The Ultimate Guide to Mountain Bike Racing

The great outdoors is ever appealing! And especially to those who choose to see it from a mountain bike! Even more so for those who like a bit of speed added in. So having decided that mountain bike racing is the way you want to go, where do you start, what do you wear, and who can you ask? Actually mountain bike racing is extremely popular and you will be glad to know that there are literally dozens of groups and clubs which offer this type of sport. You will more than likely find one near to you.

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Table of Contents

Where do I start?

“Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” Mark Twain, American author and humourist.

One of the most important things you need for racing is the desire to push yourself. You don’t necessarily have to have a titanium bike or be super fit, although fitness is always an advantage. Typically races for novices have shorter sections which may be quite technical, and you can start a little further back in the field while you get used to them. These are held for all age groups. Novice races normally take between one and two hours to finish.

There are many cycling clubs and organisations which you can look into. Each one may be different in the style of racing that they support but they will be able to refer you to a club or group which has the same desires as you do. You might not choose to join every race, but just hanging out there and watching some of them will give you an idea of just what goes into a race.
While superb fitness is not the primary criteria here, it does help if you are in good physical shape so you may want to make this a part of your routine.

If you’re wondering if you will actually be able to cycle any respectable distance, you should stop worrying! Most people can achieve more than they think they can. If you have spent time training then you will not be unrewarded. As you become more fit, you will build up to longer distances, and the different terrains will not wear you out.

What do I wear?

“Crashing is part of cycling as crying is part of love.” Johan Museeuw

Cycling shorts or tights

It is very important that you try these on before you buy, as you really must find a style that you are comfortable wearing. The last thing you want is to buy a really cute colour shorts and then find that some miles in the middle of nowhere, your inside legs are being rubbed raw as there is not enough padding! Every cyclist has a different body shape, so just because it is advertised as one of the best, does not necessarily mean it will work for everyone. It may not work for you at all! If you prefer not to wear Lycra, you will find that there are many alternatives available which work just as well.

Styles may include casual shorts, perhaps a little baggy, or body hugging ones in Lycra. You should remember that a little padding will go a long way to providing comfort. As a beginner you may find yourself in the saddle for longer periods of time. While you will get used to this, you should give yourself half a chance at being comfortable. When you first try on a pair of padded shorts, they will feel odd to you but you will find that as soon as you sit on your saddle they will feel great! It is better to feel odd in the beginning, but be comfortable after some hours in the saddle, and be left wishing that you had bought them instead of an unpadded pair!

Socks

These play an important role in preventing blisters on your feet. They also stop your feet getting cold. There is nothing worse than having cold, wet feet and not being able to do anything about it. Neither are blisters any fun, so if you can get socks that reduce these two problems, then you are well on your way to being a happy biker! Not all socks are suitable for biking, so try to obtain bike specific socks which are actually designed to do the job. They will usually have padding in the correct places and – very importantly – they will be made of breathable fabric which will keep moisture away from your skin. There are socks which are also waterproof and this is a good idea if you are cycling in the rainy season, or going through lots of streams.

Gloves

Essential! Not only will you have a better grip, but should you fall off, your gloves will protect your hands from injuries, cuts and grazes. It is possible to cycle in any old t-shirt, but gloves are not something you should get from the ‘bargain bin’. A decent pair from the mid-price range will give you more control when you go over rough places, and they will also reduce the soreness in your hands which is caused by vibrations.

In the summer you may opt for fingerless gloves, but in the colder months you should stick to full fingered ones. Again – try before you buy – they should be comfortable even with padding. Your fingers should be able to move freely and not feel constricted, while the padding in the palms should not bunch up.

Helmet

Although cycling is a great sport, unfortunately no matter how careful you are, you may still be injured. Accidents and injury to the head can be reduced by wearing a helmet. It is therefore essential to have a helmet. There are many different brands available so you should try on, and find one that fits snugly but not too tight. The helmet should be level on your head and not be able to obscure your vision. It should be higher than the top of your ears and not have any wobbling movement when you move your head.

