Opinion: 10 Reasons Why You Should NOT Race Your Mountain Bike

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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