about doing your first cross country race in the near future. For more information on preparing for your first race, mountain bike skill development classes, cycling fitness programs and general advice like our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/tscycling or e mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!