In road racing, the lead riders set the pace for the entire field, and much of the actual racing takes place in the final stretch before the finish line. Due to the nature of off-road courses, however, cross-country mountain bike racing is an all-out, red-line effort from start to finish. Making just a handful of strategic mistakes can prevent you from winning or even making a top 10 finish.
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Before the Race
Riding the course the day before the event goes a long way in helping you perform your best on race day. If it’s feasible, pre-ride the course at least twice — at a somewhat easy pace the first time, and just under race-pace the second time. Not only will you discover where all the technical spots are, you’ll also find the best lines to ride over obstacles, through tight corners and on tricky descents. Knowing the course in advance also gives you confidence on race day, because you know exactly where you can make gains if you find yourself losing time behind a slow rider through the single track.
Most mountain bike races include a mass-start in an open area that leads directly to the first section of single track. This type of course is designed to break up the field. Unless you lack the technical skills to ride fast in the single track, try to get to it ahead of as many other racers as possible. Even though race etiquette dictates that slower racers allow others to pass in the single track, it’s not always convenient. Being stuck behind a slow rider during a long section of single track can determine the outcome of your race, especially if the leader’s group is ahead of you.
The fastest riders on any mountain bike racecourse know how to get through technical areas and tight corners without losing too much speed. When you slow down more than necessary for the difficult parts of the course, you have to bring yourself back up to speed. On a technical course, you can lose a significant amount of time over multiple laps by relying on your brakes to get you through tough sections. If you’re not comfortable with a section of the course, practice it several times during your pre-ride. Each time through, delay your braking by another second, until you find the maximum speed with which you can comfortably ride that section.
If you’re a strong climber, gain time by passing as many racers as you can on the hills. Likewise, if you can descend quickly, use every descent to your advantage. Open areas are better for passing other racers, but if you’re especially capable in the single track, be aggressive enough to get by the riders whose pace or lack of skill holds you back. If single track isn’t your strength, pick off as many riders on the other parts of the course as you can. Only draft the racers whose pace and technical skill pushes you and keeps you focused.