Preparing for your first MTB event

Our advice is simple – go for it!

Entering an event is a great way to:

  • Add an extra dimension to your riding experience & enjoyment.
  • Gain motivation to get out riding and to train harder.
  • Challenge yourself to ride new/unfamiliar terrain.
  • Meet new people.

If the prospect of entering an MTB event puts butterflies in your stomach, we hope this multi-part guide puts your mind at rest and encourages you to take the plunge. Following a few simple bits of advice will help ensure you have a great experience first time out…

Choosing an event

JB8_4068The good news is that the UK events calendar covers a huge variety of locations, rider abilities, terrain and riding categories – and Pedal Planner is the best place to discover the ones best suited to you, and what to expect if you enter.

What category?
If you’ve never entered an MTB event before, we recommend searching for those that include ‘beginner-friendly’ categories. Find an event that includes descriptors such as ‘fun’ or ‘novice’, and you won’t go far wrong.

What distance?
Some endurance MTB events will offer multiple distances on the same day, all staged as part of the same event. Don’t get too ambitious for your first event: go for a distance up to what you would manage on a ‘big day’ with your mates.

Entering an event in plenty of time is a really good idea.

  • The commitment acts as a great focus for your training & preparation.
  • You have time to recruit some of your riding chums to have a go with you.
  • Entering events with your mates will only add to a great experience.

Preparation before the big day

1 – 2 weeks before

  • Service and prep your bike thoroughly – nothing will ruin your enjoyment of an MTB event more than a bike problem! If you check early, you’ll have time to fix any issues.
  • Plan a ‘rehearsal’ training ride over similar terrain, and ideally comparable distance: it’s the best way to ensure that everything goes well at your actual event.
  • For the rehearsal ride, use the exact same preparation, nutrition, hydration, kit and bike set-up as you plan to use for the actual event. If you have any issues and make any changes, it’s best to test everything again, so you know it’s all good.

‘A bad workman…’
Having bike tools with you is one thing; but do you know how to use them? If you’re in any doubt, ask your local bike shop to talk you through stuff. As a bare minimum make sure that you can:

  • Fix a puncture.
  • Repair and adjust gear shifter cables.
  • Split and rejoin your chain.

Checklist Charlie
Make a checklist of all the things you need to take to the event, and another of everything you are going to carry with you during the ride itself.
After your ‘rehearsal ride’, significantly reduce your exercise levels to build up energy reserves – but don’t neglect your stretching and flexibility. Try to maximise your sleep, and keep your hydration levels high.
Check that you’ve received any confirmations, information or other paperwork you were expecting from the event organiser, and keep an eye on their website for final event instructions, route details etc. And read it all, thoroughly!
If you need to make any changes to your entry, check all the guidance on the organiser’s website before contacting them. Never leave it till race day – it will probably be too late.

Map your journey
Plan your journey to the event venue. Allow plenty of time for travel, and make sure you have a map as well as a postcode for SatNav use. Postcodes in rural areas can cover quite a bit of territory, so you may need detailed written directions or landmarks as well, in order to find the start point.

The evening before
Event day’s nearly here – pack everything you need and check everything off against your checklist.
Have plenty to drink (interpret this as you see fit!) Good hydration starts up to 48 hours ahead of your event. Do all that you can to get a good night’s sleep.
Think about the event and get yourself in the right frame of mind. Be really clear about what you want to get out of the day. You will only ever have one ‘first time’ MTB event, so aim to have fun, learn and gain experience.

The result isn’t everything
Going for a podium finish on your first event, or just taking it too seriously, will probably detract from your enjoyment. You’re going to prepare and do your best for sure, but make sure you enjoy the experience.
Think about the event format and have a bit of a plan; if you divide the whole event into its parts, it will help when you’re out on the course. Dividing-up the event into sections might mean using laps as ‘markers’ if it’s a multi-lap event; feed stations on a long cross country course; or distance markers (or just by using your bike computer/odometer).
Divide your ride into four quarters and focus on reaching the next milestone, as opposed to thinking about the whole event distance – this will help when you’re out on the course.

On the big day

Leaving home
Re-check (or better still, get your race buddy to check) your kit in the vehicle. Leave in plenty of time, and if you can, go to the loo at home or stop somewhere en route. There can be long queues at event porta-loos, which is not the best use of your final preparation time!
Aim to arrive at the event venue two hours before your start time, so you have plenty of time to prepare and sign-in. Event organisers really want you to enjoy their events, but are incredibly busy – so may be short of patience if you arrive late and act like a headless chicken at sign-in!

