Riding bikes in the woods is fun. Riding bikes faster than other people? That’s downright badass. We know now everyone is cut out to race cross-country, but with cool new races appearing across the country, we figured a primer on XC racing was in order. Yes, men in Lycra still make us nervous too, but take our advice and you should make it through your first race unscathed.
Get on the Bike
If you’re planning on entering as a beginner or sport-class racer, you should be able to ride for two or three hours without interruption. If you’re not there yet, there’s only one solution: volume. The more you ride, the faster you'll be.
How often and how far you should ride will depend on your age, fitness, and health. But the most important thing you can do is set a workout regimen you’re comfortable with—and stick to it. Split your rides into two types: faster/shorter and longer/slower. Vary the schedule, and don’t ride back-to-back days until you’ve been training for at least a month or two. Do a few days of long, slow rides, followed by a few days of intermediate rides, followed by a week of fast rides. Or do a week with one slow, one medium and one fast ride. Mix it up. If you’re feeling strong after a few weeks, throw in a couple of two-ride days.
Whatever your schedule, don’t miss workouts. Repeat: don’t miss workouts. Rain will fall, beers will beckon, and sweetie will try to lure you into sleeping late. Don’t take the bait. Turn on the coffee maker, load up your hydration pack, and get out there. If you have a road bike, ride that too (don't worry, we won't tell anyone). But make sure you hit dirt at least once a week; you can be as fit as you want, but if you’re not used to the up-and-down crimpers that make XC courses fun, you’ll still choke.
If it hurts, don’t do it. Your muscles will burn, your chest will hurt, and you might even get woozy at the end of a ride. That’s normal. Pain in the sides of your knees? Numbness in your junk? That’s not. Talk to your bike shop and get your rig fitted right, so you’re comfortable on long days in the saddle.
Forget what you learned in Phys Ed: stretching before you ride has been widely discredited as damaging, but stretching after isn’t bad. Warm up by riding around at a slow tempo for 15 or 20 minutes, and then start your ride in earnest. You can end with a sprint, if it makes you happy, but make sure you cool down for 15 minutes before you head inside.