Timing devices and techniques for racing

Hi Lee,

I am a big fan of your website and book (with BL). The fountain of information has definitely made biking a lot more fun. Thanks a lot man. Anyway I am just a recreational rider but I love to watch local DH and XC races here in the Philippines. I noticed though that race participants are still crudely timed manually via radios or cellphones and can’t help but wonder if this is accurate enough considering that a difference of less than 1 second can spell the difference between podium finish and not. I wonder what sort of timing devices and techniques are used in US or UCI DH and XC races.


Hansen Dy

Hey Hansen,

Smaller events here are timed with stopwatches. I remember losing a dual slalom round by half a wheel, and the timer said the margin was a full second. Apparently it took her a second to press the button again. Stopwatches, radios and phones are fine for local stuff, but riders at “real” races expect more precision.

The bigger events all use some sort of electronic timing device:

The most common: The timer starts at a predetermined moment. Your start time might be 1 hour, 58 minutes, 30 seconds after the event started. The starter gives you a countdown, then you take off. Your time stops when you cross the light beam at the finish. This works very well most of the time, but the promoter still has to keep track of everyone and do some basic math. If you pass or get passed, your time can get screwed up. If you’ve ever had the run of your life and been exactly 30 seconds off the pace, be suspicious!

Some bigger events, especially mass start events like XC, use sensors in or on your shoes. Each sensor is coded with your identity. When you cross the start line, time starts. When you pass the finish line, time stops. Passing, getting passed, stopping for lunch — none of that affects your time. Pretty slick.

Timing accuracy comes down to 1) equipment and 2) the systems and professionalism of the promoter. The more racers pay, and the more invested they are with the outcome, the greater the pressure on the promoter to be perfect. Because of the timing issue, promoters tell me gravity races are much more expensive to run than XC events. As a matter of fact, many of them lose money (or at least profit margin) when they run downhill races.

Let’s face this fact: For many racers, that race time is their definition of self worth. When you base your identity on that number, you’re placing immense pressure on the race promoter — and yourself. Every hundredth of a second really counts!

Some of the most fun I’ve had was local style. At the top of the hill, two of us simultaneously hit Start on our watches. I took the first run, with a list of the start order in my pocket. Everyone took off in one-minute intervals. I noted everyone’s finish times then did some basic arithmetic. Because the error margin was so high, we often had three-way ties. But when you’re racing just for fun, it’s all good!

Or how about an underground series where you ride as fast as you possibly can, and there’s no timer? You enjoy the ride for what it is. You note where you can improve and celebrate what you did well. That would be sweet.

Oh yeah: That’s mountain biking.


— Lee (currently stressed out and really needing some unstructured play time …)

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