Contrary to popular belief, mountain bike racing is not just a sport for young, adrenaline-crazed muscular macho men in leather jackets. Rather, today’s “adrenaline-crazed” bike rider is as likely to be middle-aged as he is young, flabby as he is muscular, and feminine as he is macho. Mountain bike racing is an equal opportunity sport that only requires one thing from its participants-that they have fun.
Before you can enjoy this activity, however, you must learn a few basic rules of the game. Fortunately, learning these rules is almost as enjoyable as competing in a bike race.
Mountain Bike Racing is for Everyone
Unlike other sports, mountain bike racing does not discriminate against gender, age, or particular body types. Because this sport’s focus is on fun rather than competition, it is open to all to participate.
To enable fair competition, however, a number of competition levels, or categories, exist within this sport. There are categories for beginners, categories for different age groups – even a category for those weighing more than 220 pounds (the Clydesdale category.) Thus, do your research and find the category that best suits your particular needs.
But choose carefully. If you overestimate your ability, you might well end up with a bruised ego (and dust on your face) as your competitors cross the finish line way ahead of you. Conversely, if you underestimate your riding ability and choose a category that is not sufficiently challenging, you might be labeled a “sandbagger” (e.g., someone who enters a lower division race simply to increase his/her chances of winning) by your competitors.
Of course, as always, prior to embarking upon this new pursuit, however, it is wise to obtain your doctor’s approval. Mountain bike racing is loosely considered an “extreme sport” for a reason-it can be (and frequently is) quite physically taxing.
Why Choose Mountain Bike Racing?
If you are an avid bike rider (but not a racer) you may be surprised to learn that taking your beloved bike out for an occasional race will actually turn you into a better rider. Experts say that the varied, sometimes dangerous, terrain of a racing course forces the mind to focus on quick solutions for safely traversing the unpredictable course. These “split-second” decisions, made with full concentration, enable a rider to learn techniques faster than years of casual riding, in addition to sharpening reactions in response to sudden changes in terrain or unexpected conditions.
Tips for Choosing (and Maintaining) Your Bike
A common misconception by those new to this sport is that they have to have a “special” bike. Certainly, to compete at the highest level, a bike of a certain quality is required to enable a level playing field. However, the most expensive choice is certainly not a necessity. Rather, the most important aspect of the bike is that it be sturdy and reliable.
While suspension and dual hydraulic disc brakes may be appealing, with respect to off-road racing it is crucial that the bicycle be lightweight. Towards the end of a race, every extra pound will begin to feel like fifty. Additionally, excellent quality front shocks will substantially absorb the rocky terrain encountered in mountain bike racing.
Finally, as may be obvious, the essential factor in choosing the right racing bicycle is that it be suitably matched to the racing course. Cross-country mountain bikes are better suited for trails, whereas downhill mountain bikes are clearly designed for enhanced safety for downhill racing.
To ensure that you are able to address repair or maintenance issues, the following items (at minimum) should be carried by the rider: extra tire tubes, a toolkit, and a puncture repair kit.
Rules of the Road
In mountain bike racing, the rules of the road depend upon the type of the race. The three most popular types of mountain bike races are cross-country (XC), Hillclimb (HC), and downhill (DH).
Cross-country: This is the most common type of mountain bike race. The riders compete directly against one another while riding around a circular track of varied terrain. In instances where there are significant numbers of racers, the group is typically divided into sub-groups by age or ability levels. This is a rigorous form of racing, as riders must jockey for position and understand the mechanics and timing of passing other riders.
Hillclimb: This race pits the rider against the mountain as compared to the rider against the rider. The riders are paced as they climb the hill, individually, a few moments apart. The winner is judged by how fast he, or she, reaches the top of the hill.
Downhill: The riders in this race are timed by the speed with which they navigate the hill. As with the Hillclimb, each rider is released downhill individually. The courses in downhill racing frequently involve difficult obstacles for the riders to surmount, thus accounting for the challenge of this type of race.
Dos and Don’ts of Mountain Bike Racing
Although becoming a skilled mountain bike racer takes training and experience, a few basic dos and don’ts should be noted:
· Practice. Practice. Practice. To become a skilled mountain bike rider, you must ride-often.
· Cross-train. Mountain bike racing takes strong leg muscles, in particular, and you will be at a disadvantage if you are not physically ready for the challenge.
· Accept the fact that you are embarking on a potentially risky activity where injuries are not only not uncommon, but even to be expected.
· Research the course before the race. Ensure that you ‘pre-ride’ the course (or one similar)prior to the race day.
· Carry an adequate supply of water with electrolytes.
· Thoroughly inspect your bicycle and ensure that all maintenance appointments are up-to-date.
· Conserve your energy during the race by appropriately pacing yourself.
· Allow other riders to pass you – never try to block a passing attempt.
· Worry about the other riders with the (perhaps) flashier bicycles, gear or outfits. Their ability to buy expensive racing equipment is no indication of their skill level.
· Ride when you should walk. Almost every racecourse has small sections and obstacles that are difficult to traverse. Endeavoring to muscle your way (via the pedals) over such hurdles may seriously tax the remaining energy required to complete the race, and heighten the probability of injury.
· Arrive late. You should arrive at least an hour prior to the start of the race. This will provide sufficient time to enable a 20-minute warm-up ride and listen to the pre-race briefing to ensure that there have been no last-minute changes to the course.
· Consider the other racers. Doing so will simply increase anxiety levels and inhibit optimal performance. Instead, focus on the upcoming excitement of the race.
· Don’t pass other riders, during the race, without appropriately notifying them of your intent. A simple “passing on the left” or “passing on the right” is sufficient to prevent collisions and resulting injuries.
The Finish Line
The finish line in mountain bike racing is rarely the finish line. Those who love extreme sports, such as this one, are rarely satisfied by the thrill of just one race. It is likely, therefore, that you will one day look back on dozens of races that consumed every ounce of your energy and tested your stamina.
Whether you won or lost these races is incidental – what you will remember is the fun that you experienced.