Growing up, my dad would always leave my brother and I on the start line with two pieces of advice. As we fiddled with our gloves and gave our tires a final pinch, he’d slap us on the shoulder and say, “Hey, remember; it’s a race. But don’t take any chances”. Being punk kids, we’d nod and sort of shoo him away, rippling with pre-race nerves and a teenager’s embarrassment of having our dad hanging around on the start line.
Now, in my old age, I get what we he meant. This isn’t a spin in the County; this is the biggest race of the year for thousands of riders, and if you’re lining up, you’re there to try. Try to win, try to place, try to finish, try to have fun. The goals might be different, but there’s an effort that goes into getting from Kalkaska to Traverse City, and you owe it to everyone else on the course to respect that. There’s nothing for you to do but empty the tank and see what happens.
Of course, that sort of respect pairs with some basic etiquette that most mountain bikers are all too happy to practice. Cycling is a sport that lives and breathes because of countless unwritten rules and learn nuances. There are things you do, and there are plenty of things you don’t. It’s now, just as the jitters start to multiple and the nerves tighten up that it’s worth taking a deep breath and a step back to remember a few of those more concrete practices that are going to keep this race fun for everybody.
On Your Left. With 5,000 people in the woods, we can promise you two things. First, you’re going to pass a few people. Second, a few people are going to pass you. Knowing that, make an effort to overtake slower riders carefully and respectfully, and help those passing you by moving over whenever and wherever the course allows. Announce your approach, verbally indicate which side you’d like to pass on, and wait for the slower rider to verbally call you through. If you’re in a bunch, communicate how many riders might be passing with you. If everyone talks, stays calm, and does their level best to cooperate, then both the faster and slower riders are going to have a faster time in the long run. Do you know the best $8 you can spend this week at your local bike shop? It’s $8 on a nice, loud bell. Seriously.
Walk It Out (or Over). Some of the hills out there are brutal. Loose sand, big bunches, and the grind of a tough day in the saddle can turn these short, sharp inclines into formidable ascents. If you do need to walk, it’s cool. Once you’ve got your feet on the ground, make an effort to move as far to one side of the trail as you can to allow other riders with momentum to keep riding. Most walkers tend to move to the right, but use your best judgement about where to go to keep both yourself and other athletes safe.
Play Fair. We’ve got 55 waves slated for Saturday, and you’ve found a happy home in one of them. Start in that wave; as you know, starting early will get you DQ’d. Starting in a later wave is still not great as your time starts when your wave does. We understand things happen just know that you timing starts when your wave crosses the start line not your bike. Additionally, don’t try to line up in an earlier wave and then linger in the chute, assuring yourself a front row spot. There was a rash of this in 2018, and I’ve been deputized to put an end to it. If you’re caught, you won’t just get held back for your wave, you’ll be held back with me listening to stories about how fast I used to be. That’s a miserable way to spend a morning, just ask Steve Brown. Remember, riding with someone else’s number plate puts our medical and search and rescue team in a bad position. Doing so gets you banned for life, so don’t even try it.
Drop Out, Shout Out. Look, sometimes it just isn’t your day. If you do drop out of the race for a non-medical emergency, let us know. There’s a phone number on the back of your number plate to communicate your DNF. We can help you get to the finish by car, or you can make your way to the nearest aid station for extraction. You may have to wait a little while, but there will be snacks and a blanket for you, so it isn’t all bad.
Perspective. Look, we all want to do well, but remember why we’re all out here. For 99% of us, this is a hobby. That first place check spends quick, but how you act, how you treat your fellow racers, and how you represent your family, club, and community doesn’t go away. I couldn’t tell you what place I