Confessions of a Newbie Mountain Bike Racer

A foggy start. Photo: Annie Simcoe.
A foggy start. Photo: Annie Simcoe.

I stood alone under the big tent as rain poured down outside, butterflies in my stomach. My heart was pounding and I hadn’t even started riding yet. Everyone else was talking to each other, friends and acquaintances, or maybe just braver and less socially-awkward than I was. Some of the ladies I’d met the night before were nearby, but I didn’t feel comfortable joining their conversation. Once the rain let up a little, I jumped on my bike and rode circles in the parking lot to hopefully alleviate my nerves. “Are you ready for this?” one of the other women asked me, knowing that it was my first mountain bike race. “I guess so,” I said, “It’s just another bike ride, right?”

I was about to race the Big Bear Ultra at Big Bear Lake in West Virginia. I’d been down there to ride the trails earlier in the summer and loved them–and was also talked into trying out this race by my friends Jeff and Annie, who put on the event. I’d always thought that I wouldn’t be into racing. I ride my bike to have fun. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the pressure of competition. But I also knew that I couldn’t truly knock it until I at least tried it, so I signed up. I figured it would be a good way to meet more people in the mountain bike world, if anything. The Ultra event consisted of three different distance options–40, 20, and 10 miles. I decided to do the 20. I knew I could finish it, but it would still be a tough ride, especially if I was pushing myself to go fast.

I didn’t train specifically for the race at all. I rode my normal amount, which usually averages around 75 miles a week and includes a mix of paved roads, gravel, and singletrack. Sometimes I ride to work. Sometimes I ride to the local bar. And I go ride trails as often as I can. But it’s not all that often that I ride 20 miles of singletrack at once, just because of the time factor. Despite that, I didn’t feel as though I was unprepared for the race itself. I’d ridden 20 miles at Big Bear before and, though not often, I’ve done hard rides of considerably longer distances before. I ride super rocky terrain with lots of climbing on a regular basis. Somehow, I still felt nervous. I kept my mind on my main goals–to have fun, do my best, and make new friends.

We all lined up at the start. The rain had subsided, but it was still going to be a mudfest out there. I looked around at everyone else. Most people were all kitted-out, but some others weren’t. I was part of this latter category–I had decided against wearing a jersey on purpose because when it’s hot and humid, I am way more comfortable in a tank top, and also because there was this certain image in my head of cross-country racing that I didn’t want to contribute to, an image that somehow associated fully-kitted team riders with taking the sport too seriously. This was an unsubstantiated thought, as I’d come to discover later, but at the time, these very professional-looking riders intimidated me.

There were a fair number of women. The men still greatly outnumbered us, but it was good to see more than enough for all the podium spots. There were seven in my class, and five badass ladies did the 40-miler.

Jeff counted us down, and we were off. The race began on doubletrack, and I passed some people as we coasted downhill at the start. I passed a few more on the climb that followed, and then we transitioned to singletrack. I was conscious to not go too hard off the bat, worried that I’d blow up too early after an adrenaline-fueled sprint out of the gate. So I hung back for a bit, tailing one of the other women. She let me by when she dabbed on a log-over, and I soon caught up to someone else. I rode behind her for a while until she asked if I wanted to pass. I took her up on the offer.

One of the things I was worried about going into the race was passing. I wasn’t sure what the proper etiquette was. I wasn’t sure I’d feel comfortable asking someone if I could get by, and at the same time, I’m also usually pretty uncomfortable whenever someone is right behind me. It turned out that passing was way easier than I expected, and it was a lot less frequent than I expected. For some reason I envisioned that it would be happening constantly, but I was only passed by a couple people, and I overtook a handful, all in the first few miles of the race. I ended up leapfrogging with one guy for a while, and we sort of rode together–I let him go ahead on the descents and he’d let me go first on the climbs. Then on one long climb, I lost him, and I didn’t see a single soul for the rest of the race. The entire second half of the ride, for 10 miles, I was alone.

Photo: Derek Bissett.
Just past the first aid station, about 6 miles in. Photo: Derek Bissett.

It was a pretty weird feeling to be by myself in the woods during an event like this. There were a few times when I forgot that I was racing, and I found my mind wandering and my legs beginning to move at a more leisurely pace, as if I were just out on a causal ride. Then I’d catch myself, and I’d put the hammer down.

At this point, I knew that provided none of the ladies behind me caught up, I was on the podium. I didn’t know that I was in first place. I thought that there was still someone in front of me. I didn’t care, though. I was having a blast! Racing was a lot more fun than I thought it would be! It was a lot of fun to push myself in this way, because when I go out for a normal ride, I usually don’t try to ride all that fast. The trails were awesome–a perfect mix of rocks, roots, and smooth dirt that wound through thick ferns and forests–classic East Coast goodness.

By the end of the ride, when I passed the sign declaring that the finish line was only a mile away, I was definitely tired, and ready for some food. I ended up not stopping at any of the aid stations because I didn’t need to. I’d decided to wear my Camelbak because I have to drink tons of water when it’s hot out, or else I get really lightheaded and generally feel terrible. Though I don’t particularly like wearing a pack, I can’t argue with the easy-access hydration, and as much as the weight on my back can be annoying at times, it’s still worth it. So I had plenty of water, and I’d eaten a hearty-enough breakfast that I didn’t find myself getting hungry until fairly late in the race. A couple Clif Shot Bloks helped me stave off a bonk through the end.

Muddy fun! Photo: Annie Simcoe.
Muddy fun! Photo: Annie Simcoe.

I crossed the finish line to a few cheers and claps. This was a super low-key event, so there weren’t crowds of people watching, and I liked it that way. I found Annie to tell her how my ride was, and she informed me that I had won. “Really?” I said. Holy crap! Despite feeling strong and getting ahead of a lot of people, I still didn’t think I’d come in first in my class. I felt elated.

I rinsed my bike off, changed out of my wet, muddy clothes, and grabbed a plate of food and a beer. Now for the part I was most nervous about–socializing. I’d come to the race alone, unable to convince any of my friends to sign up, or even come along to hang out. I know I’m alright at riding a mountain bike, but navigating a sea of people who already know each other and trying to strike up a conversation isn’t my strong suit. One of my main goals of the day was to meet people and make new friends, though, so it was time to put my fears aside.

It turned out that everyone was extremely nice, friendly, and supportive, and I did make a bunch of new friends and riding buddies. The ladies I was racing against were all super stoked about my win, and I was relieved to find out that everyone was just out here to have fun… just like myself.

All in all, I had a much better first race experience than I expected. It was more fun that I thought it would be, the people were all really great, and this particular race was really well-organized. I used to think that racing wasn’t my thing, but I might have changed my mind. I’m not going to start racing all the time, but I’m pretty excited to try another one fairly soon. I’d encourage anyone who is at least somewhat interested in racing, but maybe a little apprehensive, to give it a try, and you too might be surprised at how fun it can be.

On the top podium spot! Photo: Annie Simcoe.
On the top podium spot! Photo: Annie Simcoe.

Obviously, all events are different, and the chill and welcoming atmosphere of the Big Bear race was a key to my great experience. If you’re interested in participating in a particular event but aren’t sure what it’ll be like, talk to people who have done it before. Regardless of what race you choose to do, the most important thing is to have a positive attitude, don’t take yourself too seriously, and make having fun the first priority.

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