Back when MTB XC racing was just dirt road racing, skills didn't really matter. Bikes were terrible, tracks were easy and brakes didn't work. If you didn't get a flat tire, you were just suffering for the whole 2-3 hours on the biggest hills possible. Sound fun?
These days, cross country or XCO racing is all about having the rad technical trail features we all love. The climbs are hard and the downhills are harder.
To be any good at modern XC racing, you need Tour de France level aerobic capacity, Usain bolt level sprints, and more skills than Loic Bruni.
Climbing prowess is still the name of the game, but races are won and lost in turns and downhills. Everyone is racing with 2.4 inch 29er tires, full suspension and dropper posts, so it's not the bikes holding us back anymore.
A lot of times we think about braking as being only important for downhill racers, but that simply isn't true. In fact, the idea for our first-ever brake sensor came from an XC race!
During a head to head battle, Matt was able to keep up with Steve, a fit road cyclist, by braking more efficiently on flat turns in a local XC race. Of course we didn't have sensors, but Steve's brakes were so noisy and Matt wasn't braking at all. We can use braking to assess skills, and given the two riders in that head to head battle, we know for a fact that Steve would have won that race if he had better skills.
HOW TO MEASURE SKILLS IN XC RACES
Any mountain biker who cares about improving their fitness is using a power meter paired with an app like TrainingPeaks. This way they find their weaknesses and can use their training time to improve the right kind of fitness instead of just guessing.
It's also a must to work on your skills. It's no longer reasonable to work on just fitness and pretend that skills don't matter in XCO.
The ability to carry speed out of corners allows you to save energy for when it matters. Being able to ride smooth on a descent allows you to save time and energy. And being able to confidently ride the A-line saves seconds per lap.
MTB skills are broad and complex, but ultimately end up being about doing lots of the basics properly. That's easier said that done sometimes, and we all have our personal weaknesses.
BrakeAce's PF2 wireless brake sensors paired with the BrakeAce app gives you your Key Opportunities. These are clutch here as they uncover your low-hanging fruit to improve you skills or find better flow. For example, you might be losing time on right handed turns, but you wouldn't know it until you see a worse FlowScore compared with left turns.
Ultimately this ends up being an assessment of your cornering skills, and knowing you are weakest here allows you to focus in your training time to unlock free speed on right turns. Improve your FlowScore here - it's where you're losing the most time. Once your big weaknesses are ticked off, you can get to working on your next weakness.
BRAKING IN XCO RACING
All our original research focused on XCO racing. Braking is obviously important in any type of gravity riding (DH, enduro, trail), but we started with XC because everyone always thought pedalling power was the only thing that mattered.
In that original braking research, we uncovered things like:
Experts brake in different parts of the turn than beginners
Experts use more front brake
You brake less as you learn a trail
Pedaling more sometimes means you just brake more (and get overly tired)
We're still doing research, but a little less these days. Now it's all about democratizing flow for any rider at any level. This means wireless sensors, simplified scores and the ability to record your braking on any and every ride.
I've been doing a bit of weeknight XC racing, and have been measuring my own braking. It's been an interesting exercise as there are other racers using BrakeAce at the same races, giving us points of comparison.
WHY DO YOU BRAKE IN MTB?
Many riders are still guessing about their braking, so I wanted to discuss some of my own braking to show you what was happening and why I did it.
There's quite a lot of time I could gain (or not lose!) if I did this differently, and I aim to improve these because there are a few riders that are only just out of reach. I know I can catch them. I'm sure you know the feeling.
LOSING TIME IN XC RACING - SKILLS AND STRATEGY I CAN WORK ON
Let me dig into my race files and show you the skills I need to work on so I can go faster in XCO racing:
1. GETTING TIRED MEANS OVER-BRAKING - WATCH FOR TRAFFIC JAMS!
Starts often feel easy, but after a few minutes we end up red-lining as the effort catches up to you. Being this tired means many riders get sloppy. Sloppy riding is just wasted energy, so many riders get slower and slower as they go.
If you see your power output drop across the race, try starting slower to get the most from your body. Focus instead on riding smooth and save that energy for when it counts, like a steep climb or a sprint finish.
On the other hand, starting smart means you eventually have to pass riders who blow up, which isn't always easy to do!
In one of my races, I had a Key Opportunity in the first few miutes of the trail because I couldn't get around a rider. The trail was quite technical, and even though I was fresh and could ride it well, there was no way to avoid losing time. This was one of the main places I lost time. In fact my FlowScore in just this one KO was 10% of all my braking in the race.
I pushed hard a little earlier in the next race to have a clear trail. It worked, and I ended up saving more energy and going 45 seconds faster on the same course.
That was worth quite a few positions, so I've really been trying to find better balance in my start strategy!
SKILL TO UNLOCK: Starts and ninja passing skills
2. BAD CORNERING TECHNIQUE MEANT WASTED TIME AND ENEGRY
At another race, I nailed my start. Still though, I caught a rider on the twistiest turns about 1/4 through the lap. There was no chance to pass, so smooth riding had to be the goal.
Being a night race, it's tough to see through the turns so it takes a conscious effort to ride smooth. But with 3 of us riding closely together, my view was distorted by the lights of the guy behind me. Not only could I not ride my own pace, but I also couln't see!
In a number of turns I either over-braked or exited too wide. I also had a number of Brake Checks, which meant I wasn't in full control. I wasted a ton of energy. We eventually passed the other rider, but I wasn't as fresh as I would have liked and evenutally got dropped by the guy with the bright lights.
What I need to do next time is sprint into the lead as we head into the twisty turns. I know that I can ride smooth with a clear trail, and I can save time and energy
SKILL TO UNLOCK: Timing of passes and cornering setup
3. RIDING OVER THE LIMIT LEADS TO SLOW DOWNHILLS
In one of the races I was doing well. At around halfway through we got to the long gravel climb and I passed the guy in front of me. We could see the lead pack.
When I passed him, I knew I had gone too hard. OOPS!
I dropped back and jumped on his wheel and suffered through the next 5 minutes. After that, he attacked me on a short, steep pinch climb. I tried to keep up, but blew up after around 30 seconds.
All my skills were out the window at this point and quickly lost sight of his wheel. My biggest Key Opportunity of the whole race was on the downhill after that,. A closer look at my braking shows that I was "jamming" the front brake at both the entry and exit to turns while dragging the rear brake. That's not something I ever do while riding normally!
The takeways for me are that I need to be careful with red-lining and also need to practice that specific downhill trail! I'm confident that with a little work, I'll be the one on the attack instead :)
SKILL TO UNLOCK: Riding downhills when tired and timing attacks
SUMMARY: SKILLS AND FITNESS IN MTB XC RACING
Analyzing your braking will help uncover skills you need to work on in MTB XC racing in the same way your power meter uncovers what intervals you need to do. XC racing is a blend of MTB skills and fitness, and going as fast as you can means using each in the right way. If you want to continuously improve your results and get on the podium, aim to ride smooth, waste less energy, and only dig deep when it counts. Don't leave it to guesswork!
Braking and skills can also be down to your bike setup including suspension, body position and tires. Now that you can analyze it, there's no reason you can't decide what's best for you based on undeniable metrics like Brake Balance, Modulation and Intensity. Check out this tire analysis video below (pre-wireless sensors!), or tune into the Demystifying MTB podcast to hear more.