Choosing the Right Setup for a Mountain Bike Stage Race
Mountain bike stage races are one of the sport’s most enjoyable challenges, and having the right bike setup makes it even better. For the uninitiated, imagine traveling to an amazing riding destination, seeking out the best rides the area has to offer, and checking them off, day after day, with hundreds of your friends. It’s an enormous undertaking that’s absolutely worth the effort. Each race has its own flavor, but what they all share is that an appropriate bike setup is crucial to the experience.
Take Pennsylvania’s legendary Transylvania Epic, for example. The race takes place over seven consecutive days through central Pennsylvania’s rocky wooded hills, and each day’s racing is between 25 and 43 miles. The trails are strewn with sharp rocks and slick roots, and they’re punctuated by road sections that demand maximum effort. It’s one of the most taxing races we do all year, and it takes a serious toll on both bikes and bodies. The Competitive Cyclist mountain bike team swept the podium in the men’s open field at the 2015 edition, and equipment selection played a significant role in our results.
The need for versatility made the Yeti ASRC our obvious choice. It’s a fast, responsive cross-country-oriented platform that easily handles a bigger 120mm fork for an extra buffer against rougher sections of trail. As the miles added up, our team dropped a few PSI from our shocks and we found ourselves using our lockouts less frequently, as the extra cushion helped to fight fatigue.
Tires are even more important than bike selection. As the sole point of contact between your bike and the ground, your tires have a massive impact on your bike’s handling. You need rubber that rolls fast, with an open knob design that will shed mud and handle dust. Weight is important, but not as important as durability. A flat can set you back several minutes, and the trails are littered with sharp rocks hidden beneath a layer of leaves, so there are plenty of chances to puncture tires. In light of these considerations, we raced the Vittoria Barzo for every stage, and we opted for the reinforced TNT casing in the larger 2.25 size. The rocky trails produce tons of flats, so we opted for a higher-volume tire, which is more forgiving for the rider and resist flats better than the lighter options, while the reinforced TNT casing provides added resistance against punctures and tears. We made sure to race on brand new tires, since a fresh tire is more flat-resistant, and sharper knobs mean more grip when you really need it. We filled them with 5oz of Orange Seal per tire, which is a bit more than we’d typically use, but the TSE’s sharp rocks had us concerned about losing fluid to pinch flats. We also raced with tire plugs and a tube as backup, and we kept spare tires in our pit, but our tire setup held strong throughout the week of racing.
Gearing is worth some consideration, but unless you’re racing in vastly different terrain from your home trails, you don’t need to overthink it. However, keep in mind that you’ll want some lower gears later in the race. That 36t single ring is going to be a lot harder to push on day five, even if it works well on your regular rides.
The rocks at the TSE gave our hands a beating, but we made the right choice running ESI’s Chunky grips. The thicker silicone material feels secure with or without gloves, and it cuts down on vibrations much better than foam grips. Plus, the design is noticeably free of seams or edges, which prevents hot spots during long days. I paired them with TOGS (Thumb Over Grip System), and despite some skepticism, I grew to really like the extra hand position offered by these little horn-shaped devices.
It may not be part of the bike, but it’s nice to have a clean and comfortable helmet. We’ve been using the POC Octal AVIP MIPS this year, and it’s the most comfortable helmet I can remember wearing. It also allows plenty of airflow when you work up a sweat, and the MIPS technology enhances safety in the event of a serious crash. There are some useful details as well, like the textured optics perch—a grippy panel inside strategic vents that keeps your sunglasses in place when they’re stored on your helmet.
We’ll go into training and nutrition in another post, but you should have your fueling rehearsed and all of the kinks worked out. Just know that you’ll get tired of eating, but some events have earned a reputation for great meals, which helps a lot. Speaking of which, the Transylvania Epic does an incredible job of feeding racers, even those with specific dietary needs.
If you haven’t done a mountain bike stage race yet, it’s about time you find out what you’ve been missing. But before you sign up, do some research, prepare for the course, and get ready for a time that you won’t soon forget.