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Racing 101 -- A look at mountain bike racing for the newcomer.

Only a very strong, supremely skilled, and extremely aggressive mountain biker should consider racing.  A racer must be a man at his athletic peak, usually in his mid-twenties. To have the skill to race takes many years of intense riding experience, usually beginning in childhood. Then constant training is required to maintain the required level of fitness. Each racer needs a sponsor, such as a bike store or parts supplier. You'll also need a special bike designed specifically for racing, costing many thousands of dollars more than a typical recreational bike.

Still here? Well, every statement in that first paragraph was bull. Here's the real story of Mountain Bike Racing 101 --  information for the newbie. Ready? Let's start with, who races?

Who can race?  Mountain biking -- even racing -- is supposed to be fun. So mountain bike races are divided into categories of gender, age, and ability. First year you've tried to race your bike? No problem. You'll ride in the beginner category. 43 years over-the-hill and don't want to ride against young punks? You won't. You'll race against riders in the 40 to 49 age range. Porked on a few pounds last winter? Enter in the Clydesdale category, where you only compete against riders weighing more than 220 pounds. Anybody can race and have fun doing it.

Racers may be started in a large group, or in smaller groups by individual racing category. For example, here's the Men's 50 to 54 Expert at the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George.

Why race?  Racing makes you a better rider. You can improve your riding skills more in a single race than in six months of casual riding. Why? A race focuses your mind and floods your neural synapses with adrenaline. This makes your brain learn more efficiently. As you hit every turn as fast as you dare, pick the best riding lines, and make moves you didn't think you could, the race environment makes your brain pay attention, so you really gain skills. And racing gives you a goal, even if that goal is just getting a better time than your neighbor. Knowing a race is coming up, you'll eat better and train better. Every mountain biker should try an occasional race.

Checking in. Plan to arrive early for the race. 

Who organizes races?  Some of the best races for a beginning rider are local community-based. For example, Alpine has a mountain bike race during "Alpine Days." Highland has its "Highland Fling." Park City has the Tour des Suds. These races are filled mostly with local riders -- your friends and neighbors. How many people show up for these races? Maybe 40, maybe 100. Ask at your local bike shop; you'll find there's a community-type race nearby. Then there are the biggies -- the major races. An example would be the Intermountain Cup series. These races are populated with riders from all around the state. Sample locations: St. George, Snowbird, Five-mile Pass. As many as 400 riders may show up to race. Ski resorts may sponsor their own race series. For example (at the time of this writing), Solitude has a race series during the summer on weekday afternoons. Sundance and Soldier Hollow alternate weekday afternoon races.

What types of races are there?
Cross-country (XC):
Most mountain bike races are XC -- "cross-country." Racers start out in a group and compete directly against each other. When there are large numbers of racers, the groups are split up by age or ability level, starting at different times -- or even riding on a different track. The race will typically be a couple of laps around a large loop of varied terrain. Experts and pros will ride more laps, or may have a longer, more difficult loop. In XC racing, experience becomes important in helping you find a place to pass and in managing your energy reserves.

There are races in every terrain: rocky desert, foothill brush, high mountain meadows, deep forest. This is Powder Mountain.

Hillclimb (HC): A hillclimb is usually a "time trial" race. Riders are started individually, a few minutes apart. There's no drafting, blocking, or teamwork. It's just you against the mountain.

Downhill (DH): Like the hillclimb, the DH race is a time trial. Riders head downhill alone, trying to get the fastest riding time. A DH race may involve tough stuff like ledge drops and technical rock. A variant of downhill is the "Super D" which is a XC race down ski resort trails that often involves some climbing.

 Early season races tend to be in the desert. Here's Five Mile Pass.

Cyclocross (CX):  CX is an insanely fun type of racing. Held at fairgrounds and parks, a winding track is laid down to create a race loop. Obstacles are created such as logs, trenches, and sand pits. Riders pedal multiple times around the course, jumping off the bike to clear obstacles. While it can be done on a mountain bike, the best "crossers" use a rigid bike similar to a road bike but with larger tires. The race has a set time (for example 40 minutes) so riders do multiple laps. This is a very spectator-friendly race. [ Read our introduction article for more info on CX! ]

Jason Sparks jumps the barrier with his CX bike.

Endurance:  Long, long XC races. Some offer options as short as 6 hours, most are 12 or 24 hours. Riders do laps around a large XC course. May be done as a team with riders swapping laps, or "solo" for those who want to suffer. [ Read endurance racing article! ]

Freeride (FR): A freeride race is like an extreme DH, but with the addition of points for stunts. On the FR course, there are "gates" -- areas where the rider must clear some insanely difficult technical spot. A judge at each gate awards points for the gnarly-awesomeness with which a rider travels through. The winner is determined by a combination of points and overall time.

What are the racing categories or classes?  While not every race will offer every possible age and ability category, almost every race breaks riders up into groups. First, there are separate classes for men and women. Then comes ability: beginner, sport, expert, and pro. Now age, for example 18-29, 30-39, 40-49, over 50. There may be Clydesdale class for riders weighing over 220 pounds. This classification system dramatically reduces the number of riders who are actually competing against YOU. Out of 200 riders, only 12 may be in the Men's 40-49 Expert category. (The Pro and the Clydesdale categories usually don't have an age breakdown.) The race course, and the number of laps, may vary for different categories. For example, Experts may do three laps around a larger loop, while Sport riders may do two laps or take a shortcut that eliminates a more difficult area of the larger loop.

