So you wanna race 4X?

Some of you are thinking, “4X racing looks fun. I think I’ll give it a try.” Here’s what you should know.

The course

Courses resemble downhill BMX tracks. They include rollers, jumps, banked turns and sometimes flat turns. Some courses are tiny and herky-jerky; others are immense and flowy. Because of the amount of dirt required to make big, wide jumps and berms, 4X courses require tons of money, manpower and/or time to build correctly.

Last year’s Chalk Creek course in Nathrop, CO is considered fun because it has lots of jumps and it’s easy to ride fast. Caveat: This course was built over time by dedicated volunteers.

Last year’s Durango national course was considered lame, partly because it was built in a week with little access to dirt or workers. But lame is as lame does. No matter what the course designers throw at you, race hard and have fun.

The bike

Me and my Specialized SX are good buddies. Check out that view!

Frame: You can ride anything you want, but you’ll fare best on a hardtail or a short-travel full suspension. Lopes rides a hardtail. Eric Carter runs a stiff full suspension. They both work; the best choice depends on your style and what you’re used to. Lopes will sometimes qualify on a full suspension, which lets him carry more speed in the rough sections, then he’ll race on a hardtail, so he can get a faster start then block traffic. So have your team mechanic bring your entire quiver, OK?

Fork: Most riders run a 4-inch fork and about a 68-degree head angle. In general a slack angle like that feels stable at speed. Bottom brackets tend to be low — around 12.5 inches. For smooth courses stiffen your suspension. Run a short stem and rise bars, and lower your seat as far as possible. Don’t sweat your head angle and BB height — just ride your bike.

Tires and wheels: On hardpack courses you can run semislick or low-knob tires such as Maxxis Larsens and WTB Nano Raptors. In most situations you’re better off with a medium-knobbed tire like a Maxxis Minion, Maxxis High Roller, WTB Mutano Raptor or WTB Moto Raptor. They let you carry more speed through flat turns. Sweet compromise: a knobby on the front and a semislick on the rear. If you’re hard on wheels, run light DH or moderate freeride rims like Mavic 883s or Sun Singletracks. If you’re smooth and you want ultimate speed, run light XC wheels. But know this: Light wheels have a way of punishing mistakes.

Drivetrain: The hot tip is a smallish single front ring (32-34t) and a chain guide, with a road cassette (11-23t). This combo lets you stay in the middle of your cogset (you’ll only need a few gears), and it provides gradual shifts, to keep you in your powerband. For beginners, make sure you have a chain guide, but go ahead and run everything else stock. Full pros sometimes run 8-speeds because the chains are stronger (really). Many top pros change their chains every race — because they make so much power. Eric Carter has actually complained that flat starts cause him to break chains.

Other gear

In order of importance:

– Helmet. Half-shells look hard core, and so do facial scars. Wear a full-face.
– Gloves. Always.
– Eye protection. Goggles keep you safe and make the world seem to slow down. Glasses work too.
– Knee/shin guards.
– Elbow guards.

Carry water and snacks to the hill. You’ll be up there a while.


A classic low-high pass by the man in black. Sea Otter 2004.

BMX tracks are the best place to get the hang of the terrain and the traffic. Do gate practice to hone your snap, and race to work on flow and tactics. You can also stage mock 4Xs with your buddies pretty much anywhere. Dirt road, parking lot, wherever.

Work on your sprints. 4X races last a maximum of 40 seconds. Sprint and sprint and sprint some more so you can stay strong through the rounds.

Work on jumping. You should be able to handle every jump on the race track without worrying about it. Remember the training bubble — practice big jumps so you can race better on small jumps.

Work on passing and protecting your line. Here’s where typical mountain bikers get shelled. We’re so used to following people we never pass, and we’re so focused on the main line we forget three people are looking for ways to pass us. Here are the two basic passes:

Low-high. You dive into the inside, sweep up (or out) to block your rival, then snap out of there.

High-low. You dive down to block the guy on the inside then carry your speed out of the turn.

Practice both scenarios. As far as blocking goes, just pay attention to your competitors, and do your best to block the good lines. You might get passed anyway. If that happens don’t freak out. Just plan your re-pass. Often the fast line through one corner sets you up poorly for the next corner.

At the race

Blammo! And out they go …

Practice: You’ll get a couple hours of practice. This is not the time to session jumps and see how big you can go. Focus on memorizing the course and finding lines. Imagine where you’ll pass or be passed, and be sure to practice every line you think you might use. If you have to walk up the course, spend most of the practice time working on short sections, then put together some full runs at the end. You should already know how to ride every obstacle on the course. Practice is the time to work on your strategy. Decide ahead of time what you’ll do in various situations; that will make you more decisive in the race.

Qualify: You’ll get one run by yourself against the clock. Take the fastest possible line.

Race: Start as fast as you can. If you’re ahead, protect your line. If you’re behind, try to pass. You are not alone; three racers are trying to beat you. Keep thinking, never follow and never give up!

For more details on 4X preparation and tactics, check out Brian Lopes’ and my book, Mastering Mountain Bike Skills

Also: The BMX book I’m working will have crazy detail on start technique.

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