No, You’re Not Too Old to Enter Your First Mountain Bike Race

Moniera Khan of Squamish recently decided to take on her first mountain bike race at the age of 54.
Photos: Jason T Strother | @mnkyphotos

As humans, we often give ourselves excuses to avoid challenges, and in modern society it’s easier than ever to find an excuse. But what we miss is the personal growth that comes with the experience; gains in confidence, physical and mental strength derived from either success or failure.

For mountain bikers, racing is often the ultimate challenge that suits an already challenging sport, and anyone who has ever raced or considered a race knows excuses can pile up quickly. Do I have time to train? To race? Am I, or can I, be fit enough to win/perform/finish?

Moniera Khan of Squamish, BC is usually the one ensuring other racers have their heads clear before they step up to the start line of BC Bike Race. Khan runs racer relations and communicates with athletes regarding their registration, meal plans, transportation, and all the ins and outs when it comes to a seven day stage race in potentially a different country. Though Khan, 54, rides regularly and works for a mountain bike race organization, she had never put on a number plate before.

A friend first got her thinking about racing the Singletrack 6 in 2020. Six days of racing sounded like it might be a bit much for her first time, but she found another option under TransRockies: a three-day stage race over some of Moab’s best trails.

“It took me a week-and-a-half to work up the courage to sign up for it because I’ve never raced,” she said. “I don’t know what the hell I’m in for.”

Moab Rocks is usually held in the spring, and of course, the world became preoccupied with another event in March 2020. More than 18 months later, Moab Rocks resumed again in October 2021, and the race would happen again in April 2022. Khan weighed her registration and reasons to race or not to race.

“I was thinking, ‘do I want to try again?'” she said. “Do I want to start training again? And just the reality of being 54, the window’s closing, right? I mean, I could still race at 55 but it’s going to [get] harder. So I sort of thought of it as — doing it now would be my best shot at success.”

Before training, she rode casually about twice a week. After signing up for the April race, Khan reached out to a coach. She was committed and thought she might as well try because even if she didn’t finish, she would still learn what her limits are.

Khan got along with training quite well. “I love the discipline that came out of it,” she says. “If my plan said to go ride for three hours and it was pouring rain, I would put my Gore-Tex on and go ride for three hours. And you know, the first half-hour, you feel sorry for yourself but once you’re out there, you’re out there.”

Coach Mike Durner, who has worked with Paralympic cycling teams, endurance athletes, and others in between wrote up a program for Khan. She’d train five days a week, mixing strenuous bike rides and strength training with recovery work like breathing and yoga. When one training session finished, she’d start preparing for the next immediately after by napping, elevating her legs, or refueling.

Durner says that the training programs he builds for new and experienced racers are actually pretty similar. The difference is often in the athlete’s head.

“What differs between the two is how the training is utilized for mental preparation and confidence,” Durner says. “The experienced racer knows that if they execute a well planned program they can complete the event and reach their goals. With the new racer, they don’t yet have the experience of finishing something that is designed to be physically, technically, and mentally challenging, so they tend to have a big question mark floating around inside their head.”

For first-time racers, Durner recommends talking to a few coaches first to find the right one. Ask questions and express goals around the event. His job, he explains, is to “help them believe that the work they put in during training builds the ability (physical, technical, and mental) for them to finish the event.”

Since Khan didn’t have access to terrain similar to what she would find in Utah, her coach planned out a similar schedule in training: three long rides over three consecutive days.

After a few months of intense preparation, Khan was on her way to Moab, trading wet roots and damp forest for dusty ledges and arid air. Was she ready?

“I was never ready,” she says. “I mean are you ever ready? You always want six more months of training.”

She pre-rode Porcupine Rim when she got to Utah, familiarizing herself with the endless climb to the trail and the narrow, staircase-like rocks on the descents. On day one, she knew she had a big, steep road climb ahead, followed by meddling sandstone rocks, but training and pre-riding gave her the confidence to push through.

One of her fears had been riding the race alone — but with a network of mountain bikers, many of whom are BC Bike Race alumni and eager to race again, the fear never materialized. Friends of hers flew in to race with her, supported her, cheered her on, and even waited back during stages to finish with her.

“[The human connection] was probably the biggest part of the race experience for me,” she says. “The kindness and the connection that everybody involved in the race shows to each other.”

After three days of climbing and descending some of Moab’s most challenging trails, she rolled up to the finish line, after every other racer, tired and full of emotion.

“I was dead last,” she says. “But I feel like I won the thing. My only goal was to finish every day with a smile on my face and not hate my life and I reached those goals.”

Khan jokes that she spent as much time on the course every single day as the leaders spent over all three days. But that’s OK. Everyone races for different reasons and everyone’s race is different. It doesn’t matter where someone finishes; at least they put their tires on the course. Her race experience is as valid as anyone else’s.

“Even if you’re coming in last, there’s personal growth coming from it.”

Khan plans to race the Steamboat Gravel this summer with Marley Blonsky’s All Bodies on Bikes team. Though she had a great support team to lean on and draw energy from, she says for her next race she wants to be stronger and more self-sufficient. That doesn’t mean she’s planning, or wants to do it alone.

“I feel so lucky to be a part of this community,” she says. “Even though I’m a bit of the odd man out to it. I’m older than most of the people I ride with, I’m heavier than most of the people I ride with. It’s just nothing but love and good vibes in mountain biking. And I just appreciate that so, so much.”