Mountain bike races start out hard as racers push to get to the singletrack first. But while all riders might start out hard, the best riders can do so efficiently without blowing up.

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Scout Out the Start

A start has the potential to make or break an XC race. While you can’t always guarantee a smooth start, there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of getting to the singletrack before your competitors. Practicing hard starts and choosing lines during your warm-up are both great ways to prepare for that first hard effort.

When you’re warming up for your race, take some time to ride the start and test out a few different lines. When you choose your line, try practicing some start efforts from the line. This gives you a chance to test your line and choose what gear you’d like to be in for the start of the race. You want to pick a gear that is hard enough that you won’t spin out of, but easy enough that you can turn it over.

Position Yourself For a Good Start

Showing up to the start line early so that you can get a good position is another way to improve your starts. In general, your goal should be to show up early enough to get lined up as far forward as you can.

Figuring out how early you want to line up can be tricky though. The earlier you get to the start, the better your position will be. The more time you spend waiting in the start corral, the less effective your warm-up may be. The key is deciding whether to prioritize your warm-up or starting position for what will help you the most. Field size and proximity to singletrack are the two variables that can help you decide how you should prioritize.

The bigger the field, the more important it is to show up at the start line early. Every athlete in front of you at the start gate is someone you’ll need to pass on the course. If you’re racing in a big field, do yourself a favor. Get in front of as many riders as possible before the race begins. Generally, 15 minutes is safe for events without a call-up order

It’s also important to consider how much time you have before you’ll be on the singletrack. The effort it takes to pass another athlete on singletrack is much more costly in terms of energy and time than what it takes to pass someone on a fire road. If the start of your race puts the field on singletrack quickly, get to the start line on the early side. Being closer to the front increases your chances of getting to the singletrack first and decreases the likelihood of getting stuck behind a slower rider. 

The Two Minute Wall

Cross country races usually start hard and go out fast. After a few minutes of all-out power, it’s normal to feel the debt accrued during this initial effort. Because many athletes feel this way around two minutes, they might over-correct and slow down considerably. While it can be tempting to give yourself a break and recover from the hard start, you should push through any strong desire to slow down the pace.

Instead, take this opportunity to continue moving forward. When other athletes ease off or overcorrect their pace, keep pushing and focus on passing the person in front of you. Feeling like you need to slow down is as much a mental limitation as it is a physical limitation. Maintain the urgency of moving forward and push past that wall when other riders are hitting it.

Pass, Pass, Pass!

At this point in the race, it might be tempting to get on someone’s wheel and fall into a comfortable pace. You don’t want to settle in too early though. Now is the time to take on any passing opportunity you get.

Take full advantage of the proximity you have to your competitors and make as many passes as you can while your legs are still relatively fresh. This is good even if you think the athlete in front of you might be a touch faster than you. If you’re riding someone’s wheel, chances are you are just as fast or faster then them. Bet on yourself and make that pass. You never know who’s going to give you a run for your money and who’s going to drop off the back never to be seen again.

When you want to pass the athlete in front of you, remember to respectfully call out your pass and let them know which side you’re going to make your pass. If you know that the athlete in front of you isn’t racing in your category, it can also be helpful to include your category when you call out your pass, for example, “Cat 1 17-18 on your left!” Practicing good trail etiquette generally yields good trail etiquette in return. Most athletes will shift to the side and let you by when you make a respectful call for a pass.

Settle In

Once you’ve made enough passes to be in an appropriate position relative to your competitors, you can focus on leveling your effort and making your power delivery as smooth as possible. Turn your attention towards efficiency and little ways that you can pick up time. Try actively carrying momentum and braking less going into turns, while staying in the sweet spot zone between them. Little improvements like this will help you save energy for the necessary kicks needed to make passes and clear tricky obstacles.

The first ten minutes in a cross-country race are going to hurt no matter what. But at the end of all this hard work, you can confidently settle in and find your rhythm. Push yourself the first ten minutes and then focus on riding the course to the best of your abilities, reeling in racers as you go.


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Meghan Kelley

Meghan Kelley is a writer, XC MTB racer and trail riding enthusiast. Her years spent racing XC and working at TrainerRoad has translated to a passion for all things cycling.