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Editor’s Note: Greg Heil made it one of his primary goals to not enter any races in 2015–and he succeeded. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, the opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

By and large, our sport of mountain biking is rooted in racing. In seeing who the fastest rider is, who’s the best, and the testosterone-fueled draw of competition. Heck, we can even trace the roots of our sport back to Repack, the first mountain bike race.

But mountain biking is so much more than racing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve competed in my fair share of races over the years, including short XC races, a team lap-style endurance race, a 100-mile ultra endurance sufferfest, a series of enduro races, a 5-day ultra enduro stage race, and more. But lately, I’ve grown to abhor racing and all that it entails. Here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t race your mountain bike either.

Yours truly racing the Cohutta 100. Photo: SaraKristen Photography.

Yours truly racing the Cohutta 100. Photo: SaraKristen Photography.

1. It costs a lot of money.

Even if you just look at the entry fees, racing isn’t cheap. While some local throw downs might only cost you $20-$50, high-end races like the Leadville 100 cost $15 just to enter the lottery and if you win, instead of getting free money, you’re automatically charged the $345 registration fee. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a lot of ways I could spend 360 bones.

Above and beyond the simple race entry fee, there are numerous hidden expenses that you might not think about before you sign up to race. Are your tires starting to lose traction in the corners? While normally you might eek out a few extra months from those treads, if you’re racing, you’ve gotta plunk down the cash to make sure you’re rolling on fresh rubber. Chain jumping a little bit? Better get a new one installed, along with a cassette, and oh, you need new chain rings, too. While you’re at it, you better have the mechanic do a full tune-up so that nothing else goes wrong on race day. What about fuel? Can you take a leftover turkey sandwhich out on the race course? No, that’s too hard to eat… better drop $2 per energy gel to keep you going. And the list goes on and on…

2. You can’t take the time to savor the experience of being out in the mountains, on your bike.

Photo: nickesares

Photo: nickesares

Once that gun goes off, it’s top-speed to the bitter end. What if you round a bend to see the most fantastically-beautiful mountain view you’ve ever seen in your life? Nope, can’t stop for a photo, that’d take too much time. Is it 100 degrees and you’re riding past a crashing waterfall with an inviting pool of cool, refreshing water? No time for a swim, the clock is ticking.

Maybe it’s different for you, but personally I ride my bike in the mountains for the beauty of it all, for the experience, and to escape the pressures of daily life. But if you’re racing, the pressure is on the entire time.

3. The marked course takes the exploration out of mountain biking.

Photo: Jeff Barber

Photo: Jeff Barber

Successfully navigating through a maze of singletrack and finding your way to the other side, with no outside assistance beyond your map, is a truly rewarding experience. Racing robs you of that joy by making sure every turn is marked, and gasp, “we better put a warning sign before that rock garden so that no one hurts themselves.”

4. Too much time spent focusing on one race reduces the amount of terrain you could experience, if you had fewer constraints.

This is related to #3 above, but one more way that your exploration of the unknown is limited by racing is all of the time spent focusing on excelling on one specific trail or course. You generally need to pre-ride the course, and spend many tries sessioning the most challenging obstacles. In training, you can’t go off and explore randomly–you have to focus on hitting specific terrain, specific mileage, and a known quantity of climbing and exertion.

On the other hand, if you didn’t have to preride the courses, and if you didn’t have to focus so diligently on training, you could expend that time and effort exploring massive quantities of unknown trails.

5. Races rarely take place on the best trails.

Photo: Natasja Jovic, Hillside Cycling. Rider: Leo Ranta

Photo: Natasja Jovic, Hillside Cycling. Rider: Leo Ranta

Again this is tangentially related to numbers 3 and 4 above, but rarely do races take place on the best trails that a destination has to offer. There are notable exceptions to this rule, but time and time again when I’ve lined up for races (especially enduro races where the course isn’t known until a couple days beforehand), the locals are saying, “aww man, I wish we could have raced down that trail over there….” This rule of riding bland trails is especially prevalent in endurance racing, where the more technical, entertaining trails are often bypassed in favor of easier routes that delirious racers can still navigate 12 hours in. Oh, and don’t forget that all race courses have to take place on sanctioned routes, and that even in a sanction trail system, the land management agency has to agree to issue a permit to use those trails.

