I might be a little premature, but I hazard to proclaim that spring is here (despite the weather yesterday). April is fast approaching, and with the sun setting well after 7:00 it looks as though we can leave our vampiric, sunless winter behind us.
As the sun rises on a new season, thoughts turn to long days of tearing up the local singletrack, or for those of us longing for more epic challenges, thoughts may turn to stage racing.
Unfortunately, when preparing for your first stage race, I’m not sure you ever feel 100% ready – you just try to prepare yourself as best you can. In an effort to ease some of your trepidation and potentially avoid some painful lessons being learned in-race, I will impart some sage words of wisdom based off the extensive experience I have (ie. 1 race ;-).
With that said, I’ll apologize ahead of time for the somewhat monumental nature of this post, but I feel (or at least hope) that most of this advice may prove helpful. So grit your teeth and bear it, with strength and determination you can make it to the end ;-)
I’ve pooled my deep reservoir of knowledge into eleven provocative sections:
- Know yourself
- Know your partner
- Keep the calories comin’
- Check your ego at the door
- Be able to dig deep
- You’re not strong enough
- You are your own wrench
- Gear up for adventure
- Know what hours in the saddle feel like
- Enjoy the ride
1. Know yourself
Riding within yourself is probably simplest advice to give, yet some of the hardest advice to follow. As anybody who’s done a race or two can tell you, the excitement at the start line makes it pretty easy to start out too hard… Pushing things like this can get you into trouble.
I also found it invaluable to have a better understanding of what type of racer I was – Do you like to chase? Do you like being chased? What motivates you?
Sheldon and I were a little bit of both, we were always using the faster teams as rabbits that we would chase throughout the day, and when we were having an off day (or an off couple of hours), we’d be gritting our teeth trying to stay ahead of the teams that were slightly behind us. Developing a friendly rapport with the teams around you helps with this as well (ie. “See you at the top of the next hill”, or “Save some chips for me at the next stop”)
It’s a never ending game of cat and mouse. Though I think for Sheldon and I, using the other teams like that was more of a motivational aid than pure competition. After learning our lesson the first day we chose to generally ease into the days and work our way through the pack, picking teams off as we could, rather than go hard and hold the pack off.
2. Know your partner
This is probably one of the most important, yet most challenging pieces of group stage racing. Generally on this note Sheldon and I were pretty damn solid. We’ve both ridden with each other long enough, and have been friends long enough to know how and when to push the other teammate and how and when to back the hell off ;-)
It was interesting seeing the other team dynamics on the Transrockies. I would say that the majority of the teams we hung with were pretty well balanced, but some of the less synced teams would yo-yo back and forth with the stronger rider taking off into the distance until the top of some huge climb where they would then wait for their partner… Generally getting cold and complaining while they waited. When their teammate finally arrived, nearly shattered from attempting to catch up, the lead rider would take off again, leaving their teammate in the dust. There’s only so many times a team can stretch like that before the elastic breaks.
You need to understand what your teammate needs and in some cases, letting them ride in their own zone is fine – should one partner be ‘bursty’ and the other be more like a diesel engine. Be aware of these differences and have a strategy to deal with them.
Happily all the nutrition products supplied by the Transrockies agreed with me (unlike the savory, yet ultimately disastrous stew in Priddis), but both Sheldon and I had brought armloads of our favorite bars and gels to be on the safe side. You’ll want to make sure you’re doing your best to limit your battles to the hills and the kilometers, not your digestive system.
Hydration is a similar story, and you need to ensure that you’re regulating a steady stream of it to ensure you’re properly fueling the engine. Both of these can be especially hard when it’s cold and wet (which was 80% of the time during the 2009 Transrockies), but you need to get into a rhythm, both on the bike, and regarding the intake of solids and liquids. This is something that reared it’s ugly head for Sheldon and I on Day 1 of the Transrockies…
Looking back, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising, it was our first stage, we were in Panorama, we were jacked up and full of adrenaline. It was exciting just to be breathing the mountain air with hundreds of other riders. But as such, we probably weren’t keeping an eye on our nutrition and hydration as much as we should have been. By the end of the day when we limped past the finish line Sheldon ended up in the medi-tent being rehydrated through an IV… Not the way you want to start things off, but things could have been a lot worse.
4. Check your ego at the door
Pride has no place in a stage race, period. An overactive ego can end a race early, especially in a team scenario. Granted it’s ok to go out there with something to prove, but individual goals, unless properly coordinated with your teammate have a tendency to wear at the fabric of the team.
Ensure that goals and strategy are part of your pre-race preparation. Just because one teammate is a good climber doesn’t mean that they should tear up the hill and majestically lord their climbing prowess over the weaker riders below, rather – a strategy Sheldon and I came to become quite adept at was either to take turns ‘pushing’ the other rider on the lower grade hills, or on the super steep ascents (ie. hike-a-bike), whomever was feeling better would head to the top then come back down and relieve the other teammate of their bike. It’s all about moving faster as a team, not about proving yourself as the stronger rider.
