Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå’s five top tips for your first cross-country race
Cross-country – or XC – racing is one of the original mountain biking disciplines and also arguably the hardest; you need to propel yourself up, down and around an off-road course while jostling for position with other racers, reacting to other riders and an ever-changing racetrack. You need strength, endurance, keen technical skills, a level head and a sharp tactical mind – never mind the commitment to training hard, year-round.
No one knows how these skills all come together better than Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, MERIDA ambassador and one of the most successful mountain bikers – and cyclists – of all time. With 20 Olympic, World- and European Championship Gold Medals under her belt, she’s the obvious person to ask, so here are her five top tips for anyone about to dip their toe in the waters of XC racing…
“Make sure you test your bike and equipment the week before the race. No new components on the bike the day before!”
In a cross-country race, you rely entirely on your equipment. Something as small as a missed gearshift or dropped chain can ruin your race result, so making sure your bike is in tip-top condition is essential. If it’s not, make sure that any repairs or replacements are done way before race day and are working perfectly before getting to the start line.
If you’re changing components like bar and stem or tweaking your bike position, you need a good bit of saddle time to make sure that you’re comfortable with the new setup. Finding out that your new position gives you terrible back pain 30 minutes into a two-hour race or that your shop mechanic neglected to tighten some bolts when they work loose on the first lap will really spoil your day.
“Do a few training interval sessions on an XC race course before race day, either with yourself or together with a friend.”
While doing interval training on the flat or on climbs should be an essential part of your training regime, trying to simulate the racing experience simply can’t be beaten when it comes to tailoring your effort to what’s needed. Giving it your all on an uphill interval is fine in training, but in a race you’ll need to be ready to tackle a descent afterwards. Knowing how hard you can push without mistakes is a vital skill that only experience can teach – so why not have a friendly ‘race’ rivalry with a friend on a local course or just try and put in a new fastest lap so you get a feel for it? It’s bound to teach you some things that other kinds of training won’t…
“Tell yourself on the start line that you shouldn’t get stressed or panic, no matter what happens in the first half of the lap.”
A lot can happen in the action-packed first lap of a cross-country race, so if you let stress get the better of you and you lose your focus on what matters, it can often end up in a crash or hitting the wall. Resisting the urge to panic will stop you from making easy but costly mistakes; going for a gap between riders isn’t really easy to do when you’re coursing with adrenaline, but it could end your race very quickly. Wait for other people to make the mistakes and then capitalise on them, rather than the other way around.
“After you first race, put down on paper where you felt strong and where you felt weak. Work on these skills in your training for the next time around.”
Constantly analysing your performance and spotting the opportunities to improve is the hallmark of the true professional racer. Being honest with yourself and writing down where you did well and where you struggled will allow you to train accordingly. If you struggled to keep up with sprints or lost ground in technical sections, you need to adapt your training to suit.
Knowing your strengths is equally important – if you’re a capable descender, then pushing hard on sections before the descent will mean you’re more likely to get a clean run where you can make up time and also recover, rather than being stuck behind weaker riders. If you’re great on the flats but suffer on the hills, play to your strength and try and gain time there. Keep a note of how your tactics worked too – then you’ll be able to deploy the right plan at the right time in future races.
“Don’t think about the result in your first races, just try to improve how you rode each section every lap - and remind yourself to enjoy the experience.”
Mountain bike racing can be physically tough and mentally hard, so putting a lot of pressure on yourself is the last thing you need when you’re starting out. Instead of thinking about the result, just try to ensure you ride each 100m section of the course as well as possible, correcting mistakes you made in previous laps and improving a little bit each time.
Make sure you keep in mind that you ride for fun – and if you don’t forget that you’ll always enjoy your time on the bike, even under the pressure of a race.
To keep up to date with Gunn-Rita, follow her on Instagram here.