Yours truly at ESC at Killington. Roots n' Rain photo.
So you’ve decided to cowboy up and get after it. Awesome. Racing is a lot of fun. You'll meet mountain bikers just like you—A-types, B-types, beer drinkers, hammers—who want to go fast and maybe get some glory time on the podium. Nothing impresses the Insta like a podium shot. No guarantees this article will get you a top-3 finish, but to finish you need to start, so below is TGR’s roadmap to get you to that starting line:
Think of racing as a huge group ride. Don’t get intimidated. Just show up and pedal, dammit.
Step 1. Figure out what kind of race you want to do.
XC-Cross Country Fitness and some tech win the day. NYS Racing photo.
XC courses are fast, flowy and, usually, the least technical of all MTB race disciplines. It’s still mountain biking, of course, so don’t sleep on the features. But if you want to win, fitness pays big dividends in XC.
You race in a skill category (open/pro, 1, 2, 3), with each category also sub-divided by age group (Junior, 19-29, 30+, 40+, 50+). So you'll be racing folks like you.
When you register for the race online, you pick your category and age group. Total number of racers per event can be 100-150, or even more, but you’ll start in a small bunch with that category and age group.
XC races last approximately one to two hours and range from 10-28 miles. The higher your category, the longer the race. More technical courses can be a little shorter than long, fast ones. Be warned; lycra-clad euro-roadies jacked out of their minds on caffeine (and more) make appearances here. Beat em on the downs, most of them descend like baby giraffes but can climb like crazy.
Enduro Gravity, epic experience and long days. Ronan Dugan photo.
BRO! ENDURO! Enduros are gravity-oriented, multi-stage races. You ride 3-6 downhill stages and race timing is all your stage times added up. But it ain’t easy. Even though only the downs count, depending on the event, enduros are several hard hours (or most of a day) on a bike. Enduros at bike parks or ski areas might have a lift ride or two, but there’s usually a fair amount of uphill ‘transfer’ pedaling from stage to stage. And you need to pre-ride the course the day before. So it’s a two-day affair.
But, if you like descending and have a burlier, longer-travel bike, you might be an enduro-bro/sis. Riders usually have to be completely self-supporting over the course of a day, so hydration, flats, food, mechanicals etc are all on you. Your bike will also take a fair pounding during these races.
Folks are divided up amateur, pro and again by age group. The norm for gear is full-face helmets and some decent light armor. I find enduro races have a bit more social interaction during the actual race than XC events. As roadies sneak into the XC races, so dirt-bag DH’ers make the odd appearance at enduros.
Endurance Racing Just lovin' the ride. Ryan Dunfee photo. #socksmatchbike
For those who want to spend a long time out in nature and feel like taking on something bucket-list-y, endurance, marathon or ultra-endurance racing is about longer-than-normal distances over a day or more. XC marathons are defined by the UCI as races that are 100 kilometers long or more. Ultra-endurance racing also comes in the form of 24-hour and 12-hour competitions in which solo competitors and relay teams attempt to cover the most distance over a given amount of time.
There are also multi-day super enduros, like the Trans-Provence, which are basically 4-6 days of enduros. These are fantastic, but don’t make them your first race, unless you have a REALLY good support system.
Ok, good? There are other flavors but we won’t worry about short-track XC, DH or Cyclocross right now.
Once you know what type of riding you're most interested in, you should…
Step 2. Pick the event(s) and register.
Trans-Savoie race. Ronan Dugan photo.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of places to start looking, searchable by region. Let these sites lead you to others. Of course, also go to your LBS, talk to others in your circle to find a local race. Nothing beats an event close to home, where you can hang with friends, have a beer or burger and be in your own shower an hour later.
A LOT of series have NOT YET finalized dates, so if you’re checking these sites early in the year, the list will grow massively. Keep going back.
USA Cycling. - Ok, stop. I know, I get it. They’re the man, they make bullshit rules, they love Lance and they’re doper-apologists. But to put on a sanctioned USAC race, a promoter has to hit hurdles that will make the race safe, clean(ish) and well-regulated. If you race a USAC race, you’ll need to buy either an annual or a day license.
BikeReg - This is where you’ll register for races, so you might as well search here. Bikereg is a great resource for pretty much all disciplines. Dig in by region. Again, check back here a lot. Stuff will get added all throughout the spring and the year.
Big Mountain Enduro - This is a EWS qualifier series at some awesome resorts. If you don’t live nearby, these might be a bit of vacation trip type race.
Eastern States Cup - ESC and Clif Enduro Series are also a big-league qualifiers and well-run, great events.
Roots and Rain - Gravity goodness from all around, this is also the place where you can track standings and pick up nice shots of yourself racing.
California Enduro Series - Great series, but most big MTB states have an Enduro series, so check for the ones near you.
SoCal Endurance/Enduro - Race XC and Enduro on the same weekend in one of the most fabulously mtb-specific built areas.
