Getting ready for your first mountain bike race

So you’ve signed up for your first mountain bike race… now what? Maybe you’ve raced on the road or dabbled in cyclocross before and decided it was time to try a new discipline. That’s great! The Ontario Cup mountain bike series is a fun, welcoming way to test your skills off road in a beginner-friendly atmosphere, but offers a ton of challenge for more advanced riders. Here’s what you need to know to settle your nerves and have your best possible race day:

Pre-ride the course

Every Ontario Cup mountain bike race offers pre-ride windows in the days before the race to allow both new and veteran riders a chance to check out the course. This is a great opportunity to see what obstacles are on the course before your heart is pounding and riding with people on race day. You can do a lap of the course at your own pace, taking time to check out certain obstacles, or even going back to ride certain sections again. (Note: if you decide to try a section again, make sure you’re being safe and staying alert to other riders who may be coming towards you on the course. It’s a good idea to walk your bike rather than ride backwards on the course!)

Check out the start/finish area

If you can’t make the pre-ride, at least check out the starting and finishing area on the course on race day. Ride them yourself if possible, or at minimum, watch another race start and finish, so you can see how the terrain is riding. Is it an uphill slog at the finish? Knowing that will help you push through those final meters with maximum effort. Sandy start? You’ll know to focus on staying balanced and smooth—and maybe to keep space between you and the other riders!

Determine your tire pressure

You likely already know this if you’ve been mountain biking for a while, but if you’re a road rider who’s just getting used to riding on the dirt, you may not realize just how much lower your tire pressure can and should be on the mountain bike. Tire pressure will generally be in the 20-30PSI range, depending on your weight, the terrain, and whether or not you have tubeless tires. If you feel as though your tires are bottoming out on rocks and roots, add a couple pounds of pressure (PSI). If you feel like you’re not getting any traction in corners and bouncing over rocks and roots, consider dropping the pressure by a pound to two.

Be prepared

Mountain biking gets messy, whether it’s wet and muddy or hot and dusty on the course. If you have a long way to drive home from a race, make sure you have some bike cleaning supplies or a blanket that can get mucky if your bike goes in the back of your car, and bring some towels and spare water bottles so you can spray yourself down as well. (A cheap hand-pumping 2.5-gallon weed sprayer is a great tool for spraying your bike and your legs without taking up much space in the car!)

Pace yourself—but not the way you think

Mountain bike racing differs from road in a lot of key ways, the main one being that there’s no simple pacing strategy. The nature of mountain biking is that it’s constantly on and off the gas: One minute, you’re going as hard as you can up a steep hill, and the next minute, you’re not even pedalling as you cruise down some technical single-track. Riders who come from a road background and are used to maintaining a relatively steady pace/heart rate/power output in a race are often thrown for a loop when they start mountain bike racing because the pace will vary based on terrain, not necessarily on tactics. Expect more highs and lows throughout the race, rather than a steady line.

Pay attention to your surroundings

Not only do you want to pay attention to the trail ahead of you, Ontario Cup races are often run with multiple races happening on course at the same time. Because of this, it’s important to keep your ears open to listen for riders who may be coming up behind you with the intent of passing—often, they aren’t your direct competitors; they’re in another race altogether! Whether you’re the rider who’s passing someone or you’re the rider getting passed, try to be as courteous as possible. If a rider behind you says, ‘On your right!’ try to shift as far to your left as possible, in order to give them room to get through.

BYO Snacks

Ontario Cups tend to take place in parks or forested areas that don’t have a lot of access to easy food options. Some will have snack stands or food trucks, but it’s a good idea to bring plenty of water and snacks so that if the food situation isn’t what you were hoping for, you’re not left with a rumbling stomach pre- or post-race.

Come early, stay late

Ontario Cups are all about community, and if you’re new to mountain biking and hoping to make some new riding buddies, the best way to do so is to hang around before and after your race. Try to cool down with people who raced with you, cheer on other riders in different fields—make a day of it rather than simply showing up at your start time and leaving immediately afterwards. Have fun, and say hi to people!

About the writer:

Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.