Introduction to Downhill Racing Part 3 – Practice

In my last few Introduction to Downhill racing posts (part 1 and part 2), I tackled some of the basic questions about downhill racing. Now we’re going to dive into the nitty gritty. Let’s talk about something that’s very important but I rarely see addressed, and that is the subject of race practice. The following are some aspects of practice that I have found to help contribute to an enjoyable and successful weekend.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Perfect Zero

Stay relaxed: Do your best to arrive early, but not at the expense of proper nourishment, and rest. I personally find driving to the events to be a good way to mentally get in the zone. I like leave early and have a relaxing drive, I try to avoid feeling rushed. Doing this will prevent any stresses of the road, it’s a simple yet rather effective way to start the weekend off right.

Walk the Course: After filling out and handing in all the registration forms, go take the lift up for a course walk. A course walk is a good way to familiarize yourself with the terrain, conditions, and potential hazards. Be sure to stay off to the side of the course when riders are coming. Course walks also double as great warm ups.

Some questions to ask yourself during the walk:

  • How are the trail conditions, are things wet or dry?
  • What’s the soil like, is it loamy or is pretty rocky?
  • What are different ways through any given section?
  • Which line is safer, which line is quicker?
  • Look at the weather forecast, how will the rain affect the course?

Check your bike over: After your course walk, get your gear on, and go over your bike. Lubricate the chain, make sure everything is tight, and just do a visual once over your bike. Trust me there isn’t anything much more irritating than getting to the top and finding that your forgot to tighten a crucial bolt. This is when you would adjust your bike according to the conditions; swap tires, change pressure, add a mud flap and do whatever you can to make practice run more smoothly.

Warm up: Generally course walk does a fairly decent job warming you up, which is important. I like to follow up a course walk with a few dynamic stretches and mobility exercises. If you want more information on this check out James Wilson from I highly suggest reading through his posts.

Photo credit: Flickr user musumemiyuki

Ease into Practice: Remember you have all Saturday (unless stated otherwise) to practice the course. Don’t get too excited and injure yourself on the first run, it’s easier to do than you think. The first few runs should be a cruising speed just to familiarize yourself with the course. Another trick is while waiting for the the lift line in between runs, mentally go through the course. This will help ingrain the course layout into your memory. You want to save your “best” practice runs for the end of the day when you’re riding at your best and the lines have developed. You’d be surprised how much a course changes over the weekend.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the course, do a few runs at a faster pace. If a particular section is tripping you up, stop there and rest for a few minutes. Sometimes you may find a hidden “sniper” root that is tripping you up. Watch a few advanced racers ride the same section, and analyze what they are doing. Quite often you’ll notice that they may take a line that’s off the beaten path.

Crucial things to keep in mind during practice:

  • Focus on the slowest part of the course. More time is made up in the slower parts of the course than in the fast sections.
  • The opposite is also true, technical rock gardens are not where the race is won. Find the quickest line that you can consistently ride.
  • Do fewer methodical practice runs as opposed to a lot of mediocre runs. This will save energy also lessen the chance of an injury or mechanical issues.
  • Do a 1-2 runs close to race pace without stopping. You may find that it’s hard to consistently get lines when you’re tired.
  • Always try to finish practice with a good solid run. This will help you sleep better and will boost confidence going into Sunday.

Maintain your equipment: If you notice your bike rattling, squeaking, or feeling funny, pull off to the the side as soon as possible. Those are signs that something is not quite right, and your bikes way of politely asking for help.

Be prepared: Parts are going to break, crashes are going to happen, and dehydration and hunger set in quickly. Pack your vehicle accordingly. Having a pit set up in the parking lot with everything you need is a huge help. Think of it as your home away from home where you can go relax between practice runs while you recover. Being prepared saves a yourself from most headaches.

Have fun: This is the most important thing to remember. Biking and racing should be fun. Some courses might be frustrating at times, but don’t get too worked up if things aren’t going your way. Take a step back, and go do a “fun run” if needed. And certainly do not spoil everybody else’s weekend with a sour mood, nobody wants that kind of negative energy around them.

As a professional racer I’ve had a bit of time to refine how I approach a race weekend. For me 2011 was a defining year. I participated in 28 races, however the first third of the season, apart from a 13th place finish at the Sea Otter Classic, was a disaster. Until then, I had no methodical approach to race runs or practice. It wasn’t until my U.S. Open race run where I crashed in the second turn that I realized that something needed to change.

There are many different ways to approach practice, some riders have rituals and some just go by feel. These are simply my [personal] guidelines that helped drastically turn my 2011 race season around and which continued to be successful in 2012.

My next post will be on the subject of how to approach race runs. If you have any on or off topic questions please feel free to ask below, and I will do my best to answer them as soon as possible in the comments.

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