A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Hosting a Mountain Bike Race

I imagined hosting a mountain bike race was a lot of work, but I didn’t realize how much work until I helped make stop #3 of the 2014 Montana Enduro Series (MES) in Great Falls, MT a reality. Eight months prior to the event, Steve from The Gravity Guild Garage contacted Travis at Knickerbiker to see …

I imagined hosting a mountain bike race was a lot of work, but I didn’t realize how much work until I helped make stop #3 of the 2014 Montana Enduro Series (MES) in Great Falls, MT a reality.

Eight months prior to the event, Steve from The Gravity Guild Garage contacted Travis at Knickerbiker to see if there was interest in Great Falls hosting one of the stops of the MES. Since Travis and I had no experience hosting a race, we first discussed the pros and cons of hosting one, and then jumped at the opportunity. After a few meetings going over GPS data and the logistics of how to pull it off, we had our route planned out and were able to piece together an elevation profile to send to Steve. With the location and route decided, then came the real work.

The first timed stage of the enduro was along the south shore of the Missouri River and the second timed stage was on the north shore. The transition stage between these two had racers crossing Cochrane Dam to get from the south shore to the north. The biggest issue: the dam is usually closed and hadn’t been opened since 2009. Another issue was getting the proper approvals for hosting a bike race. Travis started working with the multiple agencies that owned the trails to get approval while I focused on the quality of the singletrack itself. Unfortunately, there isn’t much opportunity for trail maintenance during January and February in Montana; however, the abysmal weather gave me ample opportunity to make plans for trail maintenance.

As a rider and volunteer trail builder, I have a “wish list” of trail improvements to make the trails ride better, handle more traffic, shed water easier, etc, etc. Nothing will make those “little tweaks” seem like huge projects more than hosting a race. To get our trails race-ready, we had two large projects, a few smaller ones, and of course the general grooming of trails.

2015-04-08 ToS
Temple of the Snake. Left: April 08, 2014. Right: Race Day, August 09, 2014

Our first task was to transform a steep, uphill lefthand turn into something that was rideable, and more importantly: sustainable. Thankfully, the mountain biking gods smiled in our favor and we were able to start the heavy lifting in early April. Our first effort at tackling this challenge consisted mostly of harvesting rocks from the hillside. We needed these rocks to cover the five-foot climb the turn makes. After the rock gathering and a few initial placements, our group of six ran out of daylight and had to call it a night. The next weekend Travis and I returned and started slaving away. After a total of thirty man hours spent building and refining the turn, Temple of the Snake was finished, and we were amazed at how well it turned out.

With our first—and most difficult—of two big projects in the bag, we focused our attention on some smaller projects. For National Trails Day on the 7th of June, a group of five of us tweaked a few areas of the trail. We built one corner to give the trail better flow along with improving water management, and we did some basic maintenance on other areas of the trail. That day went very smoothly thanks to the volunteers and the Great Falls Fish, Wildlife, and Parks staff. It’s always nice having extra bodies and tools, food, and water pre-positioned when working on trails.

With just over a month until race day and only one major project remaining, progress was visible. Everything was rideable, but there were still multiple areas that needed grooming to improve line of sight and make the course ride that much better. The race could have happened without this beautification project, but it wouldn’t have showcased our trails as best as possible.

Moving one of many large slabs to armor Chaos's entrance.
Moving one of many large slabs to armor Chaos’s entrance.

On July 31st, we rounded up the usual suspects and headed out for the final “Must Do” project on our wish list: rock armoring the 65-foot entrance to Chaos. A total of seven riders gave up their Thursday night to help improve the trail. The Herculean effort from everyone enabled us to get the entrance completed in just over two hours instead of extending the work into the weekend. We now had eight days to relax… and by relax, I mean ride the trails to make sure we didn’t forget anything.

Finally it was Friday—the day before the race. It was time to mark the trail and place the timing areas. In the morning, Travis and I met Eric from Montana Enduro Series at Knickbiker. We loaded up the surveyor’s tape, caution tape, directional arrow signs, stakes, mallets, and staple guns, and headed out for a few hours of marking the nine-mile course. Portions of the trail have some pretty decent exposure, and we wanted to make sure no one took an accidental swim in the Missouri River. We also needed to mark the course well enough so out-of-towners would know where to turn.

Our “few hours” turned into nine hours in the hot August sun. As the day progressed, a few more volunteers from Helena, MT (home of the MES) arrived to help mark the course. We were grateful to have fresh bodies willing to carry the equipment. We arrived back at the trailhead just after 8:30pm–thank goodness for that late Montana sun!

Entrance to Chaos. Race day: August 09, 2014
Entrance to Chaos. Race day: August 09, 2014

All the hours of planning, moving rocks, trail building, course grooming, and all-around hard work paid off. Every racer we spoke with in the transition area and at the awards ceremony after the race loved the course, and nobody took any unexpected dips in the river. The racers were especially impressed with two areas: the entrance to Chaos and Temple of the Snake. It’s always nice to hear one’s hard work doesn’t go unnoticed!

Hosting this race gave me an even deeper appreciation for all the hard work that goes into making races happen. I can’t wait for the next one!

Your turn: Do you have any race setup experience? How did your experience compare to this? Do you have any tips for anyone looking to host a race?

Jared Steffen started mountain biking May 10th, 2011, the day after he joined Singletracks. Jared has been a committed Singletracks user since that time, and he is now a member of the Singletracks Trail Team. For his day job he’s an officer in the Air Force, which allows him to move around the nation and experience lots of great trails.

Related articles

  1. Migration Gravel Race Aims to Bring Bike Tourism to Kenya and Support Local Athletes
  2. Review: NiteRider Pro 2200 Race Bike Light
  3. Interbike, Day 1: BMC, KMC, Michelin, and Dakine
  4. Lessons Learned Racing a Top of the Line Mountain Bike From the 1990s... In 2021