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A Guide To Your First Mountain Bike Race 

This article series aims to enable cyclists to show up as prepared as possible for their first race. We’ll cover the primary types of events available; gravel, road, mountain, and cyclocross. There will be a fair amount of carryover for each discipline, but every kind of event has unique demands. 

As additional guides are released, we’ll update the links below.

Gravel Guide

Road Guide

Cyclocross Guide

Mountain Bike Racing

Multiple mountain bike (MTB) racing sub-categories range from shorter downhill races lasting a few minutes to 24-hour events. Courses will utilize predominantly single-track and occasionally a mix of double-track jeep roads and gravel roads. 

During downhill and enduro races, competitors are given individual start times and race solo over a segment. Cross-country (XC), marathon, or ultra-distance events are typically mass start events. Many mass start events will separate competitors into different categories (e.g., age group, skill level, estimated finish time), and others will start all competitors together. 

Mountain bike events offer a low-key, fun, and inviting atmosphere. Success in mountain biking favors riders that emphasize skill development just as much as fitness.  

Mountain Bike Fundamentals

Tire Selection

Ideal tire selection can vary significantly for each MTB discipline. The best tire for a three-hour marathon race will drastically differ from the tire needed for a three-minute enduro segment. There is also a significant variance in trail surface types to account for – that is, the correct tire choice for an XC race in Kansas may not be ideal for an XC race in Colorado. 

Tire Width

For XC, Marathon, and Ultra distance events, the ideal tire width will be 2.0 to 2.5 inches. Tire widths start at 2.5 inches and go up for downhill and enduro events. Fat tire mountain bikes start at 3.5 inches and can get wider. 

Air Pressure

Many variables go into finding the correct tire pressure for mountain bike tires. Start by utilizing a chart from your tire manufacturer or another reputable source to find your initial tire pressure. Once a starting pressure is determined, use feedback during a ride to further optimize tire pressure. 

Factors that will affect ideal tire pressure:

  • Rider weight
  • Bike weight
  • Tubeless or tubes
  • Tire width
  • Terrain
  • Riding speed

The main sign that tire pressure is too high is feeling like the bike is bouncing over everything (this can also be from your suspension if it’s not set correctly, more on this below). If your tire is compressing to the point that you feel the rim hit over rough terrain, then tire pressure is too low. Another sign of low pressure is feeling the tire “squirm” during hard turns. The final indication of low tire pressure is “burping” air on hard cornering or hard hits over rough terrain. “Burping” is when the tire’s bead loses its connection to the rim, and air leaks out. This problem is exclusive to tubeless tires. Using too low pressure on tubed setups will lead to pinch flats. 

Tire Tread

Terrain and discipline are key drivers for selection. Technical terrain with lots of loose/rough surfaces and fast downhill sections will require an aggressive tread pattern. Smooth surfaces will require a less aggressive tread. Most downhill and enduro events require an aggressive tread pattern. Courses for XC, Marathon, and Ultra-distance events can vary. When in doubt, choose a more aggressive tread pattern than you think you need. 

How to choose the ideal tire for your race?

For your first race, we recommend sticking with the tires you already use, providing they are still in acceptable condition. If it’s time for new tires, choose a familiar width and tread pattern so that you’re not experimenting with something new on race day. When in doubt, select a tire on the wider range of “normal” for your discipline and an aggressive tread pattern. A beefier tire will help absorb the inevitable mistakes you’ll make while racing at your limit. 

Setting Shock Suspension

Shock travel measures the distance a shock travels during compression and extension strokes. Shocks can vary in type (air or coil) and travel length. XC race bikes will have shorter travel, while downhill bikes will have much larger travel to help absorb big hits at high speeds. 

We suggest starting with the manufacturer’s recommendations for your specific product. These recommendations can be found in the user manual, online, or sometimes directly on the shocks themselves. 

  1. Set your shocks to the manufacturer’s recommended specifications
  2. Adjust up/down based on ride experience.

When starting, we recommend finding a local mountain bike mechanic skilled in adjusting shock suspension for riders. They can teach you how to fine-tune your equipment so that you may make adjustments yourself down the road. Tuning suspension is a valuable skill as the ideal settings can vary from course to course.

Factors that will affect ideal shock settings:

  • Rider weight
  • Bike weight
  • Shock travel length
  • Shock type (coil or piston)
  • Bike Geometry
  • Terrain
  • Riding speed

Mechanical Skills

Learning the following skills is vital for all mountain bikers, regardless of whether one chooses to race or not. 

  • How to plug a tire
  • How to remove the front and rear wheels
  • How to change a tube
  • How to fix a broken chain

Nutrition and Hydration

Determine your fuel and hydration needs:

Poor fueling and hydration are possibly the most common reasons people have a “bad day” on the bike. Once you learn how to fuel your ride, issues such as cramping and bonking become very rare. 

Develop a strategy to execute your nutrition plan:

Riding single-track can make taking in food and water difficult. Practicing your race-day strategy in training is essential to work out any kinks before race day. 