6. It reduces self reliance.

When you know you’ll be hitting an aid station every 5, 10, or 20 miles, it may feel like you don’t need to be prepared to survive on your own for longer, to navigate out of the woods if something goes wrong, or to be able to fix any possible issue with your bike. And while that’s true to an extent, you can read my opinion about self reliance and mountain biking, here. I think this applies every time you swing a leg over your bike.

7. Over-commercialization.

Photo: littlegoat

Photo: littlegoat

Since racing is still held up as the golden standard in mountain biking, especially at the big races all of the brands and sponsors are touted, full-force. With flashy logos splayed all across the start and finish areas, you can’t escape it even when you enter the woods. The pros are decked out in color-matched kits, from head to toe. Heck, who am I kidding? Even the solid back-of-pack riders feel like they need to be covered in brand logos to look the part… see #10 below.

The commercialization of the mountain bike experience, and how much the racers buy into it, can sometimes become a gut-wrenching display of materialism. A mini brawl over who gets to keep a logo-covered t-shirt that was thrown out into the crowd and caught by two people at the same time? Yep, I’ve seen that happen.

8. The time constraints are too stressful and take the fun out of what could be a relaxing mountain bike vacation.

Above and beyond the stress of trying to cross the finish line as fast as possible, all of the other time constraints associated with racing turn what could be a relaxing mountain bike vacation into a deadline-filled weekend, potentially with tempers running high.

“Packet pickup is only open until 6pm, so we have to get there as fast as possible. Rider meeting is at 7am, so it’s up by 5 to prep the bikes. We have to be to the start line by 8, so there’s no time for a nice breakfast. Oh, and don’t forget the rewards ceremony after the race at 5pm–that means we can’t head out and explore the town after the race.”

9. Too many people.

I don’t know about you, but I pedal out into the mountains to escape the masses and find some much-needed solitude. I enjoy being by myself in the woods, or with a select group of a few friends. The last thing I want to do is share the trails with 500 other speed-thirsty riders, ripping by in long congo lines, totally destroying any sense of peace and tranquility that I could otherwise achieve. Sure, sometimes it’s fun to hang out with large groups of like-minded mountain bikers, but how much “hanging out” is happening on the race course? Answer: nada.

10. You’re just not that fast.

Photo: littlegoat

Photo: littlegoat

If you actually are fast enough to be gunning for a pro podium spot and some prize money, then this doesn’t apply to you. But for the rest of us, let’s face it: you’re just not that fast. Even if you are winning your over 40 amateur age group, you’re (most likely) nowhere near making money from racing… so what exactly have you achieved by besting a bunch of other balding dudes with beer bellies by a few seconds?

For the rest of us (myself included) who are solid mid-pack racers, even in the amateur categories, we’re nowhere close to seeing a podium of any nature, let alone some cash money.

The reality is, you’re just not that fast. So why are you trying to be?

Conclusion

Yes, I know thousands of people will disagree with me on the merits of mountain bike racing. Heck, Aaron, our Biz Dev guru, has a long laundry list of races he’s planning to compete in over the course of the next year. And I’m not even saying that I’ll never enter another race myself. But I think we should all pause for a second and think about why we ride our mountain bikes, and what we’re really looking for from this experience.

So if you’re still reading this and you want to know my opinion, I think we should all simply take to the woods, with our friends, with no agendas, and simply enjoy riding our bikes. Soaking in the scenery. Exploring new trails. Drinking beer. Laughing. Having fun.

Riders gathering for the Dirty Thirty.

