Training: Practice Those Race-Day, Redlining Starts
by Jason Hilimire, FasCat Coaching
A mountain bike race start is an aggressive, explosive affair. It’s the most difficult part of a mountain bike race and one of the most critical portions.
A good mountain bike start is a launching pad for success and having a great race. In this article I’ll dissect the power demands of the first 20 minutes of a mountain bike cross-country race and show you how to train specifically for those demands.
The acceleration off the start line generates the greatest power output in the first 20 minutes of the whole race. But, how do you go full gas for the first 20 minutes and still recover so you have the oomph for the rest of the race? It’s simple: Simulate the first 20 minutes of a mountain bike race in your training. In order to do this, it’s helpful to know the power demands of the first 20 minutes of a race from a wattage based perspective.
The power graph above illustrates the first 20 minutes of a mountain bike XC race. The riders functional threshold power (FTP) is shown by the dashed yellow line on the graph to orient the power output of a mountain bike race start. We have divided it up into 3 parts: The immediate explosion from a standing start and then the VO2 effort (115% of FTP) as indicated by the green arrow (the drop in power is from a slight descent at the start).
Once the athlete got off the line, it was time to dig deep at threshold power and drop the hammer, indicated here by the orange arrow. A slight burst of power just before heading into the singletrack (in this race) and then you see the variability of power (indicated by the yellow arrow) that comes with riding technical singletrack.
Now that you know what happens in the first 20 minutes of a mountain bike race you can simulate this in your training. By simulating the power demands of a cross-country race, you will improve your mountain bike race starts. Basically, this “race simulation” replicates the first 20 minutes of an XC event (or even the endurance races that are starting fast nowadays).
Example Race Simulation Workouts:
If you can, head to your race course a few weeks ahead of time as it’s a perfect workout to do on the course. Get right out there, toe the line where the start is going to be and blast it in this format for the next 20 minutes on your mountain bike.
Here are three race simulation workouts progressing from easiest to the most difficult.
- From a standing start with one foot on the ground, sprint off the line and practice clipping in, then into 2 minutes at VO2 intensity, straight into Threshold for 5 minutes, then into Sweet Spot for 12 minutes
- From a standing start with one foot on the ground, sprint off the line and practice clipping in, into 3 minutes at VO2 intensity, then threshold for 8 minutes, and finish with Sweet Spot for the final 15 minutes
- Sprint of the line, 5 minutes at VO2 intensity, 10 minutes at threshold, then finish it off with 20 minutes in the Sweet Spot zone
Due to the intensity and length of these intervals you only need to do one simulation per workout. It’s a one time, game on effort, and if done with proper rest and motivation, you’ll often see some of your best 5 & 20 minute power numbers. Start with the easier simulations, and work your way up throughout the season. If you’re having trouble clipping in at the start, practice the start sprint 5 times to warm-up for the race simulation.
The power graph is from a race simulation workout.
The post-ride analysis of this workout shows three distinct wattage sections, the main sprint off the line as indicated by the large spike in power, and then settling into an average of 410 watts for the first 2 minutes. The athlete averaged 311 watts for the 5 minute portion at threshold. For the final piece of the simulation the athlete averaged 302 watts.
It’s a tough workout, but then again so is the start of a mountain bike race. A well-performed race simulation should feel just as hard as the start of your mountain bike races.
By practicing your race simulations once per week, your mountain bike starts will improve. Race simulations are a great weapon to have in your belt and you’ll be plenty prepared for exploding off the start line and getting a jump on the competition at your next mountain bike race!
Jason Hilimire is an Apprentice Coach with FasCat Coaching. He can be found out on the trails of Upstate NY working on his “race simulation” workout in order to perfect his mountain bike race starts. To find out more, please contact him by email at email@example.com