For various reasons, there comes a point in many mountain bikers’ lives when the concept of racing becomes more and more appealing. I wish someone had sat me down and told me how to prepare for my first race. That’s what you'll find here. Planning ahead will quell some of those nerves come race day and free your mind to focus on what’s important—riding your bike.
Map It Out
If you’re anything like me, and countless other competitive athletes (I use that term loosely when describing myself), you’ll likely find yourself fighting some anxiety leading up to your first mountain bike race. The best way to beat the internal butterflies is to stay as organized as possible before the big day.
You’ll want to find out where the race will take place and map out directions a couple days before the actual event. Knowing where to go is half the battle. I once waited until the morning of a race to print out exact directions. Terrible idea. As I was unfamiliar with the area, I inevitably got lost and barely made the start. If you know another person who will be attending the race, you can always hitch a ride or follow them to the event.
Inventory the Essentials
It’s also a good idea to lay out everything you’ll need a day or so before your race: bike clothes, spare parts and accessories, food, water, etc. This way you’ll know whether you need to do wash, unearth another water bottle or buy some portable sustenance. Keep these race day essentials in a tub or other easily transportable container so that everything is in one place come race day. I suggest bringing along items to fix a flat tire—either a patch kit or spare tube, along with a mini pump and tire levers. For quick adjustments, a set of Allen keys is helpful as well. Most riders normally don’t have time to make major repairs during a race, so I would advise you leave the rest of your tools behind.
Fine-Tune Your Bike
Don’t compare your race bike to what others will be riding. Instead, focus on fine-tuning your machine. Have you been having any issues with your bike leading up to this day? If so, take it to a bike shop to get tuned up. The last thing you want slowing you down or stopping you during the race is a mechanical. After you’ve picked your bike up from the shop, and before the race, pedal it around at least once to make sure everything is in working order.
Do you have neck, back or knee pain? How about saddle sores, or hand or foot numbness? Any of these symptoms can stem from an ill-fitting bicycle. If you’ve never had a professional bike fit, it’s a good thing to consider before you start racing. Not only can proper bike fit help to prevent pain and injury, it can also improve pedaling efficiency and aerodynamics—which will make you ride faster.
Pre-Ride If Possible
Another tactic that helps to keep the race day jitters at bay is pre-riding the course. Granted this isn’t always possible, but when it is, analyze the map (Where are the climbs and descents, what looks to be the most technical section? Where is the singletrack?). After you’ve scrutinized the map, ride the course. Doing this before a race will help you remember what to expect around the bend, where you have room to pass other riders and when you can afford to exert more energy.
Stick To Your Standard Eating Routine
The morning of the race, eat what you normally would before a big ride. Don’t go out of your way to change up your eating routine—doing so can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Races that are a couple hours long won’t require you to weigh down your jersey pockets or hydration pack with a ton of food, but bringing an energy bar and some blocks, and filling up your bottles with a “fitness-specific” drink (if you typically consume that sort of stuff), isn’t a bad idea.
Relax & Have Fun
If you don’t focus entirely on the outcome, racing can be a lot of fun. Win or lose, chances are you’ll meet like-minded people who will fast become your friends. Just like the mountain bikers attending the event, mountain bike races also have a pretty relaxed atmosphere. Once you’re properly prepared, sit back and enjoy the experience.