I was fortunate enough to participate in the Pisgah Stage Race in April. It was damp, dirty, and downright difficult. In other words, I had the time of my life. I’ve done my fair share of riding in Pisgah, but five days of racing on some of my favorite trails was an entirely new experience.
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My first mountain bike stage race won’t be my last, and I would encourage any passionate mountain biker to consider participating in one of these events. Whether it’s around the corner or around the world, you’ll learn a lot by getting together with other racers and pushing yourself for consecutive days. Here are some of the lessons I gleaned from my own experience, augmented with the advice of two stage racers with much more experience.
Stick to your strengths
If you’re entering a stage race, it’s a safe bet that you’re at least a little competitive. That being said, if you want the best result, you need to make sure you’re riding your own race. On day one of the Pisgah Stage Race, I quickly got passed as the course took competitors up a gentle gravel climb. In my effort to keep up with racers I had never even met, I red-lined my heart rate. By the time I got to a steep, singletrack climb that I would normally clean, my heart was beating out of my chest and I was forced to get off and push. Whether you’re a capable climber, a dominant descender, or you feel most at home on the flats, stick to your strengths.
Find your fuel
A few years ago, I entered an endurance race and was advised to bring an electrolyte mix to stay hydrated during the long ride. I got to the check-in site and dumped the powder a friend had given me into my hydration pack, plus every bottle I had. Then I decided to try it. It tasted like it was skimmed off a pond at the world’s densest cattle farm.
If you want to ride big miles day after day you obviously have to fuel your body, but nutrition needs (and preferences) will vary tremendously from rider to rider. These days I rely on a combination of Tailwind powder and Cosmic Brownies that I think combines fuel and fun.
Like I said, nutrition and hydration are personal, and your mileage may vary. It’ll take some trial and error to find out what works best for you. Do yourself a favor and get the error part of that equation out of the way ahead of time.
Todd Branham puts on the Pisgah Stage Race, but he was a racer long before he was a race director. Over the last decade, he’s competed in more than 20 stage races, including the BC Bike Race, the Swiss Epic, and Guatemala’s El Reto del Quetzal. In other words, he has a lot more wisdom to offer than I do.
If you’re like most of us, you have to balance biking with work, family time, and other obligations. The busier you are, the easier it is for a race to sneak up on you. The thing is, you can’t just tough it out over the 3-7 days of a stage race like you can with a single-day event. Branham recommends you start your training early, because the process is going to take longer than you think.
“Physiological changes aren’t going to happen in a few weeks. It takes months of preparation to teach your body to cope with repeated exertion three, five, or even seven days in a row.”
Simulating a stage race with hard efforts multiple days in a row will help you ride stronger for longer during the real thing. As an added bonus, training for consecutive days of racing doesn’t just improve your engine –- it helps keep your bike skills sharp when fatigue sets in.
Use training tools
To get the most out of your racing experience, Branham recommends making the most of your effort by using the latest in technology.
“There are instruments out there now that allow you to boil effort down to a number. With a power meter or heart rate monitor, you don’t have to worry about going too hard and sabotaging the rest of your race, whether it’s the next three miles or the next three days. Some people feel like staying below a certain threshold is confining. I think it’s liberating, because it allows you to look around and enjoy riding in a new place on new trails without worrying about whether your pace is sustainable.”
Power meters can be expensive, but racing with a heart rate monitor is a decent (and much cheaper) substitute. While you won’t have quite the accuracy of exact wattage, knowing your approximate heart rate zones will keep you in check and allow you to finish a stage race as strong as you began it.
Wes Dickson started Sycamore Cycles almost 20 years ago to serve cyclists at the entrance to Pisgah National Forest. He also started riding in Brevard, NC at the age of 12, and he had put his first number plate on his bike before I was born. It’s no wonder he’s a force to be reckoned with on any racecourse, and he offered his own stage racing advice gleaned from a considerable career.
Prep your bike
As a bike shop owner, it’s no surprise that Dickson pays close attention to the parts he’ll be relying on in each race.
“I generally try to equip my bike with more durable components to withstand the demands of stage racing.” He also takes the opportunity to bleed brakes, check bearings, and replace consumable parts such as brake pads or drivetrain components. Stage race distances vary, but most longer events are well over 100 miles. The last thing you want is a trailside mechanical because you didn’t spend the $20 on a fresh chain. As Dickson puts it, “I’ve prepped myself for the race quite a bit – I better prep my bike for the same type of abuse.”
Play the long game
In spite of his focus on durable equipment, Dickson got two different flat tires at this year’s Pisgah Stage Race. When bad luck strikes, it can feel like your race is ruined, but he explains that the stage racing format gives you plenty of time to come back. “Don’t sweat having a bad day. Keep a positive mental attitude, and realize that no one will have a perfect race. Everyone is going through the same thing you are.” Even with the setbacks, Dickson pedaled his way to the podium in the Master Men division, earning third place (and beating yours truly by more than three hours).
These tips are geared toward stage racing, but they can be applied to almost any mountain bike race. Still, if you’ve never given stage racing a try, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s easy to be put off by the high price tag, but it’s really not about the number plate. A stage race is a mountain biking vacation that allows you to see the best trails in an area in a short amount of time, and riding with the same people day after day allows you to form bonds that will last well after the event has concluded.