Who's in Sport versus Expert?  Riders declare a racing class when they register for a race. The Beginner category is for first-season racers or occasional racers. In local races, "Beginner" means those who rarely ride a bike but want to ride with their neighbors in the community race once a year.

Rain or snow, the race must go on. Bring gear for any weather! Meet new people, hang with the pros, get some swag...

For a community race, anybody who knows their way around a bike should declare Sport category. In Intermountain Cup competition, even the Beginner Category is full of some pretty awesome riders.
Some racing series have specific rules about who can declare Sport vs. Expert, but here's a general rule: If you're not sure where you belong, you should start in Beginner. If you're win by a large margin, move to Sport. If you're consistently finishing in the prizes riding Sport for one season, it's time to move up to Expert. It's not fair for a speedy rider to hog the Beginner or Sport prizes, when he/she really should be getting trounced by fellow expert riders.

Crossing the finish line. Hammer down, dude! Solitude resort.

A very good way of deciding which category you'll race:  Go to a race web site, for example and find where this week's race is being held. (The race loop will be marked a few days before the race.) Go ride the race course, all out, while timing yourself. Then after the race, check the race results spreadsheet on the web site and compare your one-lap, two-lap, three-lap (or whatever) time to riders your own age in Beginner, Sport, and Expert.

Did you say Prizes?  Many races offer bike gear and gift certificates to the category winners. For example, prizes may be awarded to the top three Men 30-39 Beginner, the top three Men 30-39 Sport, the top three Men 30-39 expert, the top three Women 30-39 Beginner, etc. Or winners may simply get a ribbon, and the freebies are given away by raffle. That's a lot of chances to win something. Sometimes winners just get a certificate, but there may be some goodies raffled off. When a race organizer refers to "depth," he means the number of places that will receive prizes or ribbons. If awards go "six deep," it means prizes are given for first through sixth place.

What does it cost?  The typical community bike race has an entry fee of around $20 to $40. Usually, this includes a t-shirt. In regional races, the entry fee is a bit higher, usually $35 to $70. Often, bike gear prizes and gift certificates are provided free by a local bike store. Races aren't held to earn money, they're done for love of biking.

A time trial means each rider goes alone, riding against the clock. The Frozen Hog.

Paperwork?  You'll need to sign a waiver that says you won't sue if you get injured. Some races require a racing license (community and intermountain cup races do not). You can buy a one-year license (usually right at the racing location), or a one-day permit that costs about $5.

What are the rules?  Well, you need to stay on the course. You can't sneak across between trails to shortcut. And you need to qualify for the category you're entering. If you're 25, don't register to ride against the 57-plus guys. Most race series will allow you to upgrade to a harder category, though. For example, if you're 60, you're welcome to race as a 40-plus Expert, while if you're 8 years old, you can race in the 10-14 age group.

Unless you're told otherwise, you're allowed to have other people hand you tools and water bottles. You can stash spare wheels and other gear for emergency use.

Regardless of class, age, or ability, all racers are family! There are no snobs here. Green Valley, March 1.

Take what you need to fix your own bike while you're out on the mountian. But unless you're specifically told otherwise in the race registration materials, assume you can borrow anything you need from anybody. Or you can run the bike back to the start/finish area (while not short-cutting the trail) to make a repair.

Riders check the "leaderboard" where their time slips are organized in order of finish. Different colors denote different racing categories. Five-mile Pass.

What are the unwritten rules?  In general, the golden rule is: don't mess up somebody else's chances of winning.
Don't block: If another rider pulls up behind you on a long downhill singletrack, get to the side and let them by. Sitting in front of a faster rider is called "blocking." It may be part of your strategy to hold back a faster downhiller, knowing you can outclimb him on the next hill. But it will give the blocked rider major road rage. So even if it's somebody you're competing against, do the right thing and get out of the way. And you should yield the trail to an overtaking rider who's NOT in your racing category. -- if you're a newbie and you're blocking an expert, you may be costing him a chance to win. Not cool.
Don't endanger: Running another rider into the brush while they're trying to pass you is the height of jerk-hood. If you can't play nice, don't show up.

How can I prepare?  The race course should be marked about a week in advance. Go ride it, a couple of times if possible. Make sure your bike works, but don't do major changes or overhauls just before a race. Register for the race in advance. (You'll have enough to worry about on the morning of the race.)

Know the course -- plan what cog and chainring you'll use for major climbs, identify problem areas, and know when the next "passing zone" is coming. Alpine Days race.

What happens on race day?  Arrive about an hour early. You'll need to pick up your racing number, and sign the liability waiver. You may have a stiff cardboard number for your bike (as in the photo above) attached with twist-ties, or you may have a floppy number to pin to your back -- or both. Take a 20-minute warm-up ride. Be back in time to listen to the pre-race briefing. The course may have been changed since you pre-rode it. Be sure you know how many laps are required for your riding category -- in community races, you'd be surprised how often this isn't really decided until 5 minutes before the race. Then ride your heart out. 

After the race, hang with your fellow racers. Cheer the late finishers. Chilling at the finish line, waiting for the awards to start, is half the fun. There's usually a freebie or two, or there may be a drawing for bike gear. Plan about 5 hours total for the typical XC race -- an hour to check in and get ready, two hours of racing, and an hour or two of hanging out.

Making it to the winner's podium is nice, but the real reasons for racing are having fun, improving your skills, and becoming more fit. Warner Valley Cholla Challenge, 50+ winners.