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Nine lessons from my first mountain bike stage race

I made mistakes at BC Bike Race so you don't have to

A couple of weeks ago I finally, after years of dreaming, got to race the BC Bike Race. The classic Canadian mountain bike stage race was back after two years, and in a new location in the Okanagan. It was actually my first-ever stage race. While I’ve done plenty of racing over the years, racing multiple days in a row – and on mostly unfamiliar trails – was completely new. I learned a huge amount in six days, mostly through my own mistakes but sometimes through others. Here’s nine lessons from my first stage race. Mistakes I made so that, hopefully, you don’t have to.

Prelude: Shaking the rust off

BCBR wasn’t just my first stage race. It was the first time I’d turned a pedal in anger since approximately November 2019. There was a friend’d birthday alleycat and a BC Cup downhill – during which I barely pedalled at all for fear of accelerating downhill faster than the mountain was already making me. All that to say that my usual pre-race routine, which was already dangerously lax, was all but forgotten. Thankfully the BCBR team made it really easy to get through the six day of racing. As long as I could make it to the start line each morning, which wasn’t always a given, I knew that all I had to do was keep pedalling to make it to the finish.

I wasn’t the only one showing signs of pre-race jitters. For many, it’d been a while since they last race. The time off made lining up at a start line feel fresh, and added to the nervousness of the unknown. With over 15 years of experience, BCBR’s sizable team was also visibly stoked to be back and appreciative for the crowd that’d assembled in Penticton.

In the end, despite making a few mistakes and witnessing a few others, I had a fantastic time at my first stage race. It’s a sign of a well organized event that despite my more chaotic moments I was able to roll through the week without major events. Racing for six days is going to be challenging, but the BCBR crew made sure that I could put my energy into racing, not trying to figure out what was happening next. If you’re on the fence at all about doing an event like this, I’d recommend just going for it.

BC Bike Race. Photo: Chris Stenberg

Nine lessons from my first stage race

1) Preparation is never going to be perfect

After a reasonably consistent spring of riding, my summer went a bit crazy. I think I rode a bike three times in the two weeks leading up to the first stage of racing. In the end, all the work I’d put in early paid off and I was able to survive, and enjoy the week. Training never goes exactly according to plan, even for the pros that can dedicate their entire lives and schedules to racing. That’s no reason to stay away from – or back out of – your next big challenge. A race like BCBR is still hard but, as long as you’ve been able to get a good bit of the work in, you can still have an excellent week on the bike.

2) Skills are part of preparation

This is one lesson that, thankfully, I learned from others. Long days and substantial elevation gain may seem like the hardest part of a stage race but, especially at events like BCBR and Singletrack six that pride themselves on challenging courses, dealing with the descents after is just as important. Finishing Day 1, there was more than a few riders, or bikes, that were showing signs of struggle from Penticton’s more technical trails.

3) Test your gear

The old saying “no changes on race day” has survived through generations of racers for a reason. Fresh gear (drivetrain, brake pads, tires, whatever you think is important) is good, but always make sure to do a dry run first. Especially if you’re trying something new for your goal event, like lighter tires or new wheels. Equipment “settles in” and you’ll want to find any problems before arriving at the start line.

For example, I decided to put on a new drivetrain the night before the race. A fresh start sounds nice, right? Until my master link snapped and bent on the way to the start line. With 15 minutes before I needed to be ready to race, I was on the side of the road trying to fix that instead of relaxing in the start chute. Luckily I was prepared for the unexpected (see below) and had a spare link in my race kit.

4) Check you’re packing. Twice.

Once you’ve got your gear sorted, make sure you bring it all. Spare parts, spare chamois, and any hard-to-find race snacks, make sure they’re in your bag. You’ll inevitably forget something, but double-checking your bags is a good way to make sure it isn’t something important.

This might seem obvious but this year one race showed up and realized he’d forgotten to pack his back wheel. Scrambling to find parts – at the last minute in the middle of a global supply shortage – was a stressful way to start the week.

5) Arrive early  (and test your gear, again)

If you’re travelling to race, this is important. Every trail region serves up different challenges. That’s what makes mountain biking so exciting. Arriving early lets you get used to the local trail building style before you’re in a race situation. It’s also a chance to test your bike after pulling it out of a box or off the back of your car and see if what works at home works where you’re racing.

I got to Penticton a day early and learned that the tires I had weren’t the best. I also “remembered” that I’d never got around to switching one tire back to tubeless after an old flat. It was much more relaxing changing a tube and chatting to a local the day before the race than it would have been the next day.

Well, that’s not supposed to look like that…

6) Be prepared for the unexpected

When racing, anything can happen. Unlike XCO racing, where you pass a pit zone every few minutes, stage races send you off into the wilderness. You need to have a good tool kit (tube, multi-tool, ect) and know how to use it. Say, if your chain snaps on the way to the start line.

With stage racing, this extends well after the finish line. Before Day 2, my very kind hosts woke up to a flat tire as we were getting ready to go to the race. We figured it out. They got to work and I got to the start line. But if I had been rushing, it could have been a stressful situation.

7) Racing doesn’t stop when the clock does.

With multiple days of racing back-to-back, racing doesn’t stop when you cross the finish line. You can, and should relax after the days race and enjoy your day. But you also have to set aside time to make sure you eat well, and take care of your bike. Lube chains, clean bikes and – with modern bikes – charge batteries.

These are all things that are easy to deal with, if you have time and have taken care of anything else. Discovering that my shifter battery was low mid-stage on Day 6 was … less ideal. Luckily the Shimano neutral service people mid course were prepared for SRAM problems too and had a spare battery. Otherwise, it would have been a long day on a very fancy singlespeed.

8) Don’t get caught up in the race

Stage races are long. Don’t go too wild trying to hold every wheel on day one, especially when you’re not familiar with most of the people you’re racing with. Fatigue is cumulative in a week-long race, but you can recover. I both caught people that were struggling and, on other days, let many of those same people pass me when I was feeling the effort.

9) Get caught up in the race!

That said, absolutely get caught up in the race! Make friends with the people that you’re riding against and push each other to go faster, push further and have more fun on the descents. This is why I, and so many others, were so keyed up to be back on a start line at BC Bike Race. Sure, Strava exists. But at some point racing real people is way more fun than riding fast on your own and telling the internet about it. Isn’t it great to have racing back!?