You can go from never having ridden a mountain bike to riding a stage race, even a big one, in less than 6 months. Don’t think it’s possible? I know you can because I’ve done it. It won’t always be pretty, but if you’re a relatively fit and competent cyclist, almost no endurance mountain bike event is beyond reach.
Here is my list of minimum required elements for getting from zero to hero in under 6 months:
Pick a race that is suitably insane.
If you think 3 days (Breck Epic’s short course) is too short to motivate you, try 7 (BC Bike Race or the TransAlp), or even 8 (The Cape Epic - this was my first ever mountain bike race in 2012). Stage racing varies dramatically depending on the climate and terrain. If you’re not very good in the heat, avoid Australia and South Africa. If you don’t feel you have the chops for high altitude, avoid the Rockies. The bigger the goal, the harder you’ll work for it, but pick something that agrees with your constitution so you won’t need to spend weeks acclimatizing.
Find a partner who gets you.
Most stage races are done in teams of 2 and are as much a test of how well you ride with someone as they are a matter of physical stamina. This means having great communication and chemistry as well as being at fairly similar levels of fitness and technical ability. One of you might be quicker uphill, while the other might fly on the descents, so make sure you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses before getting to the start line.
Choose a bike.
Most seasoned stage racers agree the full-suspension 29er is the ideal marathon stage race machine. Having tried racing a full-suspension 26er and hardtail 29er, I concur. These races require comfort, light weight, decent handling on technical singletrack, and speed, in roughly that order. Make sure you get a good bike fit (niggles on day 3 have a bad habit of turning into serious injuries on day 8), and fully service your bike immediately before the event so it rides like new. I’m riding the Cape Epic in March 2016 on the Juliana Joplin, which has so far proved its mettle training for the last eight weeks in the Namibian desert.
If, like I was, you are relatively new to mountain biking, start with technique. Find a good skills course, coach, or riding buddies who are more technically adept than you and start following them down bouldery, steep tracks. There might be tears, you will crash and hurt yourself, but keep going, and after a month or two of feeling like a novice you’ll be able to ride with almost anyone. Try to do a minimum of 2 technical rides each week, practicing things like climbing on hairpin turns and loose rocky descents. Learn how to drop steps, to ride sand (and mud! MUD!), to climb 24 percent grades without popping off the bike, and how to hold your body to maintain speed and stay upright. Mix up your technical riding with frequent high intensity climbing and intervals, and a few times each month get out for a 5-6 hour ride. At a minimum, you should try to put in between 13-18 hours of solid ride-time each week - most of it on your race bike. A month before your event do a week of training that comes as close to replicating your event as possible, before you start to taper.
With any luck (and consistent training!) you’ll be ready for almost any big multi-day event in 6 months. So, pick a race that scares you, and prove it to yourself that you can do anything.