Riders gathering for the Dirty Thirty. Photo: Jeff Barber

But what if you do want to socialize with large groups of like-minded individuals? If that’s the case, I recommend that you organize a fee-free event, devoid of timing, similar to the Dirty Thirty that I organized a couple of years ago. That was one of the most fun days I’ve ever spent on the bike–I had such a fantastic time enjoying the very best trails that my local area had to offer, and sharing them with tons of riders from out of town. We rode, socialized, drank beer, ate hot dogs, and generally had one heck of a fun time riding our mountain bikes.

It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

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# Comments

  • wareagle4130

    I’ve done a few local races, mainly because I thought it’d be a chance to socialize and have fun. Turns out there was very little socializing, and just a lot of standing around and waiting. Since then I’ve done a few group rides that provided the social aspect I was looking for. That being said, I did find that signing up for the race and not wanting to embarrass myself did provide some needed motivation to ride more and stay in shape, so there’s that.

  • Jared13

    Greg, I can definitely see all of those being true for the majority of racers…but it doesn’t need to be.

    In the Montana Enduro Series races, there is a TON of socializing on the trails. Obviously, it wasn’t the timed portions, but the transfer stages and hanging out start areas were very lively. Not to mention the awards ceremony is huge party.

    I also completed the Butte 50 race this year. Having the course marked and aid stations made the ride a ton more enjoyable than trying to figure it out for myself. I still carried a pack with water and tools, but I stopped at every aid station for 5-10 minutes. It was fun to hang out with the volunteers and a few of the other racers that had the same mindset I did: enjoy the experience and finish, being a few minutes faster by pushing ourselves doesn’t really matter.
    That said, there were plenty of other people on the course that most likely fit into every point stated above. Just because they fit into that, doesn’t mean everyone had to…because really, we’re not that fast! 😀

    • Greg Heil

      Totally agree, Jared! And my article is just one side of the issue–tons of people, including others on staff with Singletracks, race regularly and love it! 🙂

      • Jared13

        I guess I should have added that all of the races I entered were mostly just large group rides to me so I didn’t really have a racers mindset. I just wanted to hangout with a bunch of people that like bikes: Like-minded people doing like-minded things!

  • John Fisch

    “3. The marked course takes the exploration out of mountain biking.
    4. Too much time spent focusing on one race reduces the amount of terrain you could experience, if you had fewer constraints.”
    These two are closely related for me and the main reasons I never made racing a centerpiece of my MTB experience.

    “5. Races rarely take place on the best trails.”
    I was able to buck that trend. In recent years, I have raced such venues as Phil’s World, Penitente Canyon and Palmer Park, all 5-star trail systems.

    “10. You’re just not that fast.”
    Indeed. Last summer, I won a series of races — in the over 50 amateur category. Despite finishing atop the heap, it was a really small, and rather slow heap. Not much to cluck about there!

    • mongwolf

      Hey John. What was the Palmer Park race like? Did they include the full route of Templeton???!!!!!!! I RUN Templeton all the time when I am home in COS, but I rarely ride it. =) That SW portion of trail that drops to overlook of the city is hellacious. I’ve seen a couple of guys clean it over the years. I don’t think I’ll ever get to that level of technical riding. I’m too old and started riding too late in life.

      • John Fisch

        Mongwolf,
        The Palmer race was great! Laps were only three miles and they incorporated more tech than I would have expected (or have ever seen anywhere else) in a cross country race–but there was no Templeton in the course–I suspect that would have been a bit much for most folks.

        Personally, I was especially appreciative of the course including plenty of tech in the climbs. I’m relatively weak aerobically, but a skilled technical climber (at least relative to most dedicated xc racers), so I actually passed folks on climbs for the first time in my life! Usually this was because I was still riding while others were carrying their bikes over some of the uphill obstacles. Being able to maintain rhythm was huge for me.

