A lot goes into having a successful ride at an organized bike event, and while there are some factors -- like the weather -- that just can’t be controlled, you as a rider can, in fact, do many things to make a great outcome more likely. We interviewed three veteran cycling event promoters to find out what they tell riders to help them have the best experience possible.
#1: No two events are the same.
“Do your research before you sign up,” says Dave Pryor, who currently promotes the Monkey Knife Fight charity ride and unPAved. He’s also previously run events like the Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic stage race, Singlespeed Cyclocross Worlds (Philadelphia 2013), Pennsylvania Perimeter Ride Against Cancer, and Bilenky Junkyard Cyclocross.
“Read the event website for insights from the promoter, check out the event’s social media, or talk to others that have done it,” says Pryor. “Remember that Type 2 fun is a thing. People will say how fun an event was after they’re done, but it may be harder than it looks on Instagram!”
Pryor advises returning riders to avoid the common pitfall of assuming an event is exactly like a previous edition. “unPAved, for example, changes every year. Sometimes it’s the course or a start/finish location. Sometimes we’ve even changed the format.”
Speaking of formats, events vary widely in how they are timed or scored. Mass start events, for example, may measure cumulative times from start to finish or count only certain timed segments en route, and event series may count either times or points toward overall standings.
#2 - Don’t be afraid to try something new.
Whether you’re brand new to all cycling events or curious to try a new discipline, go watch a similar event. Online will do, but in-person will be even better.
“We recommend first-timers come spectate to get a feel for how a race works,” says George Ulmer, who’s promoted downhill and enduro races for two decades, including the last 14 years running the Eastern States Cup. “It’ll make you want to come back, especially when you get to experience our strong community and meet and make new friends.”
Some events incentivize newbies by offering first-timer categories. The Eastern States Cup, for instance, offers programs for beginners of all ages.
“We have a category called ‘Enduro Light’ which is an introduction to enduro,” says Ulmer. “You get to test racing out in a non-stressful situation. We keep you separate from the other racers and you won’t count in the results, but you get times.” Under 12 kids also have the opportunity to go out with mentors and race around guided at the Eastern States Cup.
#3: Understand the sign up and cancellation policies.
Before you hit the “pay” button, know your options in case you end up not being able to attend after all. No matter what the reason -- illness, family obligation, work conflict, etc. -- life happens and not always according to plan. Find out under what, if any, circumstances you can get a refund, transfer your entry to someone else, or defer for a year. Some races offer event insurance so you can get your money back if you get hurt the week before and can’t participate.
Also ask what will happen if bad weather, poor road or trail conditions, flooding, or even a pandemic force an event to cancel. How will the organizer communicate? Is there a rain date? Don’t just assume you can or will get your money back.
#4: Know how the course is (or isn’t) marked.
“Each and every event does course marking and navigation its own way,” says Pryor. “Sometimes, there are no markings, and it’s totally up to the participant to figure out how to get around the course. Many promoters have been moving away from marking a course at all, and while 80-90% of riders in a typical gravel event have their own navigation system, not everyone does.”
The full gamut of course marking is possible, ranging from none at all to having every inch of a course taped off from start to finish.
“But no matter what event you’re doing, don’t fall for the trap of trusting the riders in front of you,” says Pryor. “They might be going hard, head down, and go the wrong way, and you don’t want to blindly follow them and go off course.”
#5 - Learn the course.
“Knowledge is key,” says Todd Sadow of Epic Rides, who promotes team and individual endurance mountain bike events like the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, Whiskey Off-Road and Tour of the White Mountains. He’s also put on other classic mountain bike marathons like the Carson City, Grand Junction, and Oz Trails Off-Road events.
“The single most important thing to do is to get familiar with the course and learn key details like where there are aid stations,” says Sadow. “There is no limit to how valuable a pre-ride is. Knowing where the top of the hill is, where the corners are, where you can sit up and get a break, and where you need to push are important. The second time you ride anything, it’s at least 30% easier. If you can pre-ride, it’s an amazing opportunity, and it will bode well for race day.”
Ulmer adds, “While we don’t release our course maps until the Thursday before the event because we don’t want locals to have an advantage by going to practice ahead of time, everyone can practice all day on Saturday. We highly recommend you go pre-ride. Practice is super important, especially in downhill.”
But if you can’t pre-ride, all is not lost, especially in endurance events.
“Study the course map and profile,” suggests Sadow. “For example, if I see a climb that goes up 400 feet over two miles, I’ll think of a similar climb in my own community that I can use to constructively relate to the course and have a better sense of what to expect.”
Making notes and affixing them to your stem or top tube for easy reference en route can also help, especially when the fatigue sets in and your brain gets fuzzy.
#6 - Figure out your nutrition.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of fueling,” says Sadow. “You need to practice it in your training. Start eating early and often, which is not something that’s easy to do if you’re not accustomed. You can set reminders to eat on a watch or bike computer. And whatever you do, don’t try eating or drinking anything new on race day.”
If you’re doing a longer event, learn if and where there will be aid stations. If you’re particularly sensitive to what you eat during an event, find out what food and beverages will be available at each aid station. Try out those products in advance to make sure they’ll work for you, or bring your own snacks and drink powders. Some events let you stash your own aid station supply bags, stocked with whatever you’ve put in them.
#7 - Be prepared for mechanicals and emergencies.
“Pack what you need for the day,” says Pryor, who’s seen some people pack enough to ride 200 miles although they’ve signed up for a 70-mile ride. “There’s being prepared, and then there’s carrying too much.”
“If there are aid stations, you may not need to carry four bottles and a hydration pack, or if you know there’s mechanical support, you probably don’t need four tubes. And no matter what, if you take along a Stan’s Dart, you probably don’t need three spare tubes.”
Pryor advises riders to get bikes tuned before the big day, but not the day before. You want to allow enough time to test ride your bike after a tune-up so you can address any new or lingering maintenance issues.
Most importantly, know how to get help if something does happen that’s beyond your ability to take care of. “Put the promoter’s phone number in your phone, and turn location tracking on with a friend in case of emergency,” says Pryor. “Don’t assume you’ll always have mobile coverage, and turn on airplane mode to save your battery during the event. Your device’s navigation will still work in airplane mode.”
Purchasing general ride insurance or specific event insurance in advance to cover your costs in the event of injury is also a good idea.
#8 - Be prepared for varying weather.
“The best thing anyone can do is to be prepared for all conditions, no matter what the forecast is,” says Sadow, “Bring everything that you’ll need for the worst case scenario and best case scenario. Then you can still go out and participate and have a great event even if it’s bad weather.”
Sadow recalls a popular saying among outdoor enthusiasts, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing,” he says. “And that also applies to events.”
#9 - Hang out afterward.
We’re all busy, and it’s easy to get so focused on finishing that you don’t take the time to enjoy your event during and after.
Remember to bring a towel, some water, a change of fresh, dry clothes, and a lawn chair along with snacks and beverages to enjoy and share, especially if food will not be provided.
“Make a friend out there, and help each other get to the finish party,” advises Pryor. “Then, if possible, put on some dry, comfy clothes, and hang out with everyone afterward.”
After all, what really makes most events special is the camaraderie that comes along with getting to share an epic experience with others.