Olympic Cross Country mountain bike racing (XC MTB) is a complete test of bike riding skills and fitness. But that doesn’t mean you have to have the experience of Kate Courtney to take part. A fun, action-packed and accessible form of cycle sport for all, the races are relatively short and consist of multiple laps loaded with features, such as singletrack trails, technical climbs, rock-gardens, roots, drop-offs and jumps.
If you’re just starting out, races tend to last from 20 to 30 minutes, while the pros face up to 1 hour 45 minutes of all-out racing.
Sound like your sort of fun? Here, cycling coach Rab Wardell shares some essential hints and tips for tackling a XC MTB race – whether you’re lining up on the grid for the first time or looking to take your racing up a gear.
1. Practise the course
It’s a great idea to practise the course before your race, and this can usually be done the day before or during a practise session on the same day. You should look to practise at a conservative pace to save your energy for the main event. When you come across a technical feature, try to work out the most effective way to ride it, and if you aren’t confident you can ride it you should always ride the alternative line where available, or dismount and walk.
There are usually optional technical sections where the hardest line choice will reward riders with a faster route while the safer line will cost more time. It’s worth remembering that you want to get around the course as fast as you can – crashing or having a mechanical problem is not the answer! Finally, it’s worth noting that walking down the more difficult line is against the rules.
2. Make sure to fuel and hydrate before and during the race
A XC MTB race requires plenty of energy. You should arrive on the start line well hydrated and fuelled up with carbohydrates but this doesn’t mean having a big breakfast on the morning of the race. Factor it into your build-up in the days leading up to the race, sipping water little-and-often and eating a carbohydrate-rich meal the night before and on the morning of your race. Professional racers might have chicken, vegetables and rice the night before followed by porridge and fruit for breakfast. It’s important to have your last meal three-to-four hours before your start time to give your body enough time to absorb the energy and prevent any mid-race indigestion.
Once the race is underway, you can top up your energy and hydration levels with water, electrolyte drinks and energy gels from the feed station. One pro tip is to get a boost of energy with Red Bull in your last lap bottle!
3. Don’t arrive at the start line cold
XC races start fast, so you need to make sure you are well warmed up. Professionals often warm up on a stationary trainer, but if you don’t have this sort of luxury, you can usually warm up on the race course or on a nearby section of road or trail.
A typical warm-up routine would be as follows:
5 to 10 minutes of easy riding
8 minute gradual build-up, finishing just as you reach race pace – you should have worked up a sweat and be a little out of breath
5 minutes of easy riding to get your break back
1-2x 10 second ‘fast legs’ activation efforts – these are short sprints but don’t go all out. Keep the gear low, focusing on pedalling fast and getting a high cadence.
You can also include some off-bike bodyweight movements such as lunges, squats or push ups in your warm up to mobilise your joints.
4. Get off to a flying start (but remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint)
XC MTB race starts are important as it will determine your position in the pack when you get to the first section of singletrack. But as important as it is to get off to a fast start, it’s key to not start at an unsustainable pace. A goal to aim for is to get away from the line without any mistakes and to ride hard enough so as to not lose position.
The rules state that you must start with one foot on the ground (no track stands) so you should practise this regularly, and it’s worth trying different styles of start to see what works for you.
One tip to consider is to set your start pedal (the foot you’re clipped in with) with your crank in the 2 o’clock position. This will help you get the power down fast as soon as you hear the whistle blow or the start pistol fire.
5. Pace to perfection
Pace judgement is really important. The most simple way to learn good pacing is to practise riding even lap times. You can do this in training by riding a short loop and timing yourself around the lap.
Find a training loop that takes five or 10 minutes to complete and ride it for 30 or 40 minutes at your typical race pace, recording a lap ‘split time’ each time you complete a lap. Your goal is to make sure that your lap times are as close as possible during the effort and then aim to finish fast. If your lap times get slower during this session then you have started off too hard.
6. Taming technical descents
When it comes to technical descents, you need to be confident that you are able to ride them constantly without crashing. With this in mind, it’s important to practise your technical skills whenever you’re not racing – be it riding for fun or training.
During your race, your goal is to exit features faster than you enter them. If you often find yourself making mistakes or grabbing brakes on drop-offs, rock gardens or corners, then you have probably come in too fast. Not only does this slow you down, but it will kill your flow and waste lots of energy.
A top tip is to be patient and take the time to set up for features properly. On approach, make sure you’re standing up with your pedals level and your heels down. Bend your elbows and hinge at your hips – this will keep your head over your handlebars while your hips, and weight, stays back. Brake when you have grip you can trust, and choose a line that allows you to flow through the section. Finally, keep your chin up and look ahead at where you want to go.
7. Time your overtake to perfection
Passing fellow riders can naturally be quite difficult in a XC MTB race, especially if it’s a short course made up of technical features and singletrack. Not only this but you might need to overtake those from other categories that you may have lapped, as well as riders you are racing against.
When overtaking riders from other categories you should let them know that you are approaching. Call out ‘rider’ early and then ‘on your right’ or ‘on your left’ depending on the side you want to pass. To be a good sport, you should also say thank you if a lapped rider allows you to pass.
It’s worth noting that if you are the lapped rider, you should slow down and move off of the ‘racing line’ to let faster riders past. Don’t try to speed up as this will have a negative effect on your race, and on the rider passing you, due to wasting energy.
When you’re overtaking riders who are in your own race, they do not need to surrender the racing line or let you past. In this case, you should choose your moment carefully and make an effort to overtake. Common ways of passing include entering a descent first if you feel confident that you can gap your opponent or putting in an effort on a climb. A great tip is to let a small gap open between you and the rider in front before accelerating and passing with speed, taking your opponent by surprise and catching them off guard.
8. How to stop people overtaking you
When it comes to defending your position, you should think about how and when you want to do this. It can be tempting to fight for position early in the race but this can waste energy that will come in handy later on.
If you do want to hold position, then you need to rely on your legs to do the work. Get your elbows out, own your space and prepare yourself to match the pace of the rider who is trying to make the pass. Be aware that in the middle stages of the race it might actually be beneficial to surrender your position to let another rider lead, so try and race smart and choose your battles wisely.
This goes out the window on the last lap of the race when it’s all about holding your position. You might even find yourself racing for position, sprinting for the singletrack or into the final descent, which is when good pace judgement and smart racing will pay off. But you’ll still need to sharpen your elbows and hold your line!
9. Recap how your race went to make learnings for next time
Once your race has finished and the dust has settled, it’s a good idea to reflect on how your race went. It’s important to remember to try and see the positives as well as the areas for improvements so that you can make a plan for how to improve.
For example, your pre-race routine of food, drink and practise might be great, but your technical riding skills need to be sharpened up. Set aside some time to work on your skills, seek advice on how to get better and make sure you continue to maintain your strengths too.