  • Scott Cotter

    I don’t race much anymore but keep one of two events on the schedule every year to scare me into working harder than I probably would otherwise. It really helps motivate me. And when my form is good I enjoy regular riding more because I can ride longer and faster.

    One you didn’t mention, Greg, but used to really get me: anxiety. I’d get physically ill before events because I’d get so worked up.

    • Greg Heil

      Dang, that doesn’t sound like fun, Scott!! I can’t say I ever had that level of physical distress, but nerves… definitely yes.

  • Charlie Kelly

    Number 6 is, “It reduces self-reliance.”

    I wrote the first set of mountain bike racing rules in 1983 when I was a founding member of NORBA. There were only three real rules. You had to wear a helmet, your bike had to have a working brake, and you had to deal with your own mechanical problems.

    The last rule was a result of my attendance at the National Cyclocross championships shortly before. The eventual national champion showed up with six bikes and a pit crew of half a dozen, who moved bikes around the course, so he could go uphill on a light one, downhill on one a lot more rugged, and then have someone shuttle each bike back to where he changed onto it.

    Everyone else showed up with a bike and a dream. They might as well have handed the winner the trophy before the start, and raced among themselves. The basic unfairness of money being the deciding factor was insulting to everyone except the champion.

    Mountain bikes were illegal machinery by the 1983 UCI standards, and we didn’t much care what they thought about everything else we did with them. We were already outlaws in the eyes of official bicycle racing, so like every other aspect of the sport at that time, we wrote our own rules.

    The original mountain bikes had come out of the “Repack” downhill races I started putting on in 1976, for riders on funky old balloon tire bikes. Competition sorted out the machinery, and used a lot of it up. The races inspired the design and construction of the first real “mountain bikes” by Joe Breeze in 1977-78. A lot of people had ridden old bikes on trails before I raced one downhill, but it took a form of competition to move the sport beyond buying a junk bike for a few bucks and replacing it when it fell apart.

    As originally written, the NORBA rules were designed to reduce the influence of sponsored teams, and give the individual rider a reasonably fair shot once the race started. The other reason for the rule was that since racing had contributed to the design of the machinery, it was a good way to advance it, because durability was as important as any other aspect. Durability is the most important thing for the non-racer, lightness is second. The racing was meant to replicate the conditions of ordinary riding, where the rider is definitely responsible for his own repairs.

    It has been over 30 years since I wrote those rules, and there was no way to defend the original philosophy in the face of so much money pushing for disposable bikes and massive team support, just like the Tour de France.. But now you know how I felt about it then.

    • Greg Heil

      Charlie, thanks so much for sharing! Super insightful to hear about the spirit behind the original races. I wish the spirit had persisted.

      But of course, as numerous commenters have mentioned, you can still find that rugged, self-sufficient spirit in certain underground races and sub-disciplines even today… most notably, bikepacking. Some of those epic adventurers give me hope for myself personally, and for the future of our sport in general.

      Thanks again for the comment Charlie! I hope you have a great week!

  • mongwolf

    Lots of valid perspectives in the comments on both sides. As for me, I’m with Greg on all points. I just love getting in the back country, exploring, experiencing nature, trying to conquer a mountain and rippin’ a few DHs along the way. I’m an old forester, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw some guys riding through the forest in their “tights”. I couldn’t stop laughin’. I still can’t go there myself. I can see it if you are a world class athlete in a serious competition. But imo weekend warriors need to take a step back and get a different perspective … … But hey, to each his own, but I’ll stick with baggies.

  • bphillips373

    Or. …you could be a lot more picky about what race you choose. There are many races that are extremely cheap. They don’t need to be scenic nirvanas.

    • John Fisch

      But then you’re still left with #5 “Races rarely take place on the best trails.”

      Even then, though, there are exceptions. The series I mentioned above in Colorado Springs had GREAT venues (Palmer Park, Cheyenne Mtn State Park) and was dirt cheap as well.

