Mountain biking is not just a test of mind and body, it also pushes equipment to the limit. Once a clock starts running, that limit becomes all the more closer, so if you're planning to race, then you’ll want your equipment ready to handle it.
Few events stress body and equipment more than multi-day events, such as the four-day Redback Stage Race held annually in the red dust of Alice Springs. With the help of Australian mountain bike marathon racer, James Downing, we’ve compiled the top tips to prepare you and your bike for racing either a single day marathon or multi-day mountain bike event.
The top tips leading into the race
1. Tyre selection, setup and health is key
When it comes to mountain bike stage races it’s highly likely you’ll be traversing a broad range of terrain. You’ll want a tyre that can handle the varying conditions, whilst not giving up too much in speed to see you efficiently across any extended road or firetrail sections.
For an event like the Redback which will see you through rock-filled desert, you’ll want to protect yourself from thorn and sharp rock punctures. It’s something that Downing suggests is by far the most important equipment decision.
Speaking with Downing specifically about the Redback, a race in which he’s previously finished as high as second overall – “You can't race in Alice Springs with standard tyres. Get some tyres with some bulletproof sidewalls. I run the Mitas Zefyros and Scylla tyres with the Textra sidewalls with a truckload of sealant inside.”
“You might go faster with the lighter tyres, but if I get a flat tyre then it will take me at least three minutes to fix it. Suck it up and use the more robust tyres. They might cost you a minute or two but if you are not getting flat tyres then you will be in front by the end of the event,” suggested Downing.
Not all puncture resistant tyres are created equal and it’s important to note that typically the lighter the tyre, the less resistance to flats it will offer. In addition to Downings personal choice, some other popular tyre choices for events like the Redback include the Schwalbe Racing Ralph ‘Double-Defence’ and Maxxis’ Ikon EXO.
Regardless of tyre choice, the main tip here is to have your tyres setup tubeless and with plenty of fresh tyre sealant inside. And just in case that sealant doesn’t do its job, Downing suggests to always carry a couple of spare tubes. “That will make sure you aren't having to do the walk of shame!”
2. Shifting won’t improve
Is your shifting feeling a little sluggish or not hitting the mark? A few days of covering it in sand, mud and other grit certainly won’t see it improve. Start the event with your gears running smoothly and it’ll be easier to keep them functioning that way.
Key things to look for is general drivetrain wear and age of your bike’s cables. Cables are cheap to replace and can quickly bring new life into a once-loved shifting system.
Once the event is underway, it’s important to not ignore the health of your drivetrain. It’s at this point that you’ll realise it’s far easier to keep a good condition drivetrain purring than to keep a previously clapped out one turning.
“Wash bike, dry bike, clean bike, check over bike to make sure anything isn't in need of repair or replacement. I might change the back tyre half way through the event if it is looking a bit ordinary. Half way through I might also degrease the chain and cassette and clean out the jockey wheels,” said Downing of his routine during a stage race, before continuing. “Of course, this is because I am trying to optimise performance from my machine for those extra seconds here and there.”
If you’re just participating for the experience and the challenge, then it’s likely you can be a little more relaxed than what someone like Downing may do. Still, it’s a good idea to keep the bike clean, the chain lubed and ensure everything is functioning as intended between stages.
3. Suspension is key, have it serviced before
Your suspension may be sealed, but it’s certainly one of the more demanding maintenance components. Once the race has started, it’s unlikely you’ll find a chance to get a suspension rebuild and a blown shock is certainly not what you want with hours of rock-filled singletrack ahead.
A proper suspension service can be expensive, but it’ll prevent from costly replacement while helping the bike be as comfortable, controlled and fast as possible.
During the race, ensure you keep the stanchions of the fork and shock body as clean as possible. Dust and dirt build up around the seals will quickly detract from your suspension's performance and lead to quick wear and tear.
