With more than 30 years of mountain bike coaching experience—with a focus on helping athletes tackle arduous stage races in the past decade—I’ve specialized not only in helping athletes build the right type of fitness for their events, but also how to fine tune nutrition, packing, race strategy, and logistics.
Entering a mountain bike race, particularly a stage race, can be an exciting endeavor—but it can also be nerve-wracking to juggle fitness, logistics, recovery, gear, and travel. I enjoy helping athletes do as much planning before they leave for the event. The more organized you can be before leaving home, the more time you will have to relax before the start, or after each stage of a multi-day event—and all of this goes toward increasing your potential for enjoyment and improving your chances for a great performance.
Organize your wardrobe
I like to pack my clothing before I leave home, especially for each day’s stage if it’s a multi-day event. This is an effective way to make sure I have enough of everything—and avoid realizing at the last minute that I’ve forgotten any critical items. I do this at least a week before I leave in case I need to buy or repair a piece of gear.
I use small nylon packs, one for each day in a different color, in which to pack my gear. This also gives me time to analyze each day, how long I think the stage might take, and how much nutrition I will need for each day.
I put everything I know I will need into each bag, which makes it simple to just grab a new bag each day. This includes:
- Bib shorts and/or baggies
- Nutrition for that day’s stage
- Gloves (I have a pair for each day for up to a five-day stage race)
- Lens cleaner wipe
I only have one pair of several other items, including leg warmers, knee warmers, vest, rain shell, and glasses, so they all go in one bag together.
Tools and gear
It goes without saying that before you pack the tools you need for trailside and post-stage maintenance, you should know how to use them. Be prepared.
The demands of mountain bike racing necessitate you bring a few more tools and gear than you would on your average road ride. However, there’s only so much you want to bring on the bike, so each tool must be compact, easy to use, and preferably light.
I take one CO2 cartridge in my saddle bag, but I also like to have a good pump. Some models, like the EDC brand I prefer, have a secure mount, making it solid on the bike. The EDC model allows me to store a multi-tool inside.
Fast Talk Labs Head Coach Ryan Kohler uses the same EDC pump with a Wolftooth multi-tool in his. “Wolftooth crams so much useful stuff into the smallest package,” Kohler says. “This one tool includes your valve core remover, tire lever, quick-link breaker, all the usual bits, spare quick-link holder, and a tubeless valve de-gunker that you can thrash around in the valve once you take the valve core out. It’s a really awesome tool and takes care of a lot of necessities in a very small package.”
I’ll also bring along the necessary supplies to do tire repair: tubeless plugs, a spare tube, and tire levers. Depending on the terrain, I’ll often stash one tube in the saddle bag and another on the frame. Tubeless plugs and a chain tool are now available in a “concealed carry mode” so you can store them inside your handlebar so you don’t have to tape things to your frame.
I’ll also bring another small pack—something bright in case I drop it on the trail while working on the bike. In this pack I have things I hope never to use:
- 1 pair of brand new cleats and screws, wrapped in plastic to keep them from rusting
- 1 new tubeless valve
- 1 tubeless valve core remover
- 1 rear derailleur hanger
Before leaving for an event, I will often contact the local bike shop and ask what tires they keep in stock. If they don’t have something I like, I will ask if they can order them so that they arrive before I do. Tires can be a big problem at an event for those who aren’t prepared. Often you will need at least a front or rear. A little pre-race prep can take the stress out of maintaining one of your most critical pieces of gear.
It’s also worth bringing (or checking with the local shop as to their supply) a second set of brake pads. Depending on race conditions and terrain, there’s a good chance you’ll need these during a stage race.
Finally, a bit more on post-stage maintenance. If you’re going to a race that doesn’t provide neutral support and there are no bike shops around—and, assuming you can drive to the event—it’s a good idea to bring as many of your “shop tools” as possible. Bring the work stand if it fits in the car. Don’t forget to bring extra tubeless sealant and a tire setter. Take the Boy Scout mindset: Be prepared to do your own repairs almost anywhere.
Nutrition is an enormous topic, one that’s far outside the scope of this article. For a review of the fundamentals of sports nutrition, start with our three-part series on the subject, written by Head Coach Kohler, a nutritionist by training.