  • jasfoto

    A lot of great points that are worth considering and many that I do agree with. Having just gotten back into mountain biking after a decade or so off, racing has been a fun way for me to connect with local clubs and other riders. I don’t take it too seriously because as you state in #10 I am slow. 🙂 but it is something that helps push my skills a little bit and most of our local races raise funds that support the creation and maintenance of our trails.

  • hendo7179

    If you race and don’t love it why would you race in the first place?
    The points would only make sense if you were somehow forced to race a mtb.
    nonsensical article.

    • mongwolf

      Well lots of people get stuck (or in ruts) in things they do not love. So maybe it’s not just “forced” as you have said. And maybe that’s one of the benefits of this article and presenting a different perspective.

  • Gerald Proulx

    I raced for 7 years on the Quebec provincial XC circuit and loved it,trained for it, dieted for it, spent for it….and was never that fast … and one friday night with my friends about to get in the car to drive 5 hours to get to pre ride a course i just turned around and told my mates “i’m not going”.
    I guess it took 6 years to stop answering the deluding songs of the racing sirens .
    BUT! ..it did make me a faster,leaner and to a degree more daring rider even though i was never that fast , that good nor that daring a rider.
    Ans i got my picture taken with Missy Giove! (yeah it was that long ago).That has to count no? :-p

  • tholyoak

    I’ve never raced, but #2 is the whole reason I enjoy mountain biking.

  • k2rider

    I haven’t raced for at least 15 years and to be honest, I can’t say I miss it. The aspect I disliked the most was getting to the starting point hours before the race and then waiting around. I hated checking in at 7:30 am when our race wasn’t going to start until 9 or 9:30. I did like the ‘atmosphere’ or ‘hoopla’ at the races though. Some friends talk about racing every once in a while but nowadays, I don’t have the ‘drive’ to chase after somebody that’s passed me so why bother paying the entry fees.

    I do like going to various MTB festivals as the atmosphere and camaraderie of like-minded folks makes for a very fun weekend. No attitudes, no politics and a whole lot of riding (and drinking for some 🙂

  • Douglas Hoffman

    I think the reasons are quite valid…for some. However, I picked up mountain biking after a 20 year rugby career in which I played for my university, my state, my region and almost my country. I’m competitive…that’s how I’m wired. When I physically couldn’t play rugby anymore, I needed a sport that offered the need to be very fit and a slight bit of danger…enter mountain biking. Man, I tell you…I enjoy the casual rides, the exploration, the community…I even volunteer as IMBA Mountain Bike Patrol, trail maintenance at my home park and trail building. But that desire to compete, which is in my DNA, is fulfilled through racing. 99% of the time, I’m taking in the scenery. 1% of the time I race…and it satisfies 100% of my competitive urges without landing me at the orthopedic surgeon!

  • j_jbeck

    Amen! I have never raced. I normally ride alone and the most fun thing is exploring and finding spectacular places. I hit my share of dead ends but even those are enjoyable. When I find a gem, I linger and marvel at the beautiful place in which I live (Lakes Region/White Mountains in NH). One of my mountain bikes is set up for camping. Pitching my tent by a stream off an old logging road and knowing there is not another human for miles around is about as good as it gets.

  • rws1019

    I could not agree more! The main point of mountain biking is getting out and enjoying our sport and the great outdoors with, or without friends. BUT! Even though I have never raced I see the NECCESITY of racing. Can you imagine how slowly bikes would have evolved without racing! Thank the mountain biking race gods that I am not still riding around on a bike no better than the 1985 Nishiki Colorado I started out on! Obviously I have been at this awhile! Why have I never raced? I’m not that fast!

  • Adam_Miller

    I thought we all did it for the t-shirts…and sometimes socks? The future of racing is this “un-race”: 4soh.org. It has no real start time and is wholly dependent on using gps services like Strava/Garmin Connect to verify times.

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