It’s almost time for your first (ever) race!
My first mountain bike race is something I will never, ever forget. I had only been riding a bike for a few months and I had absolutely NO IDEA what to expect. Everything was foreign to me. EVERYTHING! Finding the race venue, registering, attaching my number plate, figuring out where and when to line up…I had no clue what I was doing.
I had only been riding for a few months when I signed up for the race, so I had just begun to invest in cycling gear. I had the mandatory helmet (of course), sunglasses, and bike shorts but didn’t own a jersey. “Don’t worry,” my boyfriend (who I ended up marrying) assured me. You are racing in the Beginner class, everyone will be in the same boat.
My starting point…
When it was finally time to line up at the start line. I looked around for the women who would be dressed like me…the other beginners. I was wearing sunglasses, but they were more for fashion than performance, bike shorts, a cotton tank top, and my newly purchased cycling shoes. I didn’t see any other women wearing cotton tank tops. Instead I found myself lined up with a bunch of other women wearing matching kits covered in sponsor logos. These were the beginners? My level of nervousness went up about ten notches.
Wave after wave of racers went off before us and I was pretty sure that everyone could hear my heart beating. Finally the promoter said, “GO!” and I was off! Little did I know how much my life was about to change.
Once I started racing all of my fears melted away. Before the race I was terrified that I was going to crash in front of everyone. Well that fear was totally legit as I crashed at the first corner. Everyone passed me and I realized that it wasn’t that bad. Then I crashed again…and again…and again. Soon enough I wasn’t afraid of crashing in front of people anymore. Even though I made about every mistake in the book during the race, the feeling that I got when I crossed the finish line was the best. People cheered, I got a medal and spent about an hour after the race recapping every part of the course and every crash with my new friends. I was hooked!
However, there are a few things that I wish I would have known before heading into that first race. Below are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way.
Tip #1: Have your bike checked out at your local bike shop beforehand. You paid a registration fee, and spent money on gas to get to the race. The last thing that you want to deal with is a mechanical in the middle of the race. A small problem like a skipping chain can turn into a really big problem during a race if conditions are sloppy. Having a mechanic do a quick tune-up on your bike is the best way to avoid any problems on race day.
Tip #2: It doesn’t matter what you wear during a race (as long as you wear a helmet) but there are a few pieces of gear I highly recommend for both safety and comfort. I’m talking about sunglasses, gloves, jersey, shorts, and cycling shoes.
Sunglasses are important because they shield your eyes from dirt, mud, branches and (if you live the Midwest) bugs. Personally I race with a photomatic lens that changes from dark to light depending on the conditions. That way I get the best of both worlds during a race (darker lens in open sections, and a lighter lens for tree-covered singletrack). Another option would be to get sunglasses with interchangeable lenses.
Cycling gloves serve a dual purpose as they protect your hands from blisters and provide extra grip when your hands are sweaty. Not wearing them could result in your hands slipping off the handlebars during a technical section or steep downhill.
A jersey and shorts will make riding and racing much more enjoyable. The material wicks away sweat and provides a little extra protection if you crash. And all those pockets in the back of a cycling jersey actually have a purpose. They are a great place to carry an air cartridge, tube, food, etc.
Wearing cycling shoes that clip into pedals may seem counterintuitive to safety, but cycling shoes actually provide a much safer ride. They allow you to control your bike better in technical sections and while climbing, and your feet won’t bounce off of the pedals when riding downhill. They do take some time to get used to though.
There’s one other item that I would be remiss to leave out: Chamois creme. Don’t ask questions, just go buy some and start using it. You can thank me later.
...where I'm at on the journey now…
Tip #3: Go into the race rested. Hard or long rides will NOT help you the week of a race. If anything those efforts will just make you more tired. So save the hard group rides and stop-sign sprints for non-race weeks. Instead, spend the week doing shorter and less intense rides with a few hard efforts to keep your legs fresh. The day before a race my coach will usually have me spin really easy for an hour with 8-12 really short sprints to open up my legs.
Tip #4: Pre-ride the course (if possible). Knowing what the course is like will give you added confidence on race day. During the pre-ride, look for spots on the course where it will be easy to eat and drink. If there is a section of the course that you can’t ride, don’t worry about it. Chances are you won’t be the only one. Instead plan on dismounting from your bike and running. Make sure that you downshift beforehand so that jumping back on your bike and pedaling away will be easy. If you can’t pre-ride the course beforehand, try to pre-ride a little bit of the start on race day during your warm-up. It always helps to know the first couple of turns during the start of the race.
Tip #5: Get your gear ready the day before the race. It’s really smart to have everything ready to go the day before the race. I always try to get my nutrition ready, pack my race gear, and clean my bike the day before the race. That way when I go to bed I won’t be kept up worrying about everything that needs to be done in the morning. It also helps prevent forgetting something important!
Tip #6: Know what works for you and use it on race day! I’m not sure what it is about race day mornings that makes me go crazy, but there have been several times where I’ve made changes in gear or nutrition hours before the race started. For example, I always train with a Hydrapak, but once I decided to use bottles during a shorter XC race. I was so uncomfortable taking my hands off of the handlebars while racing that I ended up dehydrated and cramping. Not fun. Now I always race with my Hydrapak regardless of the distance. The same rule goes for nutrition. Figure out what nutrition items work for you during training and stick with them during the race. That way there will be no surprises!
Tip #7: HAVE FUN! This is by far the most important tip! I’ve done a lot of races since I lined up for the first time but I still get the same feeling whenever I cross the finish line. I’ve had some great races, a lot of good ones, and a few really bad ones but each race has taught me a little something and made me a little faster.
Racing is a great way to test your fitness, develop new technical skills, race on new trails, and meet new people. Good luck and feel free to share any other tips that you learn along the way!
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These are a few of my favorite things: Mountain biking, good coffee, good food, and hanging out with my husband, family and adopted greyhound. It really doesn't take much to make me happy. Of course, winning a race every now and then is good too! www.daniellemusto.blogspot.com