Here’s how professional mountain bike racer Alex Wild warms up for XC MTB races and preps his starts to make them as smooth and as powerful as possible.
For Alex Wild’s full episode check out Ask a Cycling Coach 269.
Start With a Warmup
A good start begins with a good warmup. Not every race calls for the same warmup, though. How you should warm up depends on how you respond to different warmups, as well as the length and style of the event. If a race is short or the start is on a climb, it’s important to be fully ready to go. If your race is on the longer side or starts slow and smooth, you may not have to warm up at all. Orange Seals Alex Wild uses these criteria to make adjustments to his race day warmups.
Adjusting Your Warmup
For XC-Olympic distances, Alex begins warming up forty-five minutes before the race starts. Forty-five minutes gives him just enough time to complete his routine and get to the line fifteen minutes early. Some athletes might think this is a short warmup, but it’s actually perfect for this distance. Anything longer than forty-five minutes, or not within an hour of the start, isn’t proven to be beneficial to your race.
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For a longer race, like the Leadville Trail 100, Alex says he won’t do a warmup at all. With a long day and a gradual start, one isn’t necessary. That’s not to say he doesn’t warm up for any long races, though. When he races the Epic Ride Series, most of these races are more than fifty miles long. But they frequently have hard fast starts that immediately lead into climbs or singletrack, making a warmup key to a good start.
Alex’s XCO Warmup Routine
Alex starts with five minutes of slow spinning, ramping from a spin to an endurance pace. He follows that up with a steady eight-minute progression to threshold. After that, Alex takes two minutes off to spin easily. To finish, he does five minutes of endurance with three quick high cadence spins interspersed throughout.
This puts his warmup around 20 minutes and generally leaves him with extra time until the start. He uses this time to spin until it’s time to line up. Depending on whether or not he has a call-up, Alex will try to be at the line 15 minutes before the start.
Getting a Start Position
While warmups are important, sometimes it’s necessary to cut your’s short and get a good starting position. If you’re racing at a point series event where you have a call-up, you might be able to get away with spinning longer while you wait for your name to be called. If you’re racing a big event where you have no call-up and the field size is big, it can be worth it to cut your warmup a little short and get a better starting position in the corral. It requires an individual cost and benefit analysis based on the course, the field, and the importance of the start.
Alex’s Pro-tip: If you have to stand around in a corral, try spinning backward while holding onto something to stabilize yourself. Maintaining some movement can keep your legs from growing stiff.
If you’re racing in a large field and you don’t get a great starting position, don’t worry! Alex says that when he’s seated far back he goes for the outside line when the gun goes off. The inside line is often faster, but if everyone veers towards the inside line, athletes can get bunched up. This makes that outside line an opportunity to pass. If you have to start towards the back, Alex recommends looking at the first corner in the course and starting on the opposite side of that turn. This gives you a direct path to that outside line.
Prepping Your Start
Once you’ve warmed up and planned your line, all you have left to worry about is executing your start. While you can’t always guarantee that your start will go smoothly, you can make adjustments to your setup to stack the odds in your favor.
Pick a Gear: First, make sure that you’re in the right gear for that start and that your bike is fully shifted. You don’t want to exert a bunch of force while your bike is shifting. If you have an opportunity to pre-ride the course, picking your gear in advance can help you ensure you’re in the right gear.
Use Your Dropper: If you have a dropper post, Alex recommends lowering your dropper just enough so that you can sit firmly on the seat with one foot on the ground and the other foot clipped in. Doing so allows you to exert more power during the initial pedal stroke while maintaining greater control of your bike. You don’t have to worry about clearing your saddle or sitting down either. Your only concern is clipping your second foot in.
Adjust Your Pedal: If you’ve done your fair share of mountain bike races, chances are you’ve slipped a pedal or wasted a second trying to get your foot clipped in before. To avoid any mishaps, Alex recommends positioning your pedal so that when it comes around you can easily clip in without missing it or slipping.
Alex’s Pro-tip: If your start is in loose gravel, brush away the gravel behind you with your tire or your foot to make a firm patch. This can prevent you from spinning out or losing power during the initial pedal stroke.
Practice Your MTB Starts!
Good starts only come with repetition and practice. The best way to practice starts is to do a lot of starts, and you can also practice starts by integrating a few starting drills into your outside workouts. This can help you improve your ability to clip in from a starting position and start on different terrain.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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