February 10, 2011 cburnham

Mountain Bike Racing Strategies for Success

I wrote about solo road racing tactics last week (if you missed that you can check it out here) and this week I wanted to give the mountain bikers a little love as well. I know to some dedicated mountain bikers that talking about tactics in the dirt is a major violation of racing ethics but whether they know it or not, they are using tactics while racing.  Being aware of racing tactics and having a good race strategy is key to setting yourself up for success.  While the focus of this article will be on race strategy versus individual tactics I would encourage all mountain bikers to check out the solo road racing article I wrote so that they are knowledgeable in typical bike racing tactics.

Know the Course. The Art of the Pre-Ride

Yep, this is the same recommendation I gave the road guys but it is even more so for the dirt racers. While course maps and elevation profiles can give you some basic information it doesn’t replace actually seeing the trails. A pre-ride of a mountain bike course is one of the most important things you can do to ensure success at your races. Sometimes that means arriving the day before so you can spin an easy lap, study lines, and re-ride difficult sections.  For high priority races that have long courses (not laps) it may require a trip to the venue a few weeks prior to race day to get to know the trails.  Yes, that is a pain but it can be a huge difference maker for the bigger races.

One of the first things I look for when pre-riding is how soon does the trail narrow down after the start. That first pinch point is important in knowing where to line-up for the start, and how hard you need to go at the beginning. This is basically the first “race” of the race and while you can’t win the race here but it is impossible to lose it. Nothing is worse than wasting a ton of energy making your way through traffic trying to catch the leaders. Being in the top 5 in that first sprint can save you energy in the long run.

The second thing to notice on the pre-ride is where are the technical sections and what is the fastest way to ride them. Look at lines and re-ride sections if need be. Once you start to feel comfortable with the section figure out how to ride it if your favorite line is clogged with riders dabbing or walking the trail. This happens in the harder sections and it is important to have a “plan B” line. If you end up crashing on a section twice during the pre-ride move on and consider running that section during the race. Sometimes you have to suck it up and cut your losses.

The third thing to look for on the pre-ride are passing areas on the singletrack. Where can you get around slower riders safely. A lot of these lines are hidden in the weeds, on the outside of turns, or through roots and rocks (these can be fast if you can float over them). Keeping these in the back of your mind during the race can help keep you smooth, fast, and save a bunch of energy.

Lastly, know where you can eat or drink on the course. Having points on the course where you know you can grab a gel or bottle safely and doing it every time you pass that point regardless if your thirsty or feeling like you need to eat is incredibly important. You can’t always wait to take that gel exactly at the 30 minute mark every race. You need to take it when you know you can grab it and shove it in your mouth without losing too much speed or risking crashing. Nothing is more embarrassing than crashing with gel squirted all over you because you did get your hand back to the bars in time for the root section.


Pacing can be a whole series of posts in itself. This is just a quick overview but nailing your pacing will give you the best opportunity for success in all types of racing. For most mountain bike courses you are going to have to start fast but once you establish your position in the singletrack you have to settle into your ideal pace. So what is ideal? My general recommendation is to start just below your threshold (as defined by HR threshold or functional power threshold) and slowly ramp up through out the race. If your not using heart rate or power, threshold pace is usually around an 8 out of 10 on perceived exertion.  Finishing stronger is always faster than blowing your self up on lap 4 of a 5 lap race.

There are some racers that have difficulties with the initial sprint off the line for most mountain bike races. While that should be addressed in training, some people will never be a fast starter. The strategy in those situations is to start at just below threshold and slowly ramp up through out the race. It is key in that situation to continue to get faster through out the race. It is risky since you are relying on being able to get through traffic relatively quickly but it can be successful for some racers. You will need to have good bike handling skills and be creative with line choices to make this option work, but it can be successful.

If your looking to try out these skills soon, this weekend is the start of the CCCX race series here on the Monterey Peninsula. This a fun cross country race series to fine tune your racing tactics and evaluate your fitness before heading into the bigger races of the summer. Go check it out if you are in the area.

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