Likewise, race day nutrition is a complex subject. (This three-part webinar is a great place to review the basics.) Many athletes bring personal preferences and biases to the equation. Regardless of the situation, it’s critical to plan ahead, which starts in the packing phase. Think about the difficulty of the course, the weather, and the number of stages, if applicable. How hot will it be? Do you need to bring a cooler and will you need to resupply the ice?
“In a three-day stage race, for example,” Kohler says, “the first day was a loop, so I planned to start with two bottles and then had one to two bottles per lap available as necessary. Once the first lap was over, I knew how much I could reasonably drink, so I’d grab one or both from the cooler. They were kept cold between laps, tasted great, and I made sure to bring a couple extra in case I dropped one or needed more.”
Once the stage is done, the recovery process begins, and the key to that process is nutrition. Consider packing a recovery shake and some snacks to eat as soon as you get back to the car. And don’t forget a cooler so you can keep it cool while you’re on the trails.
“I usually have fruit ready in the cooler, soda, or some kind of sugary beverage, and chocolate milk ready to go so I can start replacing the sugar immediately after I cross the line,” Kohler says. “I’ll also try to finish off any bottles that are half empty still sitting on the bike.”
Then comes the big recovery meal, whether lunch or dinner. Do some research ahead of time on the local restaurants. Will you be able to find what you need for that favorite post-race meal? Or will you need to bring things to supplement or cook wherever you might be staying?
Keep in mind that many stage races offer meal plans. Assuming there isn’t a long wait and they have what you’re looking for, this can be an efficient option. Bonus: Taking part in the meal plan is a great opportunity to meet people from across the world. It’s also an excellent opportunity to chat with other riders about the course, crux points, and generally share war stories of the day.
The one downside of these meals might be quantity. I often see riders looking at their plates thinking… “Really, that’s it?” So, shopping locally and having a second meal at home is also a good thing to prepare for.
Another idea for those who prefer to cook and are driving to the event: pack the crock pot. Being able to cook something nutritious and delicious while you’re out racing is a great way to eat what you want and do so efficiently. If this is a possibility for you, you can decide on meals and make a shopping list before you go, making it easy to get prepared for the week even before you arrive.
If you’re camping or taking the most cost-effective approach, Kohler recommends some staples.
“I stick with simple meals that are easy to cook over the camp stove or indoors,” Kohler says. “Beans and rice are my go-to post-stage meal—loaded with carbs, low fat, and protein, too. I’ll usually put down a few cups of rice and nearly a whole can of beans. Breakfast is usually oatmeal with peanut butter or brown sugar and apples, and more fruit and chocolate milk. Dinner depends—sometimes it’s whatever I want, or more starchy stuff, but simple with fruit as a constant, and veggies that are easy to cook.”
After the meal, head home, check the bike over, and make sure it is ready for the next day. Many events have daily bike wash and bike maintenance options; many athletes I work with take advantage of these opportunities because it allows for more recovery time. If you choose to work on your own bike, do it right away after your meal so it is ready to go. Once this is done, it will be easier to relax for the remaining time that you have.
Recovery at a stage race
As with the post-race meal, many athletes have a post-race recovery plan. That said, the athletes I travel with simply focus on rest—they don’t use recovery tools like NormaTec to enhance that rest. I find that when athletes are prepared and racing within their limits, even if they’re at the front of the race, nutrition is the key to recovery.
Kohler has an eight-step strategy that he uses post-race:
- Re-fuel and re-hydrate immediately
- Clean the bike
- Take a nap
- Eat more
- Prepare the bike for the next day
- Eat again
- Stay off screens in the evening
- Sleep and repeat
Many people don’t eat enough during or after the race to help them replenish what they’ve lost. So instead of adding to the amount of gear you need to bring (e.g. NormaTec boots or other recovery tools) and the time you need to set aside for some complex recovery routine, I prefer to have athletes focus on eating well, kicking their feet up as soon as possible, and getting to bed as early as they can.
That said, if you trust in the ability of your recovery tool to help you get ready for the next stage, do it. There’s something to be said for the mental boost you get from doing the things you feel you need to do.
Ultimately, it’s crucial that you plan ahead, practice until you find what works, stick with your routine, and trust the process. And, remember, never try anything new during the race.
Ryan Kohler and Chris Case contributed to the writing of this article.