Mountain Bike Race Pre-Riding: Inspecting and Opening for Race Day

Author: Serena Bishop Gordon

There is a lot of talk these days about marginal gains; incremental improvements that over time add up to more significant increases in performance. These can come from changes in training, diet, equipment, or race preparation, for example. Gains from training and diet can take time to play out, while gains from equipment choices can be expensive. But gains from race preparation are quick to realize, cost nothing, and are often overlooked. If you are a mountain bike racer, part of race preparation is previewing the course. Pre-riding when done effectively and efficiently will give you confidence, leave you fresh, and set you up for a great race.

The pre-ride of a mountain bike course ideally should take place the day before the race and last 90 minutes; including 15 minutes of tempo, 5-10 minutes of threshold work and a few starting sprints. The goal of the pre-ride is to open up your legs, doing just enough work to get your energy systems going without causing fatigue, and to gain an understanding of the course; terrain, trail conditions, technical features, feed zone locations, possible bottleneck points, what side of the starting grid you want to be on, and how you need to position yourself coming into the finishing straight in case of a sprint finish.

If you are prepping for a 50- or 100-mile race, you aren’t going to be able to ride the entirety of the course the day before the race. With limited time (and energy), previewing the beginning and end of a longer course is top priority. As you ride the first few miles of the course, consider what you will have to do to ensure you have good position going into the first single track, how long the first climb is, where the aid stations are located, and whether you can carry enough food and hydration between aid stations in your pockets or if you will need to carry a hydration pack.

It is also important to check out the last few miles of the course. At this point in the race you are going to be tired and easy features will seem like technical rock gardens when you are fatigued. Having a preview of what awaits you toward the end the race is incredibly beneficial and can be the difference between winning and losing a sprint at the finish. As you preview the course, do your tempo and threshold work on climbs or when as the terrain allows. Complete the starting sprints toward to conclusion of the ride.

If you are pre-riding a lap format course, the length of the lap is always a factor, and it is important to meter your effort and duration. If you can ride multiple laps in a 90-minute window, ride the first lap at an easy pace and the second with a little more speed, including 15 minutes of tempo, while checking out key points along the course such as technical features and places where double-track funnels into single track. Pay attention to the location of feed zones and what side of the track you want to be on to most easily grab your bottle. If there is a feature that is giving you trouble, practice a few times until you feel comfortable going through it a slow pace. If after three attempts, you aren’t able to ride it, plan not to. Instead, run this portion of the course and determine the best place to dismount and remount. Make the ride/run decision before the race begins and stick to it. By doing this, you won’t stress about it during the race and you can just execute according to plan. Make note of your tire pressure and how your suspension feels, and make adjustments if necessary.

Ride your third lap at the same pace as the second and include 5-10 minutes of threshold, particularly if there are portions of the course you want to see at race speed. If you are riding two laps, include the tempo work in the back half of lap 1 and the threshold in the back half of lap 2. Return to the starting line and finish up with your starting sprints.

Riding the course multiple times and at different speeds will allow you feel how your tires hook up around corners, confirm the length of each climb, and figure out your lines through technical sections. The information gathered during your pre-ride will be key in planning your race day equipment and nutrition strategy. Ask yourself where on the course will you be able to drink and eat, where you can recover, and where you are going to attack.

If the course length allows for just one preview lap, ride the first third of the lap easy, include your tempo work in the second third and your threshold work in the final third, finishing off with your starting sprints. While this won’t allow you to see the entire course multiple times, it will give you a good handle on the terrain, a preview of any tricky sections, and allow you to make equipment adjustments.

If you can’t get to the race venue the day before the race to pre-ride, do your pre-race openers at home and be sure to do your homework. The Internet is an amazing information-gathering tool. Inspect the course map and profile, find the results from last year, scour Strava until you find someone who has done the race and analyze their data. Gather as much information as you can prior to arriving at the venue, especially if it’s a course you’ve never done. On race morning, get there early enough to give yourself plenty of time to check out the start and finish, and double check your tire pressure and suspension, before you head out to warm up. 

Once you complete your pre-ride, or pre-race openers, it is imperative to get in a recovery drink and put your legs up! You may not feel like you did much work over the course of the 90 minute pre-ride the day before, but success on race day begins NOW. Take some time to rest, write down what you learned during your pre-ride and set goals for the following day. Remember, pre-riding is just pre-riding. It isn’t the race. Don’t burn matches by trying to keep up with someone else and don’t injure yourself by trying to execute a drop or jump that is above your skill level. Be confident in your training and preparation, go to bed early, and when you toe the line, you will be ready to execute on your plan.