Introduction to Downhill Racing Part 2

In my last post Introduction to Downhill Racing Part 1, I talked about some of the possible misconceptions non-racers might have about racing. If you haven’t already, I would suggest going back and reading that now. In this post, I hope to answer some of the very basic questions somebody may have before attending their first race.

Note to the reader: Keep in mind, every country is different, I can only speak for how things work in the USA and for races that are sanctioned by USACyling.

How to find a race
Normally I would say a quick web search is the modern way of answering any question. However when it comes to finding downhill races nearby it’s not that simple. Searching for “[your location here] + downhill mountain bike races” comes back with little helpful information. I would still recommend this as a first step, just don’t expect to find much. The next step is to talk to your local bike shop. While they may not know all the details about all the races nearby they probably know somebody who does and/or can help get the information. Another way is through the  “find a race” feature on USAC’s website, but I’ve found that to be unreliable at times. Other good sources of information is Downhill forums and websites.

Your bike
Having a downhill specific bike is not necessary, but it is recommended and will make you life easier. Most courses are rideable on a 6 inch all-mountain bike. The only feature that I would say is an absolute must have is hydraulic disk brakes.

Age groups
There are a few different age groups: 18 years and under, 19 to 29, 30 to 39,  and 40+. Believe it or not but there are many riders who are in their late 40s and 50s who regularly participate. 

Note to the reader: USAC uses race ages, which means that whatever age you are by December 31st determines your race age. 

Skill categories
There are 4 categories referred to as a “Cat”.

  • Cat 3 – For beginner racers who have no or very little racing experience. Most riders will only be in this category for 1 full year of racing.
  • Cat 2 – For intermediate riders who do have some racing experience but still need time to polish their skills.
  • Cat 1 – is for expert racers who are proficient racers and are really starting to take it seriously. Riders must have excelled while in Cat 2 before upgrading to Cat 1.
  • Pro – Professional is for riders who have dedicated a greater portion of their life to cycling. However they do not necessarily make a living strictly from racing. In order for a rider to upgrade to pro they need to meet a certain amount of wins in Cat 1 before requesting an upgrade.


Photo by Paul Jerry

What category should I enter?
This is a question I know I had when I first started out, and now that I’m more experienced I get quite often. The safe answer is to start out as in Cat 3 and work your way up. However if you have significant experience racing in another related sport (like BMX, or Motocross) you may want to consider skipping directly to Cat 2. The skill level between Cat 3 and Cat 2 is not very consistent. Sometimes a veteran BMXer will enter his first race as a cat 3 and find that his time would have put him in 1st  for Cat 2.

Race licenses.
Every USAC race requires a license, however for cat 3 and cat 2 there is the option of purchasing a daily license as opposed to an annual license. The necessary forms will be provided at the race registration. However for Cat 1 rider and Pro rider, and annual license is mandatory. This can be done online through USAC’s website.

If you are under 18
If you are under 18, be aware that you need a parent or guardian to sign and fill out the waivers and paperwork. You will not be eligible to participate in the event without their consent. If your parent cannot attend the race it is possible to download and print the registration and waiver out and then fill in the information. In some cases you may need to have a Notary Public sign as a witness. If in doubt, contact the race promoter, and they will assist you through the process.

How to prepare
If this is you first race don’t worry too much. Going out and riding your bike should be sufficient. Just go to your first race and enjoy the experience, don’t take it too seriously. With that said, watching some of Fabien Barrel’s how to videos and the like can only help. Basic physical conditioning won’t hurt either, but the majority of the race is a mental game and as far as I know there is no better way to train that other than racing.

Photo By Tom Grundy

What to bring to the race
Most obviously your bike, your helmet, gloves, and other protective gear. Don’t be ashamed to wear pads. A few other things that may not be as obvious are tools, spare tubes, food, water, coolers, folding chairs, and EZ-up tents. That being said, the best thing to bring is a friend who wants to race too. You can both share the experience together and split travel costs.

This can be tricky. It varies from resort to resort. Some places offer condos dirt cheap during the off season. Others are in the boonies and you may be forced to camp. Contact the race promoter, and or mountain and see what they recommend, sometimes they have worked out discounted rates with nearby hotels. Camping can be a great way to meet new people when you first start out.

I realize that you may know most of this information already. More information can be found in the rule book on the USAC website. The purpose was to cover the absolute basics before I start progressing to other aspects of racing. If you have any questions, ask them below, and I will either answer them in the comments and/or include them in future posts.

Finally here is a [incomplete] list of DH race series in the USA.

East Coast: (MA, ME, NH, VT, NY, NJ) (PA, NY, NJ)

West Coast:  (WA, OR) (CA)

National Series:

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