The chin strap should be easy to close and the straps should have a place for your ears to go through so that they are not covered in any way.

This is one item that you should consider essential in your wardrobe. Many a cyclist will tell you that they were grateful they were wearing a helmet when they fell off.

Tops

Regular t-shirts are fine, but they will not do the job in rain or even when you sweat a lot. You will find that you soon become cold and damp – not a nice feeling. There are tops available which are specially designed for cycling and it is a good idea to invest in some of these. When you are trying them on, you should keep in mind that you will be sitting on a bike when you wear them and you don’t want one that is going to ride up.

You should make sure you feel comfortable in the sitting position. You should then stretch upwards when you try any tops on to make sure that your movements are not restricted. Also you should check that the back does not ride up and leave your middle exposed to the elements.

When you start off, you should take into account the season and buy your tops accordingly. Later you will be able to buy for the other seasons and then have tops for the whole year. There are some very good online companies that offer good deals on tops. If you choose to buy through them, make sure they have a return policy as sizes differ with many manufacturers.

What sort of bike do I need?

I bet you thought that all bikes were made the same! Not so! Mountain bike racing needs a special bike which can withstand the rigours of the outdoor terrain. When you decide to buy your bike, make sure you take some measurements along with you, namely those of your height and your inside leg.

While you can find deals online, most beginners would do well to head for a reputable bike shop and talk to someone who knows the business. All too often a newbie will end up with a bargain (or what he thought was a bargain) only to find that he has to replace it as it is just not suitable.

A dealer will know which bikes will suit you for the type of riding you intend to do. It is also a chance for you to ask as many questions which you no doubt have. You will find that most bike shops are run by enthusiasts who will gladly share their knowledge with you. Your first question should be about which bike is best for you. Let them know what type of riding you have in mind and listen to advice about your choices. They may be able to tell you something that you do not know.
Basically there are three main types of bikes which are suitable for mountain bike racing.

Rigid: This bike has no suspension at all and this saves weight. It also reduces maintenance and means you will have less to think about as you learn. The downside with this type is that on uneven tracks, your poor body is going to know all about it! You will also have somewhat less control. That being said, a rigid bike is infinitely preferable to a bike with poor suspension. They are also slightly cheaper than other bikes, so if this is a factor then you should consider one of them.

Hardtail: This style of bike comes with an unsuspended back end. T has the suspension fork at the front. These are heavier than rigid bikes, and can be cheaper. They have better handling than some beginner suspension bikes and most of them are designed to handle a more technical terrain.

Full suspension: These bikes have suspension at both the front and the back. This helps significantly to improve comfort over difficult terrain. The downside here is obviously the cost. The weight is also a factor as it is heavier than the other two types of bike. If money is no object, then you may want to consider one of these bikes. However, you should also take into account the type of riding you want to do

The choice of which bike you choose is entirely a personal one. Factors such as the amount of money you have available will play a part here, as will personal preference. What is important is that you go to a shop, and try as many as you can to get a feel for what appeals to you and what you don’t like.

Having decided which type of bike you like, you must then get the correct frame size. This is where your measurements come in. A point you guys must be sure to pay attention to is called the ‘stand-over’ height. This is the space between the top bar of the frame and your crotch. If you ever have to get off the bike in a hurry, the last thing you need is to get all tangled up in the frame!
One last point about your choice of bike is that you may want to try out a selection and then choose the lightest one. As your race continues, every extra pound will become heavier and heavier, and this may cause you to lose the race because you just became tired out. Bear this in mind when you buy your bike.

What other equipment do I need?

Puncture repair kit and pump. These two are always a good idea as you never can tell when you are going to get a puncture. You need not be slowed down for long if you are prepared with these. A multi tool will also be handy to carry. Your local bike shop will have a good selection of them, all of which have been designed for bikes, not general household repairs. A set of Allen keys will also be a good addition.