Epic, long, marathon bucket list.
Leadville Race Series - Great long race series with events all over the country that qualify you for the Leadville 100 in Colorado.
Marathon MTB - Comprehensive listing of long races
Epic Rides - US series including 24 Hours of Old Pueblo, Whiskey Off-road and more.
Step 3. Find your local support system.
Jason at Halter's Cycles fixin' me up. GW photo.
You’ve committed to doing it and told all your friends. What now?
Option One: "Not much, let the race come" Sure, you’re a fuckin’ hardguy(gal) and you don’t need anyone. You’re just going to show up and HAMMER! Ok, you’ll have fun. There will be mountain bikers so you’ll probably have a nice ride, find some beer and folks to talk to. But remember, it’s a race, and winning is fun.
Option Two: Prepare. People who race to win usually train. Almost winning is fun too (though maybe not quite as much) so going with friends or at least training with a few buddies for the same goal might help you place higher.
Don’t quit your job or try to score steroids on some Russian dark-web site (that comes later), just put a bit more focus on riding, working out and maybe lay off the fried chow for a month or two.
Find a club. After you've plugged into your local scene and found people to train with, you'll be ready to up your riding volume a bit.
Bro's hangin', Bro's trainin' John Sweeny photo.
Focus on riding terrain which mirrors the type of race you want to do. If you can find a training buddy, it’ll all go that much better. And adding cross-training, core, glutes/squats, upper body and plyometrics will all help.
Practice the simple stuff a bit: Warming up, starting fast from a stop (on a flat, a descent and an uphill), looping your local trails without stopping to talk, looking a bit farther ahead and anticipating shifting, drinking from a water bottle or eating a quick gel while riding and changing a flat.
And after a couple months of prepping, you’re probably coming up on your event so...
Step 4. Get your shit together and pre-race.
Tighten those cleats! GW photo.
MAKE A CHECKLIST! Sort your gear and confirm there’s nothing wrong with your bike. Don’t try to get a tune up or fix that rattly part at the last minute. Pay attention to the weather and pack in advance.
You’ll get tighter with what you want to bring as you go along. But when in doubt, throw it in your car. More specifically:
-Helmet, Shoes, Jersey, shorts/bibs with chamois, jacket or rain jacket, socks, gloves, hat
-Body armor for Enduro or gravity races
-Change of clothes for after race
-Eye protection / sunglasses.
-Hydration and nutrition. Whatever works for you that you’ve tested. Fill bottles the night before. Pack and check bike the night before you leave.
-Inner tube, C02, Tire lever, multitool in a nice bundle you can strap to your frame.
-Proof of race entry, I’ve rarely had an issue with my online registration not showing up at an event, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep a pdf of your registration in your phone or print it.
-Your tool kit, including spare part essentials and a pump.
-A towel to dry off and wrap your waist if you don’t feel like getting nekkid outside your car when you change out that nasty chamois.
-Beer. It’s mountain biking, after all.
Check everything from your helmet to the cleats on your shoes to axles to stem bolts to ensure nothing is cracked or on the verge of breaking.
Step 5. Race
Words to live by. GW photo.
A good race starts the night before. Hydrate, don't get drunk.
Show up a bit early. It can’t hurt. If you get nerves at any time, do some positive self-talk. “You got this” “Crush this”. Really... get psyched... it works.
When you arrive, go right to the registration tent, get your number plate and sign the waiver. Then go back to your car and start getting ready.
Your car will literally be your base of support. GW Photo.
If you’re doing XC, try not to eat a big meal less than three hours before your race. Warm up decently for about 20 minutes before your start time (like you practiced). If you eat gels or some sort of energy bar as you ride, unwrap it partially so you don’t have to struggle with it while riding.
The actual group start is a bit nerve-wracking. It’s elbow to elbow. Just get in the right gear and start from a stop like you practiced when the gun goes off. Rubbing is racing, so don’t apologize for shooting into your line or grazing someone accidentally. Don’t be a dick, be nice, but don’t be a sucker. There’s always a couple rabbits off the front, don’t worry about them. Start fast, but don’t crush yourself. Keep on the gas over the whole race as much as you can, look at people in front of you as an opportunity to pass.
For Enduro, pre-ride the course segments the day before and go over any features you feel might be tricky once or twice by walking back up. Don’t do some epic ride the day before where you go full gas over every segment twice. Save energy for race day.
On race day, pick your favorite segments and go full gas on those and maybe 90% on those you feel a bit sketched by. The efforts are short and hard so hydration and nutrition are less of an issue. You can eat in between. Have fun. Talk to people.
And race to win, dammit. Lucas Smallidge photo.
Epic/Multi-day: It’s the long game here. Watch your nutrition, hydration, recovery, any nagging pain points really carefully. Measure yourself until you’re pretty close to the finish and then empty the tank. These are about survival so get in that headspace.
That’s it. Have fun, dammit.
BTW more info at TGR’s article on crushing your first race