I did my first ever cross country (XC) mountain bike race recently. I’ve done a bunch of longer distance endurance races (6hr, 50 mile, 100k’s, etc) and a few short time trials, but this was my first mass-start, short distance, high intensity race. It was crazy! It was both frustrating and fun at the same time, and I can see how people get addicted to it. I learned a lot that day, so read on to hear how my race went and to see if XC racing is something you might enjoy yourself.
The Race and Course
The race was put on by Gone Riding and was a dual-series race for the South East Regional Championship and the Georgia State Championship. The course was a flatish rooty and rocky 10.5 mile loop at Dauset Nature Trails in Jackson, GA. There was only about 900ft of climbing per lap, but there were tons of roots and way more rocks than you would expect to find in middle Georgia. It was a rough course, but the conditions were hard packed and fast. There were 3 classes: Base (XC3) Sport (XC2) and Expert/Pro (XC1). Base did one lap, Sport did 2, and Expert did 3. Everything I read suggested first timers race in the Base class, so that’s exactly what I did, in the 19-29 age category.
I knew the pace would be fast the whole time, so for about 15 minutes before we started I rode up and down a long mellow gravel road climb. I pedaled an easy high cadence at first, then did some sprinting to send my heart rate up to redline a few times. I arrived at the start line, heart rate up and already sweating,just minutes before we went off. There were 8 of us in my class, and no one looked slow.
On Your Mark, Get Set, GO!!
No really – GO!!! As soon as they said “go” it was a full out 100% effort sprint. We had about a quarter of a mile on a gravel road before we entered the singletrack. Almost immediately two guys somehow got tangled up and crashed hard at what had to be close to 20mph. I entered the singletrack at the back of the now 6 person pack. The pace never slowed down – it was fast, aggressive riding the entire race. Balls to the wall, hard as you can go. If you don’t feel like you might puke, you’re not trying hard enough. After a mile or so I made a pass and moved up to 5th, and kept pushing myself.
Me booking it through the woods. Be mindful of the trees! Photo: Mark D.
Around the4 mile mark I had almost reeled in the two riders ahead of me – I was close enough they weren’t getting out of sight anymore. Then on a rough climb I downshifted without easing up on the pedals. This is when I learned my upper limit screw on the rear derailleur was out of adjustment – the chain jumped past the big cog and got jammed between the spokes and cassette. I had to stop. The guys in front of me quickly disappeared, and the 3 behind me flew past. Before I could get the chain free some of the racers in the wave that started after my class had also caught and passed me, including my friend Chris.
Once I got the chain free I took off in earnest, trying as hard as I could to catch back up. At a switchback there was another crash and I caught my friend Chris and a few other guys. Chris isn’t slow, so I tried tostay on his wheel. A short while later I passed Chris when he was in the wrong gear on a rocky climb. He caught back up to me pretty quickly, but didn’ttry to pass. Knowing he was behind memade me push even harder. Around 7.5 miles into the lap we catch a group of four racers, then my chain gets stuck between the cassette and spokes again.
This time it’s really stuck good, and I end up literally sitting on the ground next to the trail pulling and tugging on the chain trying to get it free. A ton of people pass me. There’s no way I can catch anyone in my class at this point: my race is over. After what feels like an eternity a course volunteer/photographer comes down the hill and helps me get the chain free. I finished the lap at a decent pace, but not nearly as hard as I was riding before. No point in killing myself now. A few minutes after I finish I hit the stop button on my heart rate monitor. One hour and nine minutes on the clock, average heartrate of 181 bpm and a max of 206 bpm. I told you it was full out!
The biggest lesson I took away from the race is that perfect bike set up is critical. I had nearly 200 miles on that bike since building it up with no issues, but the race was the first time I rode it that hard – basically with reckless abandon. Shifting while cranking as hard as possible on the pedals will show any imperfections in your set up!
Some other advice for those of you interested in trying an XC race:
- Warm up is crucial! The pace is fast the entire ride so starting cold will suck.
- The ‘beginner’ class isn’t just for beginner riders – the leaders are very fast. The winners in pretty much every class all averaged over 13mph (on a very rough course)- the sport and expert riders just did it for more laps.
- Have realistic expectations. Your only goal for your first race should be to finish without getting hurt. The chance of you winning is very small.
- Keep your head up. Everything happens fast. Crashes, people stalling, unexpected roots or rocks – you gotta see them in time to react.
The kids race was awesome! Photo: Mark D.
All in All…
…it was a fun day, even though I was dead last in my class. The atmosphere was much more laid back and relaxed than I expected. Everyone was friendly and there to have fun. I also thought the kids race was cool – get ’em hooked young! The only thing I didn’t like was the drive-time to race-time ratio – I spent about 5hrs in the car and only about 50minutes riding. I probably wont do another one until I can combine it with a trip to visit friends or family. I can’t wait to try another XC race though!