Maybe you decided to sign up for your first mountain bike cross country race on your own, or maybe a friend, family member or coach talked you into it. It sure seemed like a good idea at the time, but as the big day approaches, you may be nervous and wondering what to expect. In this article, we give you some tips to help you get ready for your first cross country race.

Cross country or “XC” races tend to last between one and two hours and consist of multiple laps around a course that is mostly on natural surface singletrack or double track trails. Laps typically range from four to 10 kilometers. You can expect to pedal both uphill and downhill, sometimes steeply, and encounter at least some tricky technical sections that may include rocks or logs across the trail. The first person across the line wins.

Tip #1: Learn about the course.

Knowledge is power when it comes to racing, so take the time to get familiar with the course in advance and know exactly how many laps you will have to do. At a minimum, study the course map to get a feel for its layout and where you can and can’t receive technical assistance or feeds. Better yet, pre-ride the course if possible, ideally a few days prior to race day, and practice any sections where you struggle. Sometimes a course may not be open for a pre-riding, but you may still be able to walk a lap around it to see it firsthand.

Tip #2: Make sure your bike is in good working order.

Start by cleaning your bike, then lube your chain, inflate your tires and check that all bolts are tight. If you don’t know what tire pressure to run, ask someone who has more experience and is familiar with the course. Do a quick test ride a few days prior to the race to make sure your shifting and brakes work properly, and double check that you have enough brake pad thickness left for whatever conditions you expect to encounter. If you don’t yet have the technical expertise to maintain your own bike, hire your local shop to give it a pre-race tune-up.

Tip #3: Arrive at the start line well rested and fed.

It can be tempting to squeeze in a bunch of last minute training as you build fitness for your first race, but be careful not to overdo it. The reality is that you can’t make significant fitness gains in the week prior to a race, yet it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the race and train or ride too much ahead of time. Take it easy and intentionally ride less than usual in the days or week before the race, and get a full night’s sleep during the two nights preceding your race. The morning of your race, eat a decent breakfast so that you’re properly fueled, but do it 2-3 hours ahead of time so the meal is digested before the start. Then top off your reserves with a light snack 20 minutes before the gun goes off.

Tip #4: Warm up for your race.

Cross country races start fast and furious, and you’ll perform much better if your body is warmed up and ready for the intensity. Pedal for 20-30 minutes prior to the start and throw in some short, but intense efforts. And don’t worry if you don’t feel great during warm up – you’re getting that out of the way so that you’ll feel much better than you otherwise would have for the typically fast pace early in the race. With a good warm up, it’ll be easier to position yourself well from the start then you won’t have to pass as many people to make up positions later.

Tip #5: Pace yourself.

That said, starting too hard is one of the most common beginner mistakes. It’s normal to feel nervous prior to the start of the race, and it’s tempting to channel that nervous energy into an all-out initial effort, but cross country races are not sprints. They are endurance types events during which you can expect to experience highs and lows. A cross country race is not over until it’s over, so pace yourself to have enough energy to race well for its full duration. Then you’ll get to be the rider who is going fast all the way to the finish, catching everyone else who went out too hard.

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