Sunglasses. Eye protection is a very good idea because you will be riding at some speed, and should an insect or piece of debris fly into your eyes, you may damage them. Clear glasses are good as you can wear them all the time. With these you will not be affected when you change from light into dark, or even when you are cycling in dappled areas. You will find yellow lenses are particularly good for wearing in overcast conditions. When you buy a pair of sunglasses try them on and see how quickly they adjust to differing shades of light.

Water bottles: You should make sure you can carry enough water for your outing. Sometimes you can get a holder which attaches to the frame so you can grab your bottle without stopping.

Whichever way you choose to carry your water, make sure your bottles do not leak and that they are shatter-proof plastic and not glass.

What skills do I need?

The more experience and confidence you have, the better you are going to enjoy your new sport. You will have to get used to a whole different style of cycling. Whereas you may be used to riding on roads in the town, here you will be faced with uneven paths, roots, rocks and slippery areas. All of these pose potential problems to a beginner.

It will take you a little time to get used to the feel of your new bike and also to trust yourself in this new situation. It is literally a whole new education about everything outdoors! There are very few sports where you will find so many different situations all in one outing! That’s what makes this a special sport. The better you are prepared for these, the more rewarding your trips out will be.

Here are some things that you should bear in mind:

  • Try to look ahead: most beginners have a habit of looking down in front of them. Try to focus some distance in front of you so that you can see the easiest line to take and perhaps avoid major obstacles. A good distance is about 20 feet ahead of you. This will give you time to either avoid things such as roots and rocks by going around them, or selecting a better route with less obstacles. It will also give you a few seconds of reaction time to avoid things such as tree branches or rocks.
  • Choose the right gear: This may be a lower gear than you imagine it is. You should also brake slightly a little before you actually need to, so that you are not coming at obstacles at breakneck speed, but at a pace where you can comfortably get through, or over them. A good point when you are in the middle of a manoeuvre, is to try to keep your adjustments as few as possible.
  • Practice to stop pedalling: Keep your feet level here, and stand up only when you are really comfortable in doing so. This action will give you better control over the bike so it is well worth working on. Standing up will also allow you to ‘unweight’ your bike and this is useful if going over many bumps. It will help to reduce the constant pounding on your arms as you go over uneven paths.
  • Move your weight around: Learn how to do this when you are going around a corner as it will give you better balance and grip. As you return to a straight section, you then move back into the saddle.

 

Which snacks are best?

Because most races are not too much longer than two hours, you probably won’t need anything to eat while you are riding. You should aim to have a decent meal before your race, not right before, but give yourself an hour to let things settle. Realistically all you may need during a race in an energy bar of some sort and water. As you will be carrying the water with you, you may not want to take a full gallon because of the weight. You will, however, need some so that you do not dehydrate. Of course, the amount of water you take will depend on each person, the weather and the ability to carry it safely.

If you have a race which starts a little later you may want to keep a supply of food at hand so that you can eat small portions of energy foods to keep the energy levels topped up. Don’t be tempted to starve yourself because you will run out of energy and will simply ‘hit the wall’, where you will literally be able to go no further. So keep some snacks at hand if your race id delayed or held later.

Here are some great snacks to keep with you:

1. Bananas: these are already packaged for you! All you have to do is peel them. They contain potassium which is what you need if you are to keep your energy levels high. They also containing carbohydrates, which you need to keep you going. Compared to commercial sports drinks, bananas come up tops because they have no added sugar.

2. Peanut Butter: Sandwiches made of peanut butter and honey or even jam and a great snack. The bread and jam/ honey supplies carbohydrates while the peanut butter supplies protein and fat. This is a perfect combination to your workout. Should you be allergic to nuts you could try using almond butter instead. Try a tortilla instead of bread for a variation. If you cut your sandwich into quarters you can eat them one piece at a time every 20 mins. That will provide just enough for you to carry on.

3. Trail Mix: try mixing your own, it is very easy and a really good source of carbs. Mix dried raisins, prunes and apricots with some nuts, and seeds if you like them. This will give you a delicious snack which is actually good for you. There are many brands which you can buy, but you should check the ingredients first as some have a really high sugar content.