  • Are you confident drinking from bottles while riding single-track? If not, consider using a hydration pack. 
  • How long is your event? It’s usually possible to carry enough food and water for an XC event, but longer enduro or marathon races will require a plan for restocking supplies. 

Managing Race Week

Event success requires mental, physical, and mechanical preparation. The following is an example of what to account for in the week leading up to an event. 

5-7 Days Before Event

During the week leading into the race, reviewing the course as best possible is helpful. Riding the actual course is always the best review method, but this isn’t always possible. When riding the trail is impossible, reviewing video footage and data from sources such as Strava is the best option. 

  • Strava Files – Reviewing data from other riders can give you a good idea of how a course flows or what to expect for lap times.  
  • YouTube – It’s common to find action camera footage of popular courses. Trail footage can help you mentally prepare for any technical sections on the course. 

Hopefully, your bike is already in good shape, but if you need to make any final adjustments or replace any parts, it is time to do it. Don’t depend on a bike shop being able to get your bike ready at the last minute for repair. Plan by scheduling an appointment or dropping your bike off 1-2 weeks before you need it back. 

Below is an excellent example of useful trail footage for the BT Epic, one of the most competitive MTB races in Missouri. It covers the start and multiple important sections in the first hour of the course.

5-7 Days Before Event Checklist

✅Check all bolts

✅Check drivetrain wear

✅ Check tires for holes and tread wear

✅ Check sealant levels

✅ Clean and lubricate the drivetrain

✅ Stock your flat kit; 1-2 tubes, 2 CO2s + inflator or pump, tire lever, plugs, and multi-tool with a chain breaker.

✅ Review course in-person or online

✅ Develop event day nutrition strategy

Day before race

Pre-ride the start and finishing miles of the course. If you are comfortable adjusting suspension and tire pressure, this is a great time to fine-tune based on course feedback. Being familiar with these course sections can help increase confidence on race day. 

Many races start early in the morning, and you won’t want to waste time hunting for your lucky socks or zip-tying your race number to your bike. Set out all your equipment, clothing, and food the night before to help make the morning as smooth as possible. Make sure all your electronics are fully charged or on the charger before bed. 

Now is not the time to make drastic changes to your diet (e.g., don’t start a massive carb load). Ensure you’re eating healthy and familiar foods, maybe a little more than average, and stay hydrated. After dinner, it’s time to relax, double-check your alarm, and get to bed.

1 Day Before Event Checklist

✅ Pre-ride vital parts of the course

✅ Fine-tune shock and tire pressure

✅ Set out all race day clothing, equipment, and food

✅ Eat well, stay hydrated, and relax

Morning of race

Estimate how much time you’ll need to prepare in the morning, then add 30 minutes. You’ll want some wiggle room in your time budget to accommodate a long bathroom line or an unexpected mechanical problem. 

Hopefully, you’ve been knocking out some morning training rides before today and have a general idea of what foods help you feel strong during a ride. We recommend sticking to your usual breakfast or as close as possible. Again, this is not the time to make drastic changes to your diet. 

The ideal warm-up will depend on the athlete’s preference and the length of the event. Most MTB events start fast, so it’s important to at minimum ride for 10-15 minutes in preparation. A longer warm-up is recommended for shorter events, while a more casual warm-up is usually fine for more extended events.

During the race

All your pre-race nerves will be peaking at the start line, which is normal. It’s your first race, after all! Remind yourself that you are at this race to have fun and learn.

Mastering the beginning of a race takes practice, and you don’t have to get it right on the first try. Once the race starts, there will be a sprint to get into the woods. Do what feels best for you, and don’t be afraid to take a slower start.

After the first 10-15 minutes of racing, you must start executing your pacing and nutrition strategy. Many cycling computers have an alarm function that can serve as an excellent reminder. 

Bike racing is hard, and experiencing bouts of positive and negative emotions is very common. Push into the challenging moments as they arise and enjoy the periods of positive flow. 

After the race

Start hydrating and get some food as soon as possible. If a celebratory beer is in your future, ensure you’ve had a couple of glasses of water first. You just pushed your body to the limit, and it will appreciate a little extra hydration.

When reviewing your race performance, try to maintain a positive outlook. What did you enjoy about the event? What parts of the plan did you execute well? ​​Acknowledge the mistakes and challenges during your race, and create an action step for each that you can focus on to improve before the next event.  

Summing Up

To get started in MTB racing, begin by picking an event that closely matches the type of riding you already enjoy. If you prefer longer rides that challenge your fitness, try an XC or Marathon event first. If testing your skills on descents and jumps is your favorite way to ride, try an enduro or downhill event. Once you’re signed up and committed, start doing your homework and remember to maintain a beginner’s mindset on race day. The key to good race results boils down to doing your homework, pushing the limits of your comfort zone, and having fun! 

Kent Woermann

Kent Woermann is the owner/operator of Move Up Endurance Coaching. He is currently a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and holds a category 1 license in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross disciplines.

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