Complete guide to downhill mountain biking, part 2

Getting ready for your first race

We looked at basic downhill riding techniques back in February. Now it's time to get you ready for your first race, with the help of two very special guest tutors – reigning world champion Steve Peat and fellow World Cup star Marc Beaumont.

Peaty may be a racing legend now but, like all of us, he started racing by grabbing a bike, going to a local event and giving it a go with the emphasis on having fun.

The tips in this feature will have you fully prepared for your first race, and make sure you get the most out of what should be a fantastic experience. It’s an opportunity to meet lots of like-minded riders who love the buzz and challenge of pushing their skills to the limit.

When you’re starting out, it’s your rapid improvements that keep you coming back for more. Following faster riders and watching how they tackle challenging tracks is a surefire way to progress. So let’s see if we can learn a little here – with some help from the greatest downhill rider who ever lived!

Avoiding injuries

We asked Steve for his single most valuable piece of advice to give a rider heading off to their first race, and he said this: “We all love to ride and the only thing that keeps you off your bike is being injured. Injuries suck, so it makes sense to kit yourself out with the basic protection that can save you in a fall. A little crash could cause cuts to your hands or knees, and something silly like that on practice day could stop you being able to race a day later – so always pad up.”

Preparing your bike

The next step is to make sure your bike and kit are ready for the big day. The best thing is to get everything ready the day before you go. Start with a bolt check, making sure nothing is loose or falling off. Then move on to the brakes: ensure the pads are okay and the wheels are spinning freely, not binding on the rotor or rim and, of course, make sure they actually work!

Next it’s the gears – are the cables in good order, do the shifters work, is it changing gear properly and is the chain clean, lubed and ready for action? Now it’s onto the suspension. It’s worth finding out the recommended base settings for your weight and bike setup so you can make any adjustments from this point.

It’s likely that you’ll have played around with the adjusters so much since you got your bike that you have no idea where the suspension settings are. So go back to the beginning and if you make a change that’s better, write it down. If it’s worse, go back to the original settings. This way you can’t go wrong!

Tyres are always a hot topic in the downhill pits. Most riders will have an option for dry and wet conditions. There are good downhill tyres available from Michelin, Hutchinson, Continental and Schwalbe, among others, but I’m going to highlight three popular Maxxis tyres and when they are most commonly used.

  • High Roller: The most popular all-rounder for dry and damp conditions, rolling resistance in a straight line is low so you carry speed and it has a good edge to help with fast cornering.
  • Minion: Has similar properties to the High Roller but with more grip in the intermediate area between straight line riding and being banked right over. It’s popular to run this tyre on the front and a High Roller on the rear.
  • Wet Scream: A spiked tyre, which is commonly used in the wet. Some riders will choose this tyre if the ground is dry but quite loose,because it digs in deep to help gain grip.

The kit bag

Living out of a kit bag is an occupational hazard for professional downhill racers but what goes in that bag? And what should you take along to make sure you’re fully prepared for your first race?

  • Baselayer
  • Protection (knee, shin and elbow pads)
  • Full-face helmet
  • Full-finger gloves
  • Goggles
  • Waterproofs

Toolbox

There are hundreds of specialist tools for bikes but here’s a list of the essentials to help you get by at your first race:

  • Allen keys
  • Pump
  • Shock pump
  • Gaffer tape

The track walk

When you arrive at your first race the first thing to do is sign on at registration and get your number board on the front of your bike. Make sure the cables aren’t restricted by it and it doesn’t affect the way your suspension works. Next it’s time for Steve’s big tip for new riders – walk the track. This gives you an opportunity to look at each section and consider the best line to take.

As you’re walking down your line, you should be able to start getting a mental image about how you will ride each part, and you should be putting them all together as you go. It’s a good idea in technical sections to have a couple of line options in your head, then if you discover that your first choice is either too hard or too slow, you can go to plan B.

Once practice starts you’ll only be able to stand at the side of the track, so this track walk time is your best opportunity to take in all the information you can. Making good use of track walking time can be equivalent to the first three practice runs

Practice time

This is your chance to ride your lines, practising what you looked at on your walk. Spend a couple of runs trying out all your lines and seeing if they feel good. If your lines don’t seem to be working right, keep an eye out for lines other riders might be taking.

After a couple of runs on plan A, try out a few of those plan B lines. Now you know the track well, go a little faster. If there are any sections that you find hard or you’re not sure which way to go, stop, park your bike off the track and watch a few riders coming through. Give the best line a go then remember it for your next run.

Throughout practice it’s important to keep eating and drinking to keep the energy levels up – you don’t want to practice all day and end up too tired to do your best in the race. Keep an eye on the time and how long it takes you to do one practice run from leaving your car or van to getting back. This will give you an idea of how many runs you can get in. It will also help you work out what time you need to set off up the hill to be in time for your race runs.

Marc’s top tip for practice is to try pairing up with another rider. This gives you the opportunity to follow them, trying out their lines and trying to keep up with their speed. Then you can swap and let them follow you.

How to warm up

Do a warm-up at the top of the hill before your run. Start out with some leg stretches and upper body stretches, then move on to some forearm and hand stretches. These will help you hold on and use the controls – those forearms will be getting tired after all the riding over the day or weekend.

Next find a quiet spot to sit and spin the pedals to keep the legs moving or find an area to pedal round in a loop where you can still hear your name being called up for your race run.

The race

Come race time you should be getting nervous! This is good, but don’t let it spoil your enjoyment – a few nerves help your adrenaline build up and will add to that great feeling you get when you cross the line after nailing your first ever race run. That feeling never goes away from first-timer to full-timer!

During practice you should take a break to find out your start time – this will probably be posted up near registration. Think about planning when you should set off up and leave time for delays in the uplift and time for a little warm up at the top. That normally means an hour before your start time.

After doing a warm-up, find a quiet spot where you can lean on something and back pedal to keep your legs moving gently while you close your eyes and imagine yourself doing a full run down the course – taking all your lines, hitting all the jumps and sprinting across the line.

This way, when you get to the start line your mind and body will be totally prepared. All the advice in the world will probably go out the window in your first run as the adrenaline bubbles over – but that’s all part of the learning process!

About your tutors

Will Longden has been riding all kinds of bikes for years, mountain biking since the late 1980s and racing anything from BMX to cyclo-cross since he was six. A top all-round bike handler and multiple British mountain bike champion, he also coaches some of GB’s finest riders.

A mountain bike legend, Steve Peat has topped World Cup podiums for 12 years, having won more than any other rider and crowning his 2009 season with the world champion title that has eluded him for so long. Been there, seen it, done it and now got the stripey jersey to prove it!

One of the UK’s top downhill racers, Marc Beaumont began his career learning the ropes on Steve Peat’s Royal team before becoming a part of team MBUK/Santa Cruz, winning a World Cup and standing on many more podiums. He has also been British downhill champion twice, and now races alongside Mick Hannah for GT Bicycles.

The bikes

It would be great if everyone had a choice of bikes to ride in the garage but the reality is mostpeople have just one. This shouldn’t stop you giving downhill a go though. When Steve and I started racing it was normal for everyone to do every discipline on one bike, from trials to downhill. Now bikes have become more specialised and it makes riding mountain bikes more fun.

Marc’s GT (above) is a full-on downhill racing bike, while Steve’s Santa Cruz (below) is a full-suspension all-rounder. Both are fine for racing downhill in the UK, at least for getting started – there’s plenty of time for spending your hard-earned cash on a specialist bike once the downhill bug has bitten you!

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