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>Racing mountain bikes: practical information for those starting out!
So you want to race mountain bikes eh? Here's some tips from Peter Thornton

So you want to race mountain bikes eh? Here's some useful information from Peter Thornton - an experienced racer who a couple of years ago gave up the splendor of riding in the muddy English countryside in favour of the snowy Canadian Rockies.

Racing for the first time...

If you've been biking for a while and have a good level of fitness its a natural next step to try a race. You don't need to have a titanium bike and less than a pound of fat on you. Or be a buttocks model. Though that may help. Just a desire to see how well you can do and to push your fitness and riding skills.

There are many rides you can enter with little fuss. Typically, novice races have short sections that are more technical, while the rest is easier but demands your fitness instead. I began riding in various competitions in the South-East (UK) and most courses were like this, consisting of a lap of several miles with three or four laps, taking between one and two hours to complete.

Races are held for all age groups and levels. Novice races are less pressured, and you can always start further back in the field if it's your first time

A few basic rules...
Here's a few pointers - all with aim of saving your energy in the race and improving your chances of finishing with a good time.  
The bike - ensure it's up to the job  

Just make sure your bike is in good condition, and particularly the gears work well. Don't worry about all that suspension and dual hydraulic disk brakes that everyone else has. Even off-road, lightness is king. I've raced on a rigid mountain bike. Most bikes these days come with front shocks and are a good trade off between lightness and comfort. Every extra pound saved will feel like 50 pounds late in a race. Note, even World Cup racers seldom use rear suspension or disk brakes. Likewise, try not to waste energy by having tyres that are too soft or fat. In road racing, even the best riders could not be competitive on tyres that aren't pumped up fully. It's the biggest energy loss in cycling. Every extra pound of pressure can make a huge difference in a long race. In mountain biking, harder tyres also mean less grip on loose surfaces and a rougher ride, so a compromise is called for. But as most of the course is probably less technical you may want to go for harder than if you were on a casual ride.

Also, you'll need a puncture repair kit, or preferably a spare tube to carry. Don't forget the pump and tyre levers. A set of Allen keys is worth having too. You're not likely to fix a broken chain in a race so leave the rest of your tool box behind.

If you are just staring out, you can get a good bike (with front suspension) from a good manufacturer for about £300.

Online Bike Shop

Check for special deals

Food and water...  
This depends on the individual but as these races are typically under two hours, food is not so critical. Have a good meal and drink before hand, though. An energy bar should do it for the race. Water depends on the individual and the weather. Just don't overdo it. Carrying a gallon of water is going to make you need a gallon of water, so try to strike a balance.
On Race Day - knowledge is power  

This one is important...pre-ride the course. Get there early and leave at least an hour for learning the course, in addition to registration time. That way you won't be the one who takes his head off on the low-hanging branch or hits a four inch stump on the way out of that tight turn. Because you wont see it when chasing a cloud of racers and dust on the first lap.

Don't be intimidated. You won't believe the money some people spend - and that's just on their cycling shirt. Gear wankers are a fact of life in this sport. Their bikes will be so clean that you'll think they've never been in the mud. They haven't. Console yourself with the fact that a fair proportion of these guys will blow out of the race with excuses ranging from 'my rear suspension is a little tight since the rebuild', to 'my ultra-light frame snapped in half'...to...'I didn't want to get my bike too dirty'.

The Race: Now the fun starts!  

You'll get a bike freaked out at the start as you wait for the off, like you're going into battle , but remember, its only a laugh, not Omaha beach. Oh, just try not to run over anyone who falls in front of you.

The pace will tend to be unrealistically high at the outset, but hard to resist as you ride with the pack. Once in the race, save your energy. For example, walk - don't ride. What? Believe me, short technical spots and sections that are rideable with effort normally - but would leave you out of breath - will kill you in a race. Even a third of the way through the race you'll be quite tired. Don't waste energy trying to ride up that short slippery bank. Get off and run up it. Its usually less effort, will give your cycling muscles a break, and its often faster too. Save your energy, you'll need it. Then get your head down and settle into the less dramatic sections where the race is really won and lost. In long narrow sections, let faster riders pass. Be courteous, even if it means losing a second or two. You'll wish the guy in front blocking your progress would do the same.

Remember to pace yourself, don't burn-out too early!
That's what its all about. Forget who came in front of you (unless its your mate of course). Don't worry about your time. Its infinitely better than the guy who dropped out cos he went too fast at the start and then vomited on turn two. Then look for your tiny name in the fine print of finishers. You'll never feel so proud. Then with your first race done, you can start plotting world domination!