Getting into mountain bike cross-country racing is extremely accessible and one of the easiest ways to dabble in the world of mountain bike racing. All you need is a working mountain bike, a helmet, a dollop of fitness and you’re a race number away from lining up for your first race.
XC mountain biking is perhaps the most popular discipline of the sport, with the first World Championship event taking place way back in 1990. Since then XC racing has continued to grow, with it being the only Olympic MTB sport. It’s surprisingly easy to make the leap from causal XC rider to XC racer, and race series are held all over the UK.
At races you’ll find all abilities catered for, from the ultra-serious lyrca-clad Elites to the just-having-a-good-time Fun riders, and everything in between. If you’re just starting out you’ll find categories such as Beginners, Novice, or Fun perfect for first timers. Racing at this level will usually be just a couple of laps around a short circuit (usually 6-9km), and will most likely be less than an hour of riding.
As your fitness grows and you gain more experience, you can begin to move up the categories where you can expect to race more laps against a larger and more competitive field of riders. There will also be categories for younger and older riders alike, so the whole family can compete if they wish. As an added bonus, XC racing is one of the few sports where you can find yourself racing at the same time, on the same course, as national and Olympic contenders.
Racing XC races hones your fitness, with strength required to get up the hills and short bursts of acceleration to get over technical sections good for your aerobic system. It also develops your handling skills as well, with darting between trees on narrow singletrack, dodging rocks and dicing with other racers all adding to the challenge.
XC racers are held throughout the year, with many organisers hosting separate winter, spring and summer race series. There are plenty of local races, and many organisers run midweek evening races too.
First, you need to find a race. Fortunately, there are many race series organised across the country, so finding one in your area shouldn’t be a problem.
With your event marked in the diary, hopefully you’ve got a bit of time to get yourself ready. Luckily, you can turn up at any race series and enter the appropriate category, but there’s a few things to tick off your checklist first.
Any rigid, hardtail or full suspension mountain bike will be perfectly suitable, but before you head to your race ensure it’s in good working order. Make sure your gears are working slickly (you don’t want slipping gears to ruin your first race) and similarly ensure your brakes are in tip top order. Pump your tyres up for the conditions, but if you’re not sure, 30-40psi ought to do it. Don’t get carried away changing stuff around before your first race, but if your bike does double duty as a commuter it’s well worth taking off lights, mudguards, racks and the like.
Something comfortable, there’s nothing to stop you racing in a cotton t-shirt and baggy shorts. But we’d recommend a proper cycling specific jersey as it’ll be less clammy, and a pair of padded shorts – you’ll thank us. A pair of gloves is also a good investment too.
Compulsory by all organisers, ensure it’s not full of dents and cracks and you’re good to go.
Flat pedals and trainers will be fine for your first outing, but if you’ve got clipless pedals and shoes we’d advise setting the pedals loose so you’re able to get out of them in a hurry.
Food and drink
You’re looking at about an hour of racing, which doesn’t sound a lot but as everyone will be going as fast as they can, it’ll be tough work. Of course, you can go at any speed you wish, but the competitive urges when surrounded by many other MTBers usually take over. A bottle or small hydration pack with your favourite energy drink should suffice, and provided you’ve eaten appropriately before, you shouldn’t need to eat during the race.
It’s probably a good idea, at the very minimum, to carry one inner tube and a mini-pump with you, so you can at least complete your ride. Chain tool and tyre levers are optional extras – the real race heads will choose to carry as little as possible and run the risk of not getting any mechanicals. Outside mechanical support (if you’ve managed to drag friends/partners along) is sometimes allowed but check with the organisers first.
Ticked all those off? Good, you’re just about ready to enter your first race. It’s a good idea to pack everything you think you’ll need the night before. Then plan your route and allow plenty of time to get there – it’s always better to err on the side of getting there really early rather than miss the start. Get there early and you’ve plenty of time to register, pay your money and ziptie your race number to the handlebars of your bike.
Before the start
Then, with about 30 minutes before the race, you should be all kitted up and ready to go. Allow yourself time to get to the start line nice and early. Don’t forget the last minute visit to the toilets if nature decides, then take your place on the start line. As this is your first time, we suggest hanging back. You don’t want to get caught up in the frantic pace that occurs at the front of the bunch, and from back here you’ve got the opportunity to let everyone else lead and set the pace. There’ll usually be a briefing by an organiser so listen clearly to what they’re saying; it’s most likely to be important.
Once the race is underway, you’ll want to pace yourself. Go out all guns blazing and you might not make it to the finish line, so try and pick a speed which you can confidently manage for the duration. This is tricky at first and comes down to experience – the more you race the better you’ll get at judging the speed and pace to race at.
It’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll be sharing the track with lots of other racers, and some will invariably be faster than you, so try to be as courteous as you can when they come past. Likewise, if you need to overtake someone, don’t just barge past. Instead, let them know you’re approaching and that you want to pass as soon as is safely possible. And don’t forget to say thanks. A little bit of courtesy and racing etiquette can go a long way to ensuring everybody has an enjoyable race.
You’re pretty unlikely to get the pacing nailed first time out – you’ll either arrive at the finish having completely exploded and grovelled around the last bit, or you’ll still have plenty in the tanks and could have gone faster. Use that result to plan your next outing…