Should I Enter My First Mountain Bike Race? – Reader Questions

In my first season I finished second in the OMBC Sport Novice division.

In my first season I finished second in the OMBC Sport Novice division. This was the plaque I received.  I felt good about the results considering I didn’t even race a full season.

For someone who has never raced a mountain bike, the thought of competing sounds both exciting and stressful.  There are so many questions about racing and not always a lot of great resources about what you can expect on the day of the event.

I recently received a question from a reader named Mike about whether he should enter a novice race.  It seems like such a common theme among the questions that I get that I thought I would answer it here on Quickdirt.

He asked several questions and I’ve broken them up for my answers.  Even though he is asking about the OMBC series, I think the ideas apply to any cyclist thinking about entering his/her first mountain bike race.

I was thinking about racing in the ombc this year and am wondering how good you should be for the novice group?

The novice group is just that – a group of novice racers.  They come in all shapes and sizes, but the thing that they have in common is that they are new to racing.  Some of them are out of shape.  Some can barely keep their bikes upright.  Some walk their bikes through half the trail.  On the other hand, there are some cyclists who are fit and technically sound and are just sampling competition for the first time.

For your first race you should worry less about your time and place in the event and more about experiencing the day.  If you focus on just performing well at your own pace you will enjoy yourself the most and that is what is important.  You sign up for an event, whether it is a race or a tour, because you hope it will add to your enjoyment of the sport.

Once you’ve successfully enjoyed the event, you can evaluate your performance and look for ways to improve.  For example, if you had a hard time crossing large logs and rocks, then you can find some on your local trails to practice on.  If you were falling behind every time there was a big hill, then you can do some hill repeats to build up strength in your legs.

Each race is a little different, so just getting out and racing as many of them as you can is the best way to learn and get better.  If you focus on finishing an entire race series, then you have events to motivate you to workout and stay in shape for several months of the year.

You should check out my Q&A with novice racer Sarah Boylan for more insight on getting started.

Sarah Boylan finishes first at the OMBC Mohican Cabins race in 2013

The Novice Women’s Podium: Sarah Boylan finishes first at the OMBC Championship Race at Mohican Cabins in 2013

I generally ride Alum P1 with my best time being about 40 minutes. Is this acceptable or should I wait till I get a little faster?

Alum Creek P1 is my home trail too.  I have no idea what my lap time was the first time I raced because I had only ridden on mountain bike trails twice before my first race.  I’m sure it would have been slower than 40 minutes.  At that point, almost all of my rides were on multi-purpose, paved bike paths around Westerville and Columbus.  I was a novice in every sense of the word.

A friend of mine asked whether I wanted to tag along to a race after we had just completed my first serious mountain bike ride at Lake Hope.  I was definitely nervous about it, but decided to take the plunge anyways.  I figured at the very least I could always just walk my bike if things started to get too treacherous.

On race day, I decided to just go out at an easy pace and ride the trail the best I could.  I was determined not to have a major crash.  Those were my main objectives.  When the race director said “go” everyone shot off the start line and left me in their dust.  I pedaled away nice and easy and let myself adjust slowly to this new racing reality.

Then an amazing thing happened, despite my lack of experience and laid back start, I ended up finishing 8th out of 16 riders (This might not be completely accurate.  I am going from memory).  And, I had a ton of fun!  I thought that if I could finish in the middle of the pack with almost no experience, then surely I could improve if I went out and practiced.

I began riding regularly at Alum P1 and began to slowly get faster on my 10 year old Trek mountain bike that had no suspension or disc brakes.

I ended up finishing 2nd overall in the Novice Veteran category for the season.  Partly because I improved and partly because I had good attendance.  I even came within 6 seconds of actually winning my age group once.  It was an awesome season and I was hooked on the sport.  …all because I took a chance on that first race that I was not prepared for.

OMBC Awards Plaques for James Knott

Here is my collection of OMBC awards plaques. I have raced six seasons, but one year I didn’t have enough races to qualify for year-end awards. Stupid DNFs.

Also, what time do the races begin and how long does it last?

Races usually start at noon, but you should always check official start times at  I actually missed the start of one race because it started early, which was completely my fault because I didn’t double check it.

I love race day, so I usually show up really early, earlier than I would recommend that most people get there.  I like to get a good parking spot, register before there is a line and have plenty of time to warm-up and prepare my bike.  After I am sure that I am good to go, it is just fun to hang out with the other racers and chat.

I would recommend getting there by 10:30 or 11 so you plenty of time to register, get dressed and warm up.

Novice races are usually 7-10 miles and should take you anywhere from 60-90 minutes to complete.  These are rough estimates based on average novice finishers.

After you finish, take some time to cheer on the mountain bikers that are still finishing and watch some of the sport and expert riders race.  I’ve learned a lot by seeing how the riders that are faster than me select their lines approach obstacles.

After the race there is an awards ceremony and the top novices are eligible to win some swag from the prize table.  Depending on the race this might occur 1 to 2 hours after you finish.  If you are done watching people finish, then I’d recommend cleaning off your bike, changing clothes and putting everything away while you wait.

If I do end up deciding to race, what are some general rules and courtesies to abide by?

First rule, if we are on private land and not at a state park, hand me a beer after the race and introduce yourself.

Other than that, the only rule I can think of has to with passing.  The singletrack can be narrow, which makes it difficult to pass other riders.  If someone asks to pass you, then you should let them immediately at the first place you can safely get out of the way.  It’s both a rule and the courteous thing to do.

If you catch up to someone, then you shouldn’t feel guilty asking to pass – unless you are huffing and puffing and think you might slow down right in front of them.

Depending on the course, you may have expert or sport riders that are lapping you.  These people will be approaching very fast and many times they are in a heated race for points in their division.  Do your best to anticipate their pass by looking for a safe place to get out of the way.  If you are lucky the trail will be a little wider and you can keep riding during the pass.

All that being said, this is still a race.  One of the skills you need to develop is learning how to pass and be passed without losing a lot of time or wasting a lot of energy.

race day checklist for mountain biking

I have this checklist taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet door next to where I store my sports nutrition. It helps me get to the race efficiently without forgetting anything.

Anything I should bring with me the day of for me or my bike? I look forward to hearing your response and have enjoyed the site.

Check out this Race Day Checklist that I made.  This is what I bring to the race.  It should give you some ideas.

I highly recommend that you come out and race.  It’s a lot of fun.  At least you will know if this is the right sport for you and whether you think it’s worth spending the required time and money that it takes to improve.

I love mountain biking.  I think it gives you a great full-body workout.  You build both strength and endurance.  It’s not just about who can mash the pedals the hardest.  There are so many other factors such as technical skills, passing skills and maintaining your bike.

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