I wasn’t prepared for the shaved legs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above the luxuries of smooth skin and streamlined wound care. It’s just the sea of well-defined calf muscles and correlating vasculature taunted me as we waited for the starting gun. The air was thick with humorless ambition, offset by my own self-deprecation aimed at obscuring my crippling fear of failure. The preamble to my first-ever mountain bike race left me audibly questioning my recent life choices to anyone within earshot.
A Historical Aside
Let me interrupt this overwrought tale of woe for a brief history lesson, because if you aspire to sign up for your first mountain bike race it’s useful to know where the sport got its roots.
Mountain biking as we know it was born from racing in the 1970s. Mr. “Well Actually” Guy is likely penning a rebuttal regarding the enigmatic origins of riding bikes off paved surfaces, but for the sake of time we’re going to adhere to the well-accepted doctrine that the first mountain bikers were a bunch of misfits in Marin County who modified cruisers—Klunkers, as they were known—to rally down the fire roads of Mount Tamalpais. These pioneers succumbed to human nature’s endless thirst for conquest and created the world’s first downhill competition, Repack races. The illustrative name describes how riders, after careening downhill and literally vaporizing the grease in their coaster-brake-equipped clunkers, would have to “repack” the hub with fresh grease for each race.
The Repack races were the launchpad responsible for turning a merry band of misfits into a veritable who’s who of mountain bike legends—Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and Tom Ritchey to name a few. They inspired legions of racers with tire-roasting, high-speed drifts. In addition, most every mountain bike innovation on your carbon-framed, custom-tuned super bike is a direct descendant of the equipment forged by this vanguard.
Back to the Plot
Between endlessly tasting dirt while learning to corner, countless looped-out wheelies in parking lots and hazy 4:30 a.m. wakeups to stream grainy live feeds of World Cup Downhill races, I’d thrown away a significant, potentially productive portion of my life for mountain biking. It was time to see how I stacked up in a competition.
For my maiden voyage, I picked a race named Tour des Suds, an event that suitably honors the sport’s half-baked origins and founders. Tour des Suds is a 2,700-foot, seven-mile sufferfest up the trail of the same name and is a relic of Park City, Utah’s nascent mountain bike scene. In the early 1980s, road bike racers, ski bums and lovable delinquents would spend the fall skidding down Jeep roads on incipient mountain bikes. Legend has it one man abandoned a ride only to reemerge with an empty six-pack slung over his handlebars. His compatriots joked that he’d been on a “Tour des Suds,” a fitting name they soon affixed to the trail and the race that would occupy it every year since.
Bike racing’s distinct cultural dichotomy was evident at the starting line where I was flanked on one side by a GU-guzzling terminator in an energy drink-branded Lycra suit and on the other by a brave soul in a full-length, fleece Cat in the Hat costume. Clad in my finest business casual shirt, tie and argyle socks, albeit with some SPD shoes and bona fide cycling shorts, I sat comfortably between those goalposts. Still, the festive atmosphere couldn’t mitigate the frayed nerves weighing me down.
The tension evaporated with the gun. A throng of several hundred overly caffeinated competitors and overly lubricated costumed riders weaved up Main Street through a phalanx of hecklers and well-wishers. The comedy compounded as the race hit singletrack. Congested, technical choke points turned the early going into a chaotic frenzy of slow-speed dismounts.
About two-thirds of the way up, things started to go south. My legs began to devolve into a rubbery mess of lactic acid while self-pitying tears welled up. Elite riders had long-since passed me like I was a lifeless corpse. Loosening my tie did little to alleviate my labored breathing as I continued to grind. Suddenly, an oasis appeared. A group of good Samaritans had unfurled spools of extension cord from an access road, lugged a blender and cooler of ice up the hill, and were handing out frozen margaritas to weary riders. Not all heroes wear capes.
I’d abandoned all hope of a respectable finish around the time someone in an authentic E.T. and Elliot ensemble dusted me on a steep pitch. The popup refreshment stand deserved my attention. Joining me were several early finishers who had come back down to cheer us mortals to the top. Buoyed by the encouragement, I powered the last half hour up the trail and embraced the glory of a lower-mid-pack finish.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably feeling the itch to battle adulthood’s drudgery and rehash Repack yourself. No matter where you live, what your experience level is or what your bike looks like, go ahead and sign up for a race. It’s time to toe the line. May the trail gods smile favorably upon thee.
Picking the Right Race
Mountain bike racing comes in many varieties. Start with what you like, and don’t worry what the online forum trolls think is cool. Whatever race looks the most like what you’d choose to do for fun on a Saturday is a good start.
- Format: One timed downhill run
- Ideal Rig: Burly bikes with big tires
- Perfect For: Embracing the pull of gravity while letting go of your brakes and inhibitions
- Steer Clear If: Steep trails, high speeds and big risks aren’t your thing
- Format: One or more timed loops including climbing and descending
- Ideal Rig: Featherweight frames with long stems, like the Salsa Deadwood or the GHOST Lector
- Perfect For: Channeling your cardio training and VO2 max into results
- Steer Clear If: Maximum effort and full Lycra don’t rev your engine
- Format: Timed downhill stages with untimed uphill climbs in between (See also: regular mountain biking)
- Ideal Rig: Bikes that go up and down hills, like the Cannondale Jekyll or the GHOST FRAMR (see also: regular mountain bikes)
- Perfect For: Elevating your typical group ride into a competitive event
- Steer Clear If: You prioritize single-minded excellence and think versatility is a four-letter word
- Format: 12 or 24-hour race that can usually be done as a team
- Ideal Rig: Any mountain bike you’re comfortable on for a long time, like the Cannondale Habit (see also: your mountain bike)
- Perfect For: Testing your endurance and plumbing the depths of your will
- Steer Clear If: Immediate gratification is important to you
Choose costumed races whenever possible. The vibes are always better. If costumes aren’t specifically mentioned, it never hurts to show up with a Hawaiian shirt, a bolo tie and a tutu.