If the thought of racing a mountain bike sounds like fun to you...YOU’RE RIGHT! As a MTB racer and Race Director, I can give you an inside perspective on what you need to do to have a great first race. (For the purpose of this article, we are assuming you own a mountain bike and have ridden off road numerous times.)
NOTE: As with most action sports, mountain biking can be dangerous and the chance of injury is real. There is the potential for simple injuries, permanent injury or death. If you see something you are not comfortable riding during your race, get off your bike and walk it! There are clinics you can attend with a MTB skills coach, like Harlan Price https://www.takeaimcycling.com.
Protection - Helmets are mandatory at every mountain bike race, and you should wear one every time you ride. If you don't own a helmet, buy one. If you think an accident won't happen, you are wrong. I encourage you to wear sport specific eye protection, clear or light colored lenses will make it easier to see rocks and roots in the shady woods. Long finger gloves provide good protection from branches.
Tune Up - Is your mountain bike ready to race? When was the last time you had a professional mechanic tune your trusted 2 wheeled friend? Before you head out on the trail, have your local bike shop check it over. Most shops have a checklist they go though to make sure your bike is in race condition.
Research - Before you enter your first race, know what you are getting yourself into. Read about the race course's difficultly level on the race website & or Facebook Page, and look for videos on YouTube to show you the course. Is there a "Novice" or "First Timer" Category? Your local bike shop is a wealth of knowledge and can let you know if you may be in over your head. Your friends who ride may have raced that event previously, ask them about it. The more you know, the better.
Is there a GPX (Garmin Data) file posted? Will the course be marked in advance so you can pre-ride (ride the exact course before race day)? Are there group pre-rides in advance of the race? I hold several pre-rides of the Challenger MTB race. Riding the course in advance of the race will give you confidence on race day.
Items Needed - Pretty obviously, you’ll need your bike & helmet. Don’t laugh, but I admit, I've gone to races and forgotten important items like my helmet, bike clothes, food, and water bottles. Make a check list of everything you need, print the list and as you pack your gear, check it off. Spare tube, bike pump, gloves, eye protection, healthy snacks, lunch, LOTS of water, a water bottle or a hydration pack, a small medical kit, bike lock, hand sanitizer, some toilet paper, and a folding chair are all items you may want to bring. Some racers bring a pop up tent and folding table if they know they will be on site all day.
Day Before the Race - Don't ride hard or participate in strenuous activities the day before your first race, use it as a chill out day. Make sure you have all your items prepped and packed, eat long burning carbs (baked potato, sweet potato, rice and beans etc), stay hydrated all day by taking extra sips of water. Avoid caffeinated drinks as they can dehydrate you, and definitely no alcohol the night before.
Race Day - EAT BREAKFAST! Skipping breakfast on race day is a sure fire way to have a negative racing experience. Your body needs fuel to perform. The experts at Livestrong have a great short read on this topic.
Plan on arriving two hours prior to the start time for your first race. This will give you ample time to figure out the lay of the land, sign registration papers, set up your area, prep your bike, suit up, and warm up. You'll also probably feel the need for SEVERAL trips to the port-a-potty. Remember to stay hydrated during this time, and eat light snacks like fruit, or a Clif Bar. Avoid eating protein before your race. About 30 minutes prior to your race time, ride around nearby for 10 minutes to get your blood pumping. Get in your last minute port-a-potty run, and make it to the pre-race meeting/staging area 15 minutes before your scheduled time.
Don't try anything new on race day. Don't make any adjustments to your bike. If someone says, "Hey try this awesome hydration drink”, just say no thank you. Stick to what you know and are used to doing. Water will be just fine for your first race.
Racing - Remember to take a few deep breaths when you are on the start line. EVERYONE gets a little nervous, you are not alone. Make sure your handle bars have clearance from the racers on both sides of you. Don't start off too hard. Some people will jump out to an early lead and will burn out early. Start strong but stay within your limits.
While you are racing, remember to breathe. If you want to pass someone, call it out loud and clear in advance of your pass, and make sure there is a section wide enough that it is safe for both you and the person you are passing. An example would be, "Passing on your left". If you are getting passed, as long as it is safe to do so, move over slightly so the overtaking racer can safely pass you. Most likely you'll be competing for a small medal or perhaps a bike pump, if you don't win it's not the end of the world.
Lastly and most importantly, HAVE FUN! Race Directors and course designers work hard to string the trails together in such as way that will be fun and leave you with a smile on your face. We want to see you have a great time enjoying what we have been planning since last years race.