4. Find a chain lube that you trust
Depending on where you’re racing, you’ll want to find a chain lube that stands up to a whole stage’s worth of the local terrain. For an event like the Redback, you’ll likely want a ‘dry’ lube that doesn’t attract too much dust and sand, but also something that’s not so thin that it leaves you with a bone dry chain half way. Some of the newer wax based lubes are proving a popular choice for this style of racing. Something like ‘Squirt’ has long been proven in dry dusty stage races and can handle the occasional stream crossing without issue.
Many of these lubes work best with a perfectly clean (degreased) drivetrain. Always follow the instructions and don’t forgot to reapply during stages. Whatever you choose to use, ensure you test it out well before the race.
5. Don’t ignore noises
Got a creak, squeak or general groan coming from your bike? It’s best to get this checked out well before the race. While it may be nothing more than a dry bottom bracket interface, it’ll surely annoy the heck out of you and your fellow competitors three hours into a stage when there’s nothing else around.
If taking your bike in for a pre-event service, be sure to make mention of any of these noises. Take note of exactly what type of noise it is and when it happens. Does it happen when you're seated or standing? Pedalling or coasting? The mechanic is far more likely to diagnose and fix it if these things are known.
6. Brakes not breaks
Check your brakes for proper function. Have you ever felt the levers pull to the bar on a descent? Do both front and rear levers feel the same? Change in lever feel is a typical sign that your hydraulic disc brakes need a bleed.
When were your pads last replaced? Sight through the caliper for remaining pad wear. You don’t want to be rocking up to the race and chancing that your pads should see halfway through. Turn up with your brakes ready to let you finish the whole race (assuming it’s dry).
7. Never forget the spares
With your bike all dialled, you can bet that you’ve greatly reduced the chance of experiencing issues. However, mountain biking can be unpredictable and it’s best to be prepared for the worst.
Most stage race events will offer mechanical support or in the case of the Redback, nearby bike stores. In either case, it’s best to not assume that they’ll have spares on hand that are right for your bike. With that, below is a brief list of parts to bring along to be multi day event that could be the difference between you finishing with a smile, or not at all.
Derailleur hanger specific to your frame
Disc brake pads
Suspension pivot bolts
Spare set of cleats with bolts
Your chain lube of choice
Rags for chain and bike
Decent pump with gauge
This list is of course short and will rely on the local bike stores and race support for anything else. In contrast, Downing doesn’t take chances and packs a fair bit more.
“I don't travel light that is for sure! For me, my train of thought is that if I have a problem then I want to fix it when I find it. So that means that I'll take everything I need to do that. At the very least I will take following in addition to all my hydration and clothing needs:
3x spare tyres
2x spare chains
32, 34 and 36 tooth chainrings
Spare outer cabling
2x spare inner cables
Assortment of spare bolts, cleats, brake pads, nuts, washers
Numerous tubes and CO2 cartridges.
Full tool kit to strip the bike right down and build it back up.
Spare tyre sealant.
Zip ties and duct tape.
Carbon paste (especially if rebuilding bike after travel)”
8. Ride with these spares
A list like Downing’s is likely over the top for most riders, however, what you carry with you whilst the racings on is arguably even more crucial.
It’s something Downing has clearly put a great deal of thought into. “I usually do the analysis of what could break and what do I need to take in order to not have to walk to the finish line,” His list is as follows.
Puncture repair kit
Multi tool with chain breaker
Two sets of quicklinks for a broken chain
Co2 and/or pump for tyre inflation
Something to boot a tyre – like a gel wrapper or a 5 dollar note
Basic first aid kit
In the end, preparedness is crucial for minimising your stress and maximising your chances of finishing the best you can. Just like any and all of your equipment and nutrition preparation, never try it for the first time at a race.
BikeExchange is a partner of Rapid Ascent, an events company that runs popular mountain bike and adventure races such as The Redback, Bike Buller MTB Festival and the Giant Odyssey MTB marathon.
James Downing (pictured in lead photo) is an official race ambassador to The Redback stage race. This Alice Springs-based mountain bike event offers six stages of racing over four days. The 2017 edition runs from the 18th to the 21st of August. Find out more at the Redback website.