My first mountain bike race was in 1997; I started out racing in the cross country category. A year or so later, I also started racing downhill since it better suited my "adrenaline junkie" tendencies. I ended up racing downhill for about 10 years, with a little dual slalom, BMX, and cross country mixed in to keep it interesting. I took a little break from racing for about 4 years, but I have recently returned to my racing "family", competing in Super D and cross country. Once racing is in your blood, it's hard to walk away from it for very long.
Participating in race events over the years has contributed to my overall well-being in more ways than I can ever begin to tell you. My experience with racing isn't unique; if you talk to other women who have raced, they will likely tell you the same thing. In fact, if you talk to enough people about how racing has impacted their lives, you will start to see a pattern develop where many racers have had the same takeaways. You will, without a doubt, see a twinkle in their eyes as they gush about what they love about the sport and why you (yes YOU!) should give it a go.
- Racing will improve your self confidence. There's no greater esteem-booster than setting a goal and accomplishing it. As you fitness and experience, it's also very rewarding to see your results get better and better. Before long, you'll be standing on top of the podium, proudly sporting a medal around your neck.
- Racing will widen your circle of friends. Cyclists are a pretty friendly bunch, so you've probably already made tons of new friends since taking up the sport. When you race, you'll meet even MORE friendly folks. Since races tend to attract people from a wide geographic circle, you'll meet people you probably would not have ordinarily met on your local rides. I have met life-long friends and wonderful people through my years of racing. Pretty soon, you're a member of the racing "family". It's what kept me racing for so long and it's what brought me back.
- Racing will improve your fitness. It goes without saying that when you start racing, you naturally want to do well and not just completely suffer out there on the course. To accomplish this, you'll likely ride more often and at a higher intensity, so you'll reap the benefits of improving your level of fitness along the way.
- Racing will take your bike handling skills to the next level. For the same reason as your fitness will improve via racing, your bike handling skills will follow suit. When you spend more time on your bike, you become more confident and comfortable. You'll also learn a lot from your fellow racers as you watch them ride through tricky sections and talk to them about what you struggle with.
- Racing will take you to new places to ride new trails. I can't tell you how many new, fun cities and towns I've been to over the years because a race has taken me there. On a related note, I have also discovered some great new trails in areas I have ridden because the race promoter and/or land manager cut a new trail. Racing is a great means for discovery!
- Racing teaches you perseverance. OK, that's a big word but in a nutshell it means getting back on the horse after it bucks you off. It means not giving up. It means sticking to your goal. If you crash during your race, get up and keep racing if you are physically able to do so. If you flat during your race, fix it and keep going. If you get last place in your race, hold your head high and make improvements for your next event.
Nothing would make me happier if you stopped reading right now and started Googling to find out when and where your local races are. But chances are, there could be some lingering doubts or excuses holding you back. That's OK...we've heard them all. And any racer will tell you they have OVERCOME them all...
- "I don't know where to start." Finding races is the easy part. Ask your riding friends, club members, and local bike shops where the nearest race events are. The Internet is also a great tool to find races. Racing season is typically in the spring and summer months, but many warmer/drier areas of the country race year-round. It really is as simple as picking a race or two and working towards it. The rest will fall into place.
- "I'm not fit enough." That's OK. You don't have to be uber-fit to race your bike in the beginner (or Category 4) divisions. Of course you will want a reasonable level of fitness to compete...if you are completely spent after riding 5 miles, you aren't going to want to tackle a race that is 10 or 15 miles long. You'll want to work up to being comfortable riding at least the mileage your race will be. After you do a race or two, you'll know what you need to work on for future races.
- "I don't have a racing bike or a team kit!" Don't get too wrapped up in having the "right" equipment. You will want a safe, suitable bike for the type of racing you plan to do (which means you'll want a mountain bike for a mountain bike race; a road bike isn't a suitable choice). And don't worry if you don't have a team "kit" (jersey and shorts with sponsor/shop logos)...the bike shorts and jersey you normally ride in are fine. I'll never forget my very first beginner mountain bike race. A girl came to the line on a ratty old mountain bike wearing cut-off jean shorts and a tee shirt. I remember thinking, "Oh, I SO have this...I won't get last place in my first race. There's no way SHE will beat me with that bike and those clothes!" Well, not only did she completely KILL everyone in my age group, she got the fastest beginner women's time of the day. The lesson: it's not always about the bike and what you wear.
- "What if I get last place?" If you do, so what? You were out there giving it your best which is more than 99% of the rest of population did that morning. I mean, how many of your co-workers have the courage and fitness to race a mountain bike? Unless you work in a bike shop, probably not many. When race day comes, ditch your expectations and just have fun! For many people, their goal for their first race is just to finish...and that's perfectly fine! If you stick to it and put in a little training, I guarantee you won't get last place for long.
- "I don't know anyone at the races." That's OK! People are SO incredibly approachable at races, it won't take long before you have more friends than you know what to do with. Everyone, both male and female racers alike, LOVE to see new women racing and will go out of their way to help and encourage you along the way. If you really feel like you need a buddy, grab a girlfriend or two and make goal out of competing together at your first race (OMG, think of the awesome Facebook and Instagram fodder that will be! Your friends and family will think you are a rockstar!).
So what are you waiting for? I'm personally challenging all of you to give racing a try. At very least, you'll make a new friend or two and have a great story to tell about racing your bike. I did my first race on whim and never thought it would take me the places I've been physically, emotionally, and spiritually. What do you have to lose?
See you at the races!