On arrival at the venue
Don’t be phased by the guy parked next to you who has a £6000 bike and all the latest gear; he might be World Champion, but just as likely will have ‘all the gear and no idea.’ You’ll probably have twice the fun for half the cost!
Familiarise yourself with where things are: toilets; race control/registration; start and finish areas; and spectator spots if you’ve brought supporters with you. If you’re unsure of anything, don’t be afraid to ask event marshals or your fellow competitors: you’ll find they’re a friendly bunch and generally they’ll be only too happy to help out.

Event HQ
image of mtb event registration deskHead off to the event HQ /control, and read the latest information posted there before troubling the organisers with any questions. You will be asked to register /sign-on, and usually collect your race number at the same time, to be attached either to your bike or clothing.




Your number

  • You may also be given a transponder/timing chip device, so make sure you have understood how to use it.
  • Fit your numbers and transponder in your own time, back at the car.
  • If you have a number board for the bike, make sure you fit it tightly.
  • Check that your number doesn’t cause cable/hose snags when you turn the handlebars.
  • Trim-off cable ties with side cuts.

If you have a number for your top, be careful to avoid administering pre-race acupuncture with those safety pins!
Take your time putting your gear on. In a competitive event you will be much less inclined to stop to adjust that wayward velcro tab rubbing its way through your skin. Apply anti-chaff cream or vaseline if you use it.

Pre-race routine
Make a mental plan working back from your start time. You need to be at the start line at least 10 minutes before your start time, with everything that you need and nothing that you don’t intend to carry with you. Probably the single most important item to remember is your hydration!
Prior to this you need to have warmed-up: ride around, do a few short ‘interval’ routines, and stretch. And before that you need to have had you pre-race food & drink, and given your bike its final checks; seat height, lube on the chain, number secure, tyre pressures etc.

Mass start?
As it’s your first event, it’s probably best to position yourself at the back of a mass start. Psychologically it feels better to be passing other riders (even if they are only the stationary ones!) rather than starting at the front and being overtaken regularly.
mountain bike event start line sceneJust before the off, remind yourself what you are there to do; have fun, enjoy the day and challenge yourself, but don’t get phased by what other riders are doing. An MTB event is about you versus the terrain and the distance; think of your fellow riders as incidental to proceedings.
Listen carefully to any final event instructions; feed off those butterflies in your stomach; don’t get phased by any wind-up merchants on the start-line; and enjoy the anticipation and the banter. This excitement is what makes doing an event a totally different experience from the normal weekend ride-out with you mates!

Out on the course

JB3_8023And you’re off!
Riders will probably be pretty closely bunched-up off the start line, which can be unnerving if you aren’t used to it. Resist getting swept along at a pace that you cannot comfortably sustain – stay to the side and let others pass (you may pass them later!) Keep a cool head and stay out of trouble.
Remember your plan? Work towards the next milestone, pacing yourself with the whole distance in mind. Don’t be afraid to buddy-up with someone who is on a similar pace as you; it is nice to know you are not the only one feeling some pain! Don’t worry about your progress relative to other riders, just get used to – and enjoy – the atmosphere.


Feel the pain
JB8_4955By the time you’ve covered a quarter of the overall distance you should have settled into your natural pace, and you will be much more comfortable in race conditions. At the half way mark you have broken the back of it, but the third quarter can seem the toughest.
If it’s starting to hurt at this point, remember that everyone else will be feeling it too – they may just be better at disguising it than you! Make sure you are taking on sufficient food and hydration. Think about your pace, and whether you need to drop it back a little – or are feeling fresh enough to start challenging yourself a little more…

The last leg
When you’re into the final quarter of the event, you can take a final snack or gel on board – and don’t worry if you drain your hydration. Try to enjoy the pain, and really push yourself towards the finish. Somehow your fatigued, aching, heavy legs will feel lighter and lighter with every metre closer you get to the line now, so push on and leave absolutely nothing in the tank.

When it’s all over

Expect elation and the pleasant light headedness of an endorphin rush. The more you have pushed on in that last quarter of your ride, the greater the sense of achievement you’ll feel. You have deserved it, well done!

Not finishing
This can happen to us all; it’s an occupational hazard of competitive bike events. However, if you have taken the advice in this guide, selected a suitable event/class/distance AND prepared for and managed your race well, you will be extremely unlucky not to finish.
However fate sometimes deals a cruel hand: biblical rain, snapped frames and out-of-nowhere free-hub failures do happen. But if the cause of your retirement is down to you, be honest with yourself and learn from the experience.

The afterglow
!cid_3469184383_208745This is a fantastic and often unexpected phase, so enjoy sharing the stories and banter with the other finishers – and tuck-in to a well-deserved post-event meal and drink; there are few better feelings in life.


Riding gear
Breathable clothing layers as appropriate: padded shorts/ leggings; footwear (socks, overshoes, etc). Helmet; gloves; glasses; protection/pads as per your preference.

