Riding a Snowball’s Chance
A How-To Guide for people interested in racing mountain bikes for fun.
I’m going to admit a secret: Yesterday was actually my first mountain bike race ever.
This is definitely something I’ve lied about. My pride has a hard time coming to grips with the lack of racing in my identity as a hardcore cyclist.
New York didn’t exactly cater to die-hard teenage mountain bikers back in the early 2000’s. Not to mention, I was terrified of failure as a kid.
Talking with local bike mechanics, and without much motivation from my parents, I made a few half-hearted attempts to find a local race where I could fit in.
Then, when I was 13, I had one glorious opportunity to enter the realm of mountain bike racing.
I was in Vermont the summer after 8th grade for mountain bike camp. We toured all of New England doing some of the most hardcore riding I’ve done in my life.
My skills were neck-and-neck with the oldest kid there, an 18 year-old freeride demon named Gabe. Gabe was from Lexington, Mass. and rode a full-suspension long-travel beast of a bike. He could smoke me on the downhills, and did drops I wouldn’t dare dream about, but I was always second behind him down those hills, and first getting up them!
My skills as a rider developed hugely that summer, mostly through sheer tenacity. It was also the first time I was flashed by a girl. An important month of firsts.
But, I also got pretty bent out of shape over my first serious opportunity to race, and subsequent failure to do so.
Gosh, no offense to those guys, but my camp-mates were really jerks on a couple of subjects. I was the youngest there, the best cross-country* rider by far, and obviously shy.
While I waffled on sign-ups for the race , and kind-of begged my peers to help me, they purposefully misled me to miss race registration.
I was a mess of emotions. It was so painful that I honestly have blocked the aftermath out of my mind. I can’t remember if I bottled my emotions up, cried like a baby, or what.
One other rider from our group did enter the race. I think he had a good time.
After that, I never got up the courage again.
So don’t be misled by my affinity for adventure, extreme sports, and public speaking. This has all probably been a response to growing up a shy, awkward loner.
The silly thing is, I was a great rider back then. It was my own fear limiting me.
It’s only been through developing my own self-confidence bit by bit over many years of adventures that I’m able to take on huge challenges, like saving the fate of a company or winter sailing in the mid-Atlantic.
So, back to yesterday. Thanks to some really motivational people in my life, including an intense month of January dating a girl who probably drove two years of personal growth in me, it was no big deal to take a leap of faith into the unknown.
Even so, I have to say that heading out to finally face my fears around bike racing was at least as daunting as going paragliding in Valle De Bravo, Mexico, which is famous for kicking pilot’s asses.
First, signing up was itself a strange act. I honestly don’t even remember what compelled me to start googling for races. To some degree, I must have been influenced by my one friend recently talking about the fun of having dated a bike racer and gone to races all over the east coast.
Then, I drove hours up from Brooklyn into the hinterlands of Orange County, New York on the Pennsylvania border. I forgot to eat anything that morning.
I had a whole logistical mess of trying to find tires for my bike in time for the race. I got, and put on, the new tires in the rider registration room minutes before the start of the race.
And the result?
I had an amazing time!
An old friend joined me, so I got to see a friendly face- someone I missed and cared about. My hands froze completely numb for the beginning of the race. I powered away to the front of the pack and trailed the leaders well for the first couple of miles. I slid all over and crashed once. I rode beautiful lines and the new tires hooked up awesome for the hill climbs and kept me from sliding off a few cliffs. My camelback froze up and my stopping to fix it, and have a snack, probably cost me the race.
All in all, I rode 12 miles in 2 hours and 25 seconds. I had a blast, didn’t get hurt, and finished 4th in my class, only 50 seconds shy of a podium finish!
Not bad for a first outing. Gosh, it was so much fun!
If you’re still unconvinced, I met a woman at the awards who signed up for the ‘fun’ 12 mile ride with no prior mountain bike experience. She borrowed a bike just before the race, swapped on some knobby tires, and went for it!
Amazingly, she finished, despite several DNFs that day (including my buddy). I asked if she enjoyed it. She emphatically said ‘Yes!’ but that 12 miles was definitely her limit.
I asked her what motivated her. She told me she was simply interested. She wanted something to do, loves riding bikes, and was having a hard time finding engaging activities in rural PA.
Turns out nobody had registered for the Women’s Sport 12 division — meaning that as a finisher she would have been de-facto winner of her class!
I made mention of this fact to the organizers and she got to stand at the ‘podium’ and pick out a prize. Not bad for a seriously first outing!
So if you’d like to try any wild and new adventure, go for it!
Here’s a few tips to keep you stoked & safe:
General Adventure Tips
- Start small — Whatever you think you might be into, don’t put too much pressure on yourself up front. Decide what’s core to the experience and eliminate all other complications.
For me, this was doing a small, weird, community race instead of some huge event. It also meant racing, rather than simply fun riding, but not putting a lot of pressure on myself if I DNFed. The ‘competition’ part was the newest for me, plus winter riding. The fact that I didn’t train at all, but had a lot of general experience, gave me confidence but also a ready scape-goat.
- Prepare well — If there’s safety risks you absolutely have to familiarize yourself first & foremost. Even relying on a guide can be risky without enough of an education to advocate for yourself with your guide. Prepare for likely contingencies around: transportation, physical/mental health, equipment, and weather.
- Have fun — The #1 goal of any adventure HAS to be fun. Whether your idea of fun is a masochistic suffer-fest with bragging rights, or a pleasant jaunt under-the-radar, it’s important that you’re exploring your own idea of fun and not getting dragged way outside of your comfort zone for someone else’s account. Safety is vital, but we’d never take the risks in the first place if it wasn’t fun.
Cold-weather Mountain Bike Racing Tips
- Look for races on BikeReg. Look for group rides on Meetup. Look for bikes to rent on Spinlister. Look for riding areas on Singletracks and MTB Project.
- Dressing for winter is nigh-impossible. Start warm. Bring a pack. Change your clothes. I failed to layer sufficiently and suffered accordingly.
- Bring water and refill at aid stations as necessary. If you camelback, blow your tube full of air or else it will freeze. I forgot to do this once and my bite valve was useless.
- Have anti-fog eyewear. My usual cheap glasses were useless, and I rode without eye protection. Riding without eye protection when I was younger is what I blame my terrible right eye vision on.
- Put in fat tubes if you run a tube-type tire so that you can lower your air pressure without getting a pinch flat.
- Ask the locals if you need advice on weather, equipment, or riding skills.
- Unless you have Crank Bros eggbeaters, spray a little PAM on your clipless pedals. I ride Time pedals, which have never failed me, until this race, where they iced up.
- Bring Gu or gummies which can be eaten on the fly. Stopping to munch a Kind bar was really satisfying and one of the highlights of my race — -but it cost me a podium finish.
- If you GoPro, keep it fully charged. Mine died instantly in the cold.
- Waterproof socks are amazing. I used silk liners and Dexshell socks and my toes were toasty. Most riders had fancy winter mountain-biking boots.
- Aim for a pace you are sure you can keep up. I thought I could do 12 miles at my pace but I was pretty jelloed for the last 4 miles.
- Bring a GPS or ride computer. If I had known I was less than 2 miles from finishing, I would not have stopped to eat, and I would have won prizes & glory!
*Note: Cross-Country (XC) mountain biking is a lot like XC track running. You typically ride loops around a prepared circuit that blends technical prowess with physical stamina. There’s a bunch of other racing categories, but XC is kind of the place to start. Downhill is popular too, but involves higher speeds and more specialized equipment, and the races typically only happen at ski resorts, in order to haul the bikes and riders up a chairlift.