4. Water: This is by far the best way to stay hydrated. If the day is very hot, then you should carry two bottles at least. One of them may carry a sports drink or you can make iced tea, which is also good. Add a squeeze of lemon juice to make it taste better. You should take sips of this or your water often to keep hydrated.

5. Energy bars: Although they are very convenient, they are also expensive. If you prefer them, then be sure to choose those that contain grains, fruit and nuts.

After your ride? Your recovery depends on this period so it is important that you take in a good source of recovery fuel within 40 minutes after stopping. A good choice is one that contains carbs, fats and proteins. You should take this with a glass of water. Low fat yogurt with cubes of melon and a handful of nuts will work well here.

Cycling tips

  • Move your body: To prepare for a steep climb you should drop your elbows towards your hips and lower your chin down to the handlebars. You will find that this gives you extra balance. When you descend, you should level the peddles, let your elbows ease outwards and slide your tail off to behind your saddle.
  • Loosen up: When you approach a curve or prepare to go over roots you should stand on your pedals, with your behind slightly off the seat. Make sure you keep knees and elbows bent to absorb impact.
  • Keep your head up: try to look ahead of yourself to about 20 feet. This will give you the optimum time to make your plans to go around or over an obstacle.
  • Be prepared: You may never get a signal for your mobile phone and possibly not find a shop if you get a flat tire. Be prepared! Take a spare tube, pump and multi tool. Water is also a part of your load, as is some sort of food. Don’t leave home without this!
  • Keep fingers ready: Be prepared to change gears quickly, have your fingers close by so that you are ready to change gears before a dip or change in terrain.

Benefits of biking

  1. Keeps diseases away.
    An amazing fact is that in three hours of biking per week you will decrease your chance of heart disease by up to 50%! That is a staggering statistic! Additionally, women who bike more than 30 minutes a day have a reduced risk of breast cancer and teenagers who cycle are 48% less likely to be obese when they reach adulthood. These are just amazing factors which are benefits of this sport.
  2. Keeps hearts healthy. It is recommended that adults get at least two and a half hours of exercise per week. This should be strenuous enough to break into a slight sweat. If you head out every weekend for a good ride, then you are more than covering these requirements for a healthy heart. An interesting fact made by about healthy hearts says that cycling is one of the best ways to do this.
  3. Good for your joints.
    Perfect for anyone who has suffered from knee problems or injuries. It offers a good cardiovascular workout without the impact on joints.
  4. Stress reliever.
    It’s a great way to relieve stress and also plays an important part in emotional well-being. This sort of exertion raises self-esteem and provides people with a sense of adventure, along with challenging them to do things they might not think possible. It has been proven that any outdoor activity works well to relieve tension and thus reduce stress.
  5. You’ll meet new friends.
    This is the perfect way to meet like-minded people who all have the same goal – to be outdoors and exploring, or blazing trails up and down hills. Social interaction is a proven way to improve moods. No matter whether you join a club or just happen to meet others along the way, it provides the opportunity to meet and make new friends.
  6. Makes you happy!
    It is a well-known fact that exercise releases the endorphins which trigger highs and therefore make you feel happy! In an article found in about cycling and moods we read that cycling makes us feel much better.
    That is the whole reason that you head off on your mountain bike in the first place! And that is the reason why you do it again and again!

Types of mountain racing bikes

There are different types of mountain biking which you may consider – just when you thought it was a simple case of hopping on a bike, you find out that there is a choice! Well, there are quite a number of different types which you may consider after you have become proficient at basic skills.

