As mountain bike season ramps up, it’s time to fill up your race calendar! Whether you are a first time racer or are a seasoned veteran looking for new events, one of the things that can make your race is the course pre-ride. Depending on the type of race you are doing and your proximity to the race venue in the days and weeks leading up to the event, your approach for the pre-ride will vary. If you are traveling to the race and are only able to preview the course in the day or two before the event, you will probably be trying to combine the pre-ride with some kind of opener intervals. If it is a long endurance race and a course you haven’t seen, you will want to scope the most challenging portions of the course but avoid riding so much that you go into the race fatigued.
For an XC race with lap of 5-7 miles or less, shoot for two to three laps during a pre-ride the day before the event. You will want to shoot for approximately one hour of riding, 1.5 hours max. This range will depend on on how much riding you have done in the previous week, how much driving/travel you did to get to the race and how your legs feel when you start pedaling.
If you will be doing 2-3 laps for a pre-ride, I recommend doing the first lap at a super mellow cruiser pace. (If the course starts with a challenging climb, find somewhere to spin around easy and warm up, before launching into the climb). During this slow lap, pay special attention to any sections where the best line is questionable or not obvious. Sometimes the burned in line is not the best one. Look for the best places to eat and drink. Try to figure out where the spots are for your personal strengths; where you could make passes and where you might struggle. If there are any challenging technical sections, go over them a few times. I don’t like to practice these sections for too long, though. If you can’t nail it within three to five attempts, I recommend moving on. The logic here is that if you can’t master it after a few tries when you are relaxed and comfortable, it is unlikely you will get it when HR is sky high and there are other racers all around. Do figure out a viable alternate, though, like where the best spot to dismount would be and how best to run through it (best running line, which side of the bike, etc). And make it your goal to clean this section when you come back to the race next time!
During the second pre-ride lap, I recommend picking up the pace. My usual opener routine includes some three minute threshold efforts and some short sprints so I try to work these into the second and/or third laps with some terrain-based efforts. Make sure to get some recovery between efforts. A hot lap (or laps) serves two purposes as you can see segments of the course at speed as well as get your openers done.
If the laps at your race are more in the 8-15 mile range, you’re best bet is probably to take only one pre-ride lap. It will be worth it to stop and check out technical features a little more carefully (as you’ll only be seeing them once before the race). Use the second half of the lap to pick up the pace and do some terrain-based efforts.
For a longer course in a (non-repeating or non-lap-style) endurance race, the pre-ride protocol will be a little different. You will want to connect with locals or other racers who know the course or who have done the race before and find out where the ‘cruxes’ of the race will be. These may be especially challenging technical sections, make-or-break climbs or both of the above. (Undeniably, they could also be confusing intersections that may or may not be well-marked. These will be worth knowing, in addition to keeping your head up while you are racing!). Based on the advice of locals and other racers, as well as your knowledge of your skills and weaknesses as a racer, you should decide what will be most important for you personally to preview on the course. Locals can also probably help you determine how to drive to various parts of the course or how to take strategic shortcuts so you can see more important sections and cut out straightforward ones. Sometimes in these races, a long climb or other section will be on a road you can drive, allowing you to preview parts of the course without fatiguing yourself. You will still want to shoot for an hour or so of riding on the day before the race with some similar style tempo/threshold openers and/or shorter sprints.
On a longer style endurance race course, each individual technical move will be less important but you will want to be prepared for the general riding style. Again, talking to locals or people who have done the race previously will help you get a solid understanding of the type of terrain to expect. Since this isn’t something you can master in the days just prior to the race you will want to do this type of recon weeks or months ahead of time and incorporate that type of riding into your regular riding routine.
Whether you are prepping for a short XC race or a longer endurance race, after you have finished your pre-ride, cool down, eat, drink, check your bike, put on your number plate, prep your bottles and put your feet up. Now get ready to charge it tomorrow!