Juliana Bicycles

So You Want to Ride a Marathon Stage Race?

Collyn Ahart Shows The Way

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.

Start training.
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.

Keep training.
This means avoiding illness and injury. There are a few tricks you should know before plunging into stage race prep. I personally am a firm believer in three practices to keep me healthy. NIS (Neurological Integration System - think acupuncture without the needles) has resulted in almost zero illness for over two years. Lyno Therapy is a technique developed in South Africa - which I should note is quite controversial because some people find it too painful (like foam rollering your whole body), but has resulted for me in the most dramatic corrections in muscle imbalances, knee pains, back pain and general strength. Finally, Foundation Training is a fantastic way to train muscle activation, increase your flexibility and avoid overuse injury. But whatever works for you, you absolutely do not want to go into a stage race with either illness or even the slightest niggle of an injury.

Practice your nutrition.
This is something you can do in the final month or two before your big event. Make sure your energy drink (you will need energy drink) agrees with your digestive system. Figure out if you want to ride with a hydration pack or bottles, depending on how long the stages are and distances between water stops. Test out the gels, bars, or food you’re going to be using. This means actually eating a lot of this stuff for several days at a time before your event. Most races have great on-course food stops, but some don’t, and you’ll be responsible for carrying all your calories with you.

Gear gear gear.
From kit to the spares you’ll need for your bike, a stage race is a great excuse to get to know your gear really well. You will need to bring as much (broken-in) riding kit as you can pack, assume you will destroy half of it—including all of your socks. Not all races have a laundry service so if you pack light you’ll be hand-washing in the bathrooms every night (but who knows, maybe this is your kind of thing!). You’ll need spares for virtually any breakable bit on your bike (except the frame - just get a really good one to start with and you should be fine). Run tubeless tyres, with the right tread for your terrain, pack a spare chain, some links, some valve cores and derailleur hangers. Zip ties and duct tape are your friends. Learn how to use CO2 canisters and how to plug a hole in your tyres. But most importantly, learn how to fix things out on the trail.

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.

Listen to your fans, too! 


Posted on: January 28 — 2016 | All News