The most important thing I know about racing… So far.

To date, I have only done three mountain bike races—one community-based XC, one regional enduro and one community-based enduro, all in the span of two months. Unlike many other people in the biking community, I’ve never even raced in other capacities because I was never the sporty kind. I did do a bunch of runs (5K, 10K and a half-marathon) but that was ages ago and I wasn’t racing so much as trying not to get fat.

So I don’t have much racing experience at all, but I’ve learnt one valuable truth that I think is worth sharing for other beginner racers:

Riding and racing are two different things

I thought that since I could ride fairly decently, that I could race. That’s not even half true. Also, some people try to help racing noobs feel better by saying, “It’s just a fun ride; just take it as a ride,” and honest to God, I really tried.

But, take your usual Saturday morning ride and:

  1. Make it start at a different time
  2. Put 200 other people you don’t know at the start of your ride
  3. Overhear lots of conversations where people talk about this tricky turn or the optimal line on that technical section, none of which sound familiar to you
  4. Wait around a lot. And in the case of enduros, get your heart rate up, then bring it back down to normal before sprinting off again. Repeat 4 to 5 times.
  5. Listen to the beeping (boop-boop-boop-boop-beeeep!)at the start again and again, feeling your heart rate climb as the line ahead of you gets shorter and shorter. Again, repeat this 4 to 5 times.

The truth is, it wasn’t just a ride at all. All of the above made me so nervous that I could barely function. I was riding like I’d never been off-road before, and even the sight of a marshal standing at a turn was enough to make me lose my line. Had the race route been just a ride, I would definitely have performed better.

I whined to a long-suffering friend and bike instructor about what an absolute mess I was and wailed (via text) asking him to help meeeeeee! His answer was annoyingly simple:

“Riding and racing are two different things. It’s hard to teach someone to race. The only way to get better at racing is to race more.”

And I guess that’s true. You don’t know how you’re going to react to the race environment until you’ve actually been there, and even so, every race environment is going to be a bit different. The only way to get more comfortable is to expose yourself repeatedly to different race situations; so fewer stimuli feel foreign to you.

It’s not that I didn’t believe him, but I had to get confirmation; I needed to know it would get better, that I would eventually stop being such a doofus on wheels every time lines of tape appeared. So, off I went to badger another friend of mine, a lady biker whom I respect a lot. Although she has a truly impressive list of biking accomplishments, she’d be the first one to admit she had to learn how to cope with nerves.

The good news? She assured me that it does get better, and not least of all because you’ll learn how to cope and channel your nervous energy. Her tactic was to help others cope with their nerves by sharing a funny truth about releasing tension through certain uhhh nether parts of your body. It made everyone giggle and helped her—and those around her—ride better.

I don’t know what my coping mechanism will be. I’m not a natural at chatting and socialising, so I don’t think my friend’s tactic will work for me. Some sort of raison d’être? Maybe, probably, but I think that’s going to take a few more races to work out.

Why do/should I race? Hmmm.

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