Why Do We Race Mountain Bikes?

Chris Knapp races Scioto Trails OMBC Race 2013

Chris Knapp races in the OMBC race at Scioto Trails in 2013.
Photo by Jamie Clifton

Every year, thousands of mountain bikers line up to race.  Racing is a true measure of how you stack up against your peers.  The starting gun cracks and the chain rings start spinning manically in an effort to put rubber on singletrack first.  At some points these unleashed animals may feel burning in their legs.  Their lungs will grasp to get enough oxygen.  The excess speed may cause mechanicals, or worse yet, a crash resulting in injury.  Afterwards, there is fatigue and soreness.

I must remind you.  This activity is completely optional.  I have yet to meet a person who was forced to race, maybe peer-pressured, but not forced.  There are no Roman Coliseum fight-to-the-death scenarios.  We don’t execute the last one across the finish line.  These warriors were not conscripted into the army.  They are volunteers.

Each one of them could engage in a leisurely Sunday ride at a trail by their house.  But, something compels them to push the limits of the their bodies, to take on the extra risk and expense for the opportunity to battle to the finish line.

For some folks the race is like the final exam.  Chris Knapp of Team SixOneFour will be a sport-level racer competing in the 40-49 masters category next year.  He has been mountain biking since the 8th grade – that’s a lot of freakin’ log piles!

He writes, “I like to race because it’s a test for everything that I’ve been “studying”…mountain bike racing is one big on-going math problem. Not only a math problem in regards to how training and nutrition can produce desirable or undesirable results but simply the act of riding a mtn bike at a quick pace over varying terrain.  As I approach an obstacle I am always thinking about the physics involved in negotiating it.  Where to place my tires, when to shift, when to apply the power, when to pause in the power application, and when to brake.  Get it all correct and the solution is a smooth flow through or over something using the least amount of energy as possible”

I can relate to this sentiment.  Even when I have ridden the same trail 25 times in a summer I am still perfecting my lines.  I will do three laps and each time around I will approach an obstacle differently, looking for places to suck an extra second out of my performance.

Mike Klein races for Camba

Mike Klein races for Camba. He gets enjoyment out of honing every detail before a race.
Photo from Facebook.

Mike Klein, who races sport in the OMBC and 331 Race Series for CAMBA (Cleveland Area Mountain Bike Association) approaches it from a technical point-of-view, “I like the tuning of the bike… The tire pressures, the suspension set up, race strategy, training, the right diet for the particular race the sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line… I have no idea where the motivation comes from, though.”

Where does your motivation come from?

For me biking was a way to get in shape.  I no longer had high school sports to keep me fit.  I ran until my knees started hurting and I started to worry about long-term damage to them.  Cycling was just a good way to get exercise that I felt like I could do throughout my life.  After doing the same routes on the bike path a few times I started watching my average speed and seeing whether I could go faster.  I was competing against myself.  Every ride turned into a personal time trial.  I couldn’t help myself, but I still never considered racing.  I’m not even sure I knew it was an option.

Then I met this girl.  No.  Not my wife.  Her name is Heidi Shilling.  She rode for Combo Race Team in 2013 and has several OMBC Women’s Expert titles on her resume.  She claims that she races for “swiss cake rolls, potato chips and coca cola.”  I have a feeling it’s a little more complicated than that – she definitely has a competitive spirit hiding behind her jokes and warm smile.

Back in 2006ish, I was invited to go for a ride at Lake Hope State Park with her and her husband, JT.  It was one of my first mountain bike rides and I was a little nervous.  The apprehensiveness didn’t last long though.  I was hooked.

After the ride, they invited me to race at The Wilds near Zanesville, Ohio.  I wasn’t really prepared, but I was definitely intrigued.  My technical skills were horrible and I was in good shape for the bike path, but not the mountain bike trail.  I also worried about hurting myself.  My plan was to race novice and just treat it like a regular ride.

To my surprise, I didn’t come in last.  I finished in the middle of the pack and I figured with a little training I might be able to move up the ranks.  When I got home I looked up the series schedule on the internet.  There on the computer screen was the motivation that I needed to start training.

Kiersta Tucker races in the Louisville Short Track Series.

Kiersta Tucker races in the Louisville Short Track Series. She sees mountain bike racing as a great source of therapy.
Photo from Facebook.

Sometimes you train to get ready for racing.  Other times you sign up for a race to kick-start your training.  Chris Seeley, the founder of the Tecumseh’s Revenge cross country race near Chillocothe, Ohio has finished the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado twice.

He writes, “I race my mountain bike because it gives me motivation to ride my bike more frequently and harder. There are times that I will ride my bike only because I need the training so I can perform well at races.”

A lot of times when you have a single event to train for you lose your motivation the moment the event is over.  That’s why I like doing a race series.  You always have an upcoming event to train for.  Even if you have an off-day or an off-week, you still try to get your miles in so that you are ready to collect more series points.  For most of my short racing career I have not been standing on the top of the podium so I had to look elsewhere for goal setting.  As a weekend warrior, increasing my point totals and trying to move up the ranks has been a measurable way for me to judge the success of my seasons.

But there has to be more to it than that.  Can mashing the pedals be a cathartic activity?

Kiersta Tucker is an expert rider from Kentucky who rides for Wood N Wave.  She writes, “I raced my best while going through a divorce a few years ago. I just rode out the hurt–it felt so GOOD to feel the weight lifted through the exertion of a race effort!”

Jeremy Larson races men’s Vet Open 45+ for Cyclist Connection.  He agrees with the concept of riding for therapy, “Best therapy for my separation and divorce. Lost 20 pounds. Raced my best season. Only cure for anxiety attacks.”

The woods are quiet.  The stresses of everyday life lay at the entrance to the trail.  Some people meditate, others hurl themselves through the woods.  They sweat away tears, trading pain in their hearts for exhaustion in their legs.  And then they race…

Jeremy Larson stands atop the podium at S&S Trails

Jeremy Larson stands atop the podium at S&S Trails.
Photo from Facebook.

Larson continues, “I won one sport race in my first 10 years of racing. Last year I did well on [single speed]. I’d keep racing even if I wasn’t competitive again. A bad race is still a good mtb ride!”

It’s a great way to spend a day.  You ride hard and then you hang up your bike and spend time with friends.  War stories are exchanged.  The competitiveness of the trail rarely continues once you cross the finish line.  You are worn out, but you are invigorated at the same time.  That newfound energy keeps you coming back for more.  For some, one race is too many.  For others, the rush is addictive.  It’s a constant challenge to improve your performance.

Sherri Thompson, a novice racer from Kentucky, sums it up nicely, “My motivation is to do better than the last time out. There is just something about leaving all you have out on the trail.”

What motivates you to ride?  Let us know in the comment section.  Please take some time to check out Quickdirt’s Facebook page or Twitter feed.  You can also subscribe for email updates in the right sidebar.

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