  • Cross country: this type of bike racing is done on either natural trails or custom made ones. These you will normally find at training centres. This is often the way people start this sport. The trails have long climbs which snake up and around the sides of mountains, through rocks and roots before snaking back down. There are usually many short, step runs and the terrain can be hard packed, rooty, muddy and so on. All this to give you a variety of things to overcome! It will usually take a few hours to finish the course, and is always away from road and traffic, and built up areas. Because of this you must be sure to take tools and spares with you, along with food and water. You must wear a helmet and gloves to do this.
  • Downhill: This style -as the name implies – is where you are driven up to the top of a trail in a lift service, or you walk up. There is a fast descent that may sometimes be more straight down the side than in trail riding, which is side to side. Because the drips are so steep there is a huge amount of commitment here. Maintaining speed is important here as is getting over rocks and jumping gaps. A typical downhill bike has a sloping top frame bar which has been designed to go downhill steeply. It also has very chunky tyres for better grip, and very powerful disc brakes for stopping suddenly. You will find this bike has fewer gears because you do not ride uphill, only down. There is also more clearance to stop getting caught on obstacles. You will see that the riders who do this always wear full face helmets, goggles, chest and back plates for added protection.
  • Four cross: You may have seen this type of biking on television. It is where four riders race on a BMX track which has corners and circuits with mostly downhill slopes. The bikes which are used here are normally full suspension or hardtails and if you pursue this type then you should choose a bike with a strong frame. They also have low bottom brackets which helps in acceleration and with cornering.
  • Dirt jumping: this is done at a dirt park. You will see that the jumps are more than likely to be step and higher than the average person. A good park will offer jumps at different height levels. This type of riding focuses on riding at high speed towards a jump and then up into the air and down again. You will often see tricks here such as tail whips and x-ups. The type of bike used here is a cross between a BMX and a freeride bike, normally there is no rear suspension on them, they are super strong bikes to handle the impacts.
  • Trails: The bikes which are uses here are only ever meant to be ridden while standing up. They are ridden at very low speeds and the focus is on balance. The riders perform tricks, but instead of
    having a man-made area, they use the general outdoors and whatever it offers. There are no real saddles on these bikes, they are also super light and have few, if any gears.
  • All mountain: this is also called Enduro biking. Very similar to trail riding except that it is somewhat more technical with more jumps and bigger drops. The bikes normally have more rear
    suspension and also wider tires. The whole frame and appearance of these bikes is far chunkier than XC bikes because they are designed to be ridden uphill and then rapidly down steep slopes, and dealing with whatever the mountain has in store for them! The riders are usually kitted out in knee and ankle protection.

On Race Day

On race day: You should try to get there as early as possible. You will first need to get yourself registered and there may be a line for this, so give yourself at least an hour to take care of this side of things. Then you should pre ride the course. This is an important thing because it will give you an idea of what obstacles are where. You will remember where there are branches that hang down and might snag your head. There might be a particularly bad stretch of rocks and bumps, or a patch of mud. Anything that you can check out before will give you an edge in the race.

Don’t let yourself fall into the ‘newbie trap’ of being intimidated by others who have done this before. There are always people at races who are show offs and will try to scare you. Ignore them, keep focused on your race, and pay no attention to the guys wearing $100 T-shirts! It is not a fashion parade, but a race.

You may choose to start slightly further back from the line. This gives you the advantage of seeing what goes on in front of you, how they handle things in the way, so you can choose to follow or avoid the obstacle. Remember that it is a race and people will fall! Try not to ride over anyone! Hopefully they will sow you the same respect should you fall.

You are going to get very tired, so one thought is to actually dismount and run your bike up a steep hill, rather than trying to ride up it. This is something you must try for yourself and if it works, then adopt it in the future.

Be courteous to people who are right behind you and want to pass you. Let them, if they are faster than you. One day, you will be wishing someone would move and let you through!

After the race? Forget all about the people who got under your skin. Check where your name is in the results, and feel proud of yourself for finishing your first race! It does not matter where you came on your very first event, what matters is that you finished! Pat yourself on the back, go home and get cleaned up, then start planning for the next one!

Conclusion

Any way you decide to participate in the sport of mountain bike racing, there is sure to be one type that will appeal to you. It is a very versatile sport where you can mix and join with many other people, or keep to yourself. Whichever way you choose will be not only a great way to compete in this amazing sport – but also a super easy way to get fit and keep healthy.

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