All About Cross-Country Mountain Bike Racing and How to Get Started
Coming from a team sports background in soccer and netball, I have never been entirely comfortable with "racing". In my younger years, the idea of weeks and weeks of training all for just one race simply did not appeal to me. But as I got older and the demands on my time became more and more and my ability to fit in with a team's schedule got less and less, I found myself entering races. Fun runs, triathlons and the occasional MTB race. While I'm always prone to a bit of nerves and doubt in entering any race, nothing was ever as daunting as entering a mountain bike race. Doubt had me asking myself questions like:
“Will I be able to ride the technical sections? I don't want to look like a fool if I have to walk bits.”
“Will I be the last person out on course? Will I hold people up on the single track?”
“I'm not sure I can ride that far with that much elevation, so I'll just enter the distance I know I can complete.”
After chatting with my Trail Squad teammates and other female riders I've met over the last year, it seems I'm not alone with these doubts.
But when Liv Cycling picked us for the Trail Squad and told us that we're off to compete in one of the toughest MTB races in the world, the Cape Epic, I was empowered to set my doubts aside. For me, having the Cape Epic looming has meant that the safe option was no longer an option. I had to do the 100km race over the 50km race. It meant I couldn't let being worried about being last out on the course stop me from entering a race. I had to put aside all my anxieties and doubt and enter races I didn't think I was capable of. And I can't express enough just how thankful I am to Liv Cycling for that. Because during the last 9 months of racing, I have shown myself that I am capable and that I do deserve to be out there (even when the course marshals are winding in the race tape behind me as I roll over the finish line). I have shown my daughters and son that women have a place in racing. And I can honestly say I have absolutely loved racing. I have enjoyed being pushed to improve by incredible female and male riders. I have enjoyed having a laugh with a stranger at some stupid stack I just had. Positivity, friendliness and inclusiveness is what the MTB community is all about and that welcoming atmosphere doesn’t change on race day. Riders will give you a shout of encouragement as they pass you or you pass them. If you've stopped, every single rider will ask if you're ok. If you need a hand, they will stop and help. And as you roll over the finish line, there will always be someone who wants to have a chat about the race and what you’ve got planned next.
So for any women out there thinking "I'd love to do a MTB race but ...[insert any number of reasonable excuses here]…", all I can say is: Do it. You won’t regret it.
There are so many different cross country MTB race formats and distances, there is certain to be one that suits your abilities.
Cross Country Olympic (XCO)
For XCO races, it is usually a mass start where riders are required to complete a certain number of laps (depending on their category) of a course that is usually 4-10kms. A XCO race would normally be about 1.5-2 hours. First over the line wins.
Completing multiple laps of the same course, gives you an opportunity to get comfortable with the technical aspects of the course. And even if you don’t manage a warm up lap, you can take it easy on the first lap and grow your confidence on the technical bits as the race progresses.
Cross Country Enduro
Cross country endurance races are timed events – 3hrs, 6hrs, 12hrs or even 24hrs – where after the gun goes off, you have the allocated time to complete as many laps of the course as possible. These events can be completed solo or in a team of 2-6 (depending on the duration of the race). The rider or team with the most laps after the time has elapsed wins.
Cross country enduros tend to be very social races, with the transition area full of riders resting while their teammates are out on course. I love these events. While those racing at the pointy end of the field will be racing hard and fast and will know exactly where they sit relative to their competition, the vast majority of the field is just out for a bit of competitive fun with their mates. Most riders will have no idea how many laps others have done. Often people are surprised to see how well they did once the results are finalised after the race. As a lap race, there is always plenty of passing out on the course but I’m yet to experience or witness any kind of negativity by other riders about ‘being held up’. Try not to let this hold you back from entering a race. Being able to pass and be passed safely is simply another skill that you will learn and develop with race experience.
My first MTB race was a 6hr cross country enduro with my brother. For me, it was such a great race to start with. I was incredibly worried about a mass start and holding people up, so the simple solution was for my brother to go first and for me to do my first lap once riders had thinned out a bit. I was also worried about my fitness level, so riding in a team allowed me to get some rest between laps. In the end, I’d had enough before the 6 hours had elapsed, so didn’t go out for the last lap but we still qualified as ‘finishers’. So long as you complete one lap in a cross-country enduro you will be a ‘finisher’, which is a great way to take the pressure off yourself.
Cross Country Marathon (XCM)
An XCM is a 100km race that will usually involve a mix of gravel road, fire trail and single track with some technical aspects. But don’t write off looking up “XCM” races because 100km is too far. Race organisers will almost certainly offer a number of other different distances, from 15km to 160km, to cater for a range of abilities and fitness levels. For me, I have thrived on the physical and mental challenge of these events. The sense of accomplishment when you cross the line after completing a distance that, not too long ago you didn’t think was possible, shouldn’t be undervalued.
Small club races and large commercial events
For me, club racing has been the most enjoyable aspect of my racing over the past year. It's the closest I've felt to being part of a 'team' since finishing playing soccer over 10 years ago. Each week, a group of people (my local club gets between 20-50 riders for their weekly race) that you've come to know over the proceeding weeks, shows up and races hard for a prized block of chocolate. While the top A grade women leave me in their wake within 100m of the start line, I still work hard to earn my place, knowing that the C grade men are desperately trying to chase me down. And as soon as everyone crosses the line, there's a bit of light-hearted ribbing of each other and more than a few laughs. The competitiveness, the camaraderie, the laughs, the pain, I have loved it all.
On the other end of the spectrum, I've done races this year with 1000+ riders. While it's always daunting to show up with that many riders floating around, the thing I've loved about these races is that I've always ended up riding around with a few other riders who are perfectly matched to my riding ability. For most of us, it's very rare that our riding buddies are evenly matched to us. Someone always feels that they're holding someone else up. But in a mass start race, you’ll inevitably end up riding around with someone who's exactly at your ability. And it's great. Getting to know someone while you share your race experience. There’s sure to still be some friendly competition though! They might push you on the hills or through the single track. You might push them on the descents or the fire road flats.
And if none of this has helped you to decide on your first MTB race, perhaps take my Cape Epic race partner, Lisa Land’s, approach to races...'just enter and then think about it later'. Wise words. Overthinking things can only hold you back from discovering a whole new world of MTB love. Sometimes it's best to just take the plunge and worry about the details later.