Essentials to carry
Hydration (work on 500mls per hour minimum, up to twice that if it is hot), food, spare inner tube, pump/gas, tyre levers, multi-tool, chain splitter, chain power-link, lightweight wind/waterproof top (even in mild conditions you will lose body temperature quickly if you stop with a sweat on up on the hill).
Bear in mind the locations of any event feed stations when deciding what to carry with you.

Optional items to carry
Second spare inner tube, spoke key, pen knife, puncture repair kit, spare gearshift cable, adjustable spanner (good for tweaking back bent rotors), tyre ‘boot’ /old toothpaste tube (for bodging up split/cut/torn tyres), spare brake pads, mobile phone, heart rate monitor, cable ties, money, first aid kit, anti-inflammatories, whistle, suncream, compass, distress flare, Kendal mint cake.

What to put in your bag / car
Event directions/map/SatNav, any race documents, driving licence, cash etc, pre-race food, warm dry clothes, towel, anti-bacterial gel, loo roll, anti-chaff cream/ Vaseline, recovery drink (beer/champagne/specialist protein and carb product depending on your preference) and recovery food.
Track pump, tools and other bike spares as you see fit.

Top Tips and Traps


  • Preparation is everything – P**s poor planning leads to P**s poor performance. Remember, your chances of performing well are primarily decided before you cross the start line.
  • If you arrive at an event feeling nervous or apprehensive, look around the field and remember that everyone did their first event once – and they’re back because they enjoyed it.
  • Pace yourself and use the mental tools mentioned above to keep yourself on track.
  • Allow plenty of time for the logistics before and after the race. Try to avoid 8 hours in a vehicle the next day and/or a high pressure work day – you will feel the effects of your exertion for a couple of days after the event.
  • Make a weekend of it; bring the family, invite your mates, and make it a shared experience.
  • Remember, the guy who REALLY wins on the day is the one with the biggest smile, regardless of where s/he finished. With good preparation that could be you…


  • Don’t be over ambitious when you select your first event. Start with something that you are sure you will be able to complete; you have the rest of your racing life to do that ultra challenge.
  • Avoid panicking, either before or during the race. Use your checklists, your food and hydration plans, and your general preparation plans. Always be thinking one step ahead: what will I need at sign on? What do I need to ask? What do I need to remember to leave in the car before I make my way down to the start?
  • Resist the urge to make last minute changes; using brand new gloves, bunging a new chain on, rebuilding your bottom bracket or attempting to bleed your brakes on the start line have all spelt disaster for event entrants in the past. Make sure that you don’t suffer the same fate.

Event Etiquette

  • Respect the event officials and marshals – these guys are on your side. Most likely if they are offering you advice, they are doing so in your best interest. They are also giving up a day of their free time to enable you to enjoy the sport you love. If you still think you know better, remember that they also have the power to disqualify you from the event.
  • Never drop litter, and pick up any that you see.
  • Never be tempted to assume that the course can be legally accessed and ridden after the event. Most events use private land as well as public rights of way. Landowners are very unlikely to allow events to return to their land if they associate trespassers with the event.
  • As the rider, your supporters and crew are your responsibility. Be aware that some areas maybe out of bounds for them, and that dogs and children need to be kept under control.
  • Support those who support your sport: the event photographers; caterers; and campsite staff.
  • Try to support the local economy around the event; fill the car up with fuel at the local garage, and stop for a quick drink or meal in the local pub; it all helps keep locals receptive to having bike events on their doorstep.

Rider etiquette

  • When passing other riders, especially downhill, forewarn them by shouting “passing on your left / right,” well before you come alongside them.
  • If being passed, give room, and don’t do anything erratic.
  • If a rider falls in front of you, stop and ensure s/he is not in trouble. If they are, ensure their safety and ask riders passing to tell the next marshal they see where you are, what assistance is needed, and how urgent the situation is. Stay with the rider until a marshal / first aider/ paramedic arrives (organisers will always credit you with the time you lost). Remember that one day it might be you in need of help.
  • If a rider has a mechanical problem and is in need of assistance and you think you can help, why not stop? You are not chasing a result today, you are after a rewarding ride, and the rider will be very grateful. Again it could be you next time, only on a day when you are on for an award!
  • Be especially courteous to non-cyclists that you encounter; access to land for events is getting increasingly difficult, and the last thing that event organisers need is complaints to landowners or local authorities.
  • Give way to walkers and horse riders etc. All it takes is one incident or accident and the event is very unlikely to run on that land ever again.
  • Don’t even think about course cutting or any other forms of cheating! Race organisers are wise to all the tricks: all will disqualify you; many will ban you from their future events; and some will also ‘name and shame’ cheats on their websites. Ride hard, and play clean and fair.

Our thanks to Jon Brookes of rightplacerighttime for the images in this article; top man Jon.

Leave a Comment