A First-Timers Guide to Downhill Mountain Bike Racing

Based on how downhill mountain bike racing is portrayed in the media, it can be scary to hit the submit button to register for your first race. As a former road racer who toed the start line about 50 times a year, I was still nervous for my first downhill race. Like many others, the only downhill racing I had any experience with was what I saw on RedBull TV and Pinkbike.

Luckily, I quickly found out that 99% of downhill racing is nowhere near the UCI downhill races shown on these popular platforms. In fact, I have come to find that downhill racing has a more supportive, community feel than any other discipline I have raced.

Here are some tips to help you get through your first downhill race confidently.

Choose Your Race

There are varying levels of “seriousness” when it comes to downhill mountain bike races. If you are not too sure about downhill racing, or racing in general, I suggest checking for a low-stress, fun race close to home.

If you are lucky enough to live close enough to sleep in your own bed the night before the race, that will alleviate a lot of stress. Most of us find it easiest to drive up the night before and camp near the race. This does add a bit of stress in terms of packing, but many races allow camping in the parking lot, and it is nice to wake up where you need to be.

There are tons of downhill races across the country that promote a low-stress, high-stoke environment. My first downhill race was a night downhill race in North Carolina in January. The Pisgah Productions race, Icycle, was the best introduction to racing I could have asked for.

I slowly slip-slided down a snowy, muddy course in the dark, and crossed the finish line to join the rest of the racers at the bonfire to dance to live music and drink the local beer. I still love to incorporate fun races into my schedule.

Another one of my favorites is the Bogus to the Barrel race in Boise, ID. While this is more of a super-d style race, the after-party is worth the pedaling.

Fears Tears Beers Casino
Riding through the casino on stage 1 of the Fears, Tears, and Beers enduro in Ely, NV. Photo by @photojohnphoto

Tailor Your Training

You’ve got your race picked out, now it is time to do some research on the course. Sometimes, it is not feasible to pre-ride a course before racing, so it is important to have a general idea on what to expect. Try to find some similar trails nearby. That way, you can dial in suspension and tire set-up on terrain similar to what you expect to have on race day.

If you have the chance to pre-ride the actual race course before the race, that is ideal. Riding a trail blind can be scary, and being timed on a trail you haven’t ridden before is stressful. If you can get a few practice laps under your belt before the timed race run, you will know what to expect – where to hold back, and where to open it up.

Many races tailor their schedule to help out those who work Monday-Friday, and will have practice open a few hours before the race starts on Saturday. It might be tough to get a complete top to bottom lap in since everyone will be trying to get their last minute practice laps in, but it is still beneficial to see the course before racing.

Pay attention to the elevation profile of the course. Practice on trails that have have a similar elevation profile. If the trail is steep, you will want to spend more time in the gym building upper body strength. If the trail is a bit flatter, you might want to consider adding more cardio and sprints into your training.

Pack Your Things

Lay your things out a couple of nights before you leave for the race so you can run through your checklist and make sure you have everything ready to go.

Make sure to pack your helmet, goggles, gloves, shoes, protective gear, and basic bike repair / tool kit. You will want to bring an extra chain link, tubes and tires, if possible. Downhill racing can be tough on equipment, and you want to be prepared if you have a mechanical during practice.

If you will be camping, make sure you consider the food options available near the race. Some downhill races are held at small resorts that do not necessarily open for summer operations. You don’t want to be hungry on race day, so be sure to be prepared with portable and store-able snack options.

Kira Maicke racing at the 2019 Utah Gravity Series Pomerelle Pounder. Photo by Brooke Brill

Race Day: What To Expect

Race registration is typically open the day before and the morning of the race. Each race does differ, so be sure to check the details specific to the race. You’ll have to fill out a waiver and pick up your number. Even though some races offer same-day registration, it makes it a lot easier on everyone if you pre-register.

Once you pick up your number and lift ticket, it’s time to get some practice laps in. Try to get enough laps in to feel comfortable on the track, but not too many – you don’t want to tire out before the race.

Check your start time, and be sure to account for the time it takes to get to the top of the lift/shuttle. Factor in a few extra minutes in case the lift gets held up, and allow yourself a few minutes to stretch and pedal around before you drop in.

Once you get closer to your start time, you will start to line up. Depending on the race, there will typically be a 30-60 second gap between riders. Some races will have starting blocks where you can lean your handlebars against to start clipped in, and others will have a start line spray-painted at the start.

When you’re at the start line, you’ll get a countdown, and then, you’re off!

Once you start down the track, remember to relax. Smooth is fast, and it is easy to get a little anxious at the start line. Take a deep breath and focus on riding smoothly through the trail. If you have certain lines planned in your head, sometimes they don’t work out. Don’t panic – make it through the section and re-focus for the rest of the race.

Women’s Open division at the 2019 Bogus to the Barrel race in Boise, ID.

Enjoy The Experience

There is no better feeling than crossing the finish line after a clean, smooth run. Everyone shares the excitement at the finish line, the downhill community is very positive and supportive.

Stick around for the podium, cheer on your friends, and at most races – try your luck at the raffle! One of the best perks of downhill racing is the raffle. I have been to several races that have raffled off a bike, or frameset, and many others that raffle off high end components, sealant and other necessities.

What better way to cap off a fun weekend than with a new set of carbon wheels?!

Other Stuff You Might Like

About The Author

kira maicke author

Kira Maicke has been an avid cyclist since 2010. She started racing road bikes in college for the University of Georgia and switched over to mountain biking after graduating and moving out west. When she’s not on one of her bikes, she’s out playing in the mountains with her husky, Semenuk. 

Leave a Comment