5. Be able to dig deep
For most mortal riders, there will come a time when you don’t want to go on, you don’t think you can push any further, you just don’t think there’s any way you could actually turn that crank one more revolution…. Well, I got news for ya… You can, and you will.
Coming into the race with some degree of mental fortitude, while not necessary, will definitely help you at multiple places throughout the race. A stage race like the Transrockies is a non-stop onslaught to your optimism… Climb after climb it will try to crush you. And for those weaker in will – it will succeed.
I remember talking with one of the Ambassadors during a rolling ascent (ie. we were able to actually talk) and he was mentioning that a number of riders had to be shuttled off the course the day before. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect of:
I kept explaining that all they needed to do was hold their pace, they had lots of time to reach the next CP, but all they could see was the massive climb in front of the them and they just gave up… It was so frustrating!
Stage racing is not for the weak of spirit, I will say that. For me it was a character building, mettle-testing affair. I think it’s the same reason people climb mountains, and push themselves to the limits. When you’re out there on the bike, the epic nature of it all strips everything away. It’s just you, the bike, and the mountain – and either you’ve got the cajones or you don’t. To be honest I think Sheldon and I bested a number of more fit teams simply through perseverance alone… Though the same can probably be said for a number of teams that passed us as well. Just keep your head down and turn the legs… You’ll summit that climb eventually ;-)
6. You are not strong enough
Regardless of how much you train or what the circumference of your quads is, you’re not strong enough to simply ‘power’ through a stage race. Stage racing is about economy, strategy and unbreakable spirit. Those with more experience can head into each stage a lot harder than a guy like me, but one thing was universally true as Sheldon and I moved through the ranks at the Transrockies… You need to be able to rely on your cardio and supplement it with strength, not the other way round. Climb after climb, if you’re out of the saddle mashing at the pedals in your middle ring, you’re not going to last.
Two words… Sit and spin. Usually a negative inference, it’s solid advice for a stage race. If anything use that extra muscle to up your average speed on the singletrack, or maintain it on a false flat – you’ll reap much larger rewards this way, and won’t needlessly burn matches. You’re going to need everything you have by the end of things.
7. You are your only wrench
Should something happen on the trail, it’s up to you to deal with it. By the time your stage race rolls around you should be well versed in all the basic repair techniques (ie. flat repair, replacing broken spokes, breaking chains, etc.) and at least have enough mechanical sense to have an idea how to MacGyver your bike should things really turn nasty (ie. turn your bike into a fixie ;-).
If you’re not mechanical, ensure your partner is. If you’re both nancy-boys that get all their work done by a mechanic – take a course at your local bike shop. I know that the Transrockies offers the support of ‘TR Ambassadors’ (riders armed with lots of repair material and know-how that floated throughout the race), but taking advantage of their services slows you down considerably – You have to wait for them to show up and you incur an additional time penalty because of it. Not to mention that I’m not familiar with any other race offering this kind of service, so unless you’re racing the Transrockies, you’re out of luck.
Sheldon and I learned this the hard way and ended up nearly hypothermic on Day 4 after hours of rain, damp conditions, and alpine mountain descents. Take it from both of us, carrying the extra 6oz. of a good rain jacket is well worth it, even if it doesn’t keep you 100% dry, it’ll help keep you warm. On the flipside, if it’s blazin’ outside, ensure that you have enough water and are hydrating liberally. Sunscreen will also play a big part, though neither Sheldon nor I would know anything about that since we didn’t see the sun too often last year ;-)
9. Know what hours in the saddle feels like
Like most people, you may not have the opportunity to simulate a stage race prior to your stage race, but you should do your best to at least simulate a day in the saddle. I know both Sheldon and I raced in a few enduro events leading up to the Transrockies.
Between the TransStoney, the Giver-8-er, and our epic training rides we had at least an idea of what a day in the Transrockies might feel like. Granted, looking back, nothing had really prepared us for the adventure as a whole… But I guess that’s part of the fun!
Keeping a steady stream of liquid going into your body during a ride is a given, but once you get to camp and get off your bike your day hasn’t ended. Recovery is as important as riding and you have to be almost as disciplined (since you’re bagged from an epic day of riding).
For Sheldon and I, we kept it pretty bare-bones, and focussed mainly on hydrating (sipping almost non-stop on Ultima or Gatorade), stretching, eating as much as we could and sleeping. Doesn’t sound too tough, but somedays all you want to do is lie down and sleep. We also treated ourselves to the odd massage as well, and as Ferris Bueller would say “if you have the means, I highly recommend it.”
Chances are you’re doing this race mainly for the adventure, not to finish on the podium. As you roll up and over the mountains, don’t forget to take a breath or two to enjoy the scenery and marvel at what you’re doing.
If any of our readers have any other valuable advice, I’d love for them to add it below!