Racing for the right reasons

Hi Lee,

A while ago you I believe you wrote an article that addressed racing mountain bikes and why people do it. I think the byline was something like “If you’re racing, ask yourself why?”. Does that ring a bell? If so, could you send me the link so I can re-read it?

I’m the former head coach of a high school mountain bike team, and I’ve become quite disillusioned with racing. We’ve lost no small number of kids who loved (notice the past tense here) mountain biking, joined our team, and quit in frustration because training for racing, and racing itself, took all joy out of the sport. I feel really bad about this, and I know other coaches around the state are experiencing the same thing. Kids should not join a club and end up hating mountain biking. Something is seriously amiss here.

Me, I’m done with racing. I’m riding for fun and fitness now. It’s why I fell in love with the sport in the first place.


Ex Racer Dude


It’s great to hear from you, but I’m sorry you got burned out. Racing is a tricky thing, and it’s not right for everyone. I convince more of my clients to stop racing than I encourage them to start racing.

I agree about kids. With my girls my goals are 1) be safe and 2) have fun. If they want to do more than that, fine, but I will not put them in a program that requires them to take on a racer’s mindset.

Many racers are driven by pathology, and the longer you let the pathology run your life, the deeper you drop into your abyss, and the harder it becomes to live any other way.

In my opinion, kids should not be learning to fight against external, arbitrary forces then only feel good when they win. They should be learning (and loving) themselves from the inside out. I say this as a very broken 11-year-old.

I took racing as far as I wanted to (Sea Otter vet slalom finals, vet U.S. national DH series champion, and 8th at Masters DH Worlds), and I have to admit it wasn’t all so healthy. Now that I’ve seasoned into kind of an edgy Obi Wan Kenobi, I think I’ll handle racing better, but I don’t feel compelled to do it. That said, Masters DH Worlds are in North America in 2019, and I’ll be 50. I’m seriously thinking about doing that race.

If I do, I vow to be a zen master. I will focus on my own intrinsic goals (ripping and rowing and being kind to myself), and I’ll bet you a nickel I podium as a result.

Here is the article you’re referring to. It’s an excerpt from the book Mastering Mountain Bike Skills v3.

Competition can stoke you out and inspire you to new greatness, or it can bum you out and spoil you on riding. The determining factor isn’t whether you win or lose the race; it’s how you perform in relation to your expectations and goals.

We enter races for myriad reasons: to wield our powers against others; to see how we stand against the best; to make a living; to challenge ourselves; to ride as fast as we want on fun courses; to travel to cool places; to bash elbows with our buddies; to commune with the racing tribe; to validate the time, money, and energy we put into our sport; and, for some of us, to validate ourselves as riders and as people.

Before you reach the starting line, take the time to figure out what, exactly, you expect to get from the experience. By setting clear expectations, you’ll know what to strive for, and you’ll know how to measure your success. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Why is more powerful than what.

Think about the reasons you race. Whether you race for self-improvement (good reason) or to destroy other people (not such a good reason), your fundamental goal will drive you through the inevitable difficulties—and successes.

Enjoy the process.

Riding (and living) is a never-ending process of increasing your strength and skills. When you become serious about racing, you dedicate yourself to the process of finishing higher and higher in more challenging events and, eventually, in higher classes.

Just as learning to jump a 10-foot double is a step on the way to jumping a 12-footer, then a 15-footer, and on and on until the requirements outweigh the rewards, earning 87th place is a step toward 10th place, then 3rd, then 1st, and then up to a harder class. Write down your racing goals and keep track of your progress. When you feel defeated or question your motives, your racing log will keep you motivated.

Remember: Keep striving to improve, but enjoy where you are and take the time to appreciate what you’ve already accomplished.

Remember: It’s only bike racing.

What? Blasphemy! After you strip away your ego, winning a race means only this: You were the fastest or first rider on that day, in those conditions, among that specific group of racers. Lee has won a “Pump Track World Championships” when Brian Lopes wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean much.

Anything—different terrain, weather, racers, or luck—could have dropped you to number two. Shoot, if you were in a higher class, you might have been 87th! In racing (and in life) you can control only yourself—and then sometimes only barely. Try not to worry about things that are outside your control. If someone flats and you move up a spot, don’t be too proud of yourself. In the same way, if a competitor makes a clever move and you fall a spot, don’t be too bummed.

If you believe the old No Fear T-shirt that said, “Second place is the first loser,” you are in for a world of pain.

Set personal performance goals.

As we’ve been saying, “winning” is arbitrary and, in large part, out of your control. Set goals for yourself: In a downhill, lay off your brakes through the tricky rock section; in a cross-country, maintain 176 beats per minute on the climbs; in an enduro, pace yourself to finish the entire weekend strong. Whether you win or not, judge yourself by how well you met your goals. But keep in mind that this is racing. Keep striving to do better. Otherwise, go for a fun ride and save the entry fee.

Pick the right class.

Racing is a great opportunity to compare yourself with other riders of the same caliber. The best racing class for you depends on your reasons for racing. If you want a challenge, race in a class that lets you ride fun courses with riders who will push you. For the most intense competition, race in a class that you have a chance, but no guarantee, of winning.

There’s nothing as exciting as battling it out with close competitors. Losing makes you hungry, and winning is definitely something to be proud of. If you must destroy other people to feel good about yourself, go ahead and stay in an easy class. Enjoy your five overall titles in Beginner 30-34; then move on to destroy Beginner 35-39. But be warned: There is a special hell for sandbaggers, and your competitors will try to send you there.

Use your losses.

Learn from your mistakes. In a way, second place is more exciting than first place. When you win, you feel good and there are no excuses, but you start wondering about where to go from there. When you take a close 2nd (or 3rd or 87th or whatever), you get really hungry and hypermotivated to do better next time. The drive toward improvement is much more powerful than the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Don’t Let a Bad Result Ruin a Good Time

I (Lee) have been completely stoked on a race run and then been devastated when the results ranked me lower than I wanted to be. What a shame, to let my placing ruin a good time. On the other end, I’ve completely blown race runs and then been jazzed when the results showed everyone else blew it worse. How shallow, to take pleasure in other people’s catastrophes. Both extremes—letting a bad result ruin a great race and letting a good result erase a bad race—show a lack of internal goals. Not only will this not help you improve, it’s also no fun.
Have reasonable expectations.

The most reasonable expectation is, “I will do my best,” whatever that means to you. For most people (except Brian), the most unreasonable expectation is, “I will win.” If you expect to win all the time, expect to be disappointed much of the time. In a time-trial event, you have no influence on other people’s runs. If they are fitter, better skilled, more clever, or ride in faster conditions, they might beat you. Do everything you can to ensure a good time, but in the end realize that times are what they are: just times. Racing head-to-head is even more complicated. You can get beaten because of a crash, a clever pass, superior fitness, or mental toughness. Win or no win, either way, do your best.

Brian Lopes, what makes you such an effective racer?

I think years of experience. I’ve been racing bikes for over 40 years now, so I have a lot of first hand knowledge built up. I also took racing very seriously when I was in my prime — and all I cared about was winning.

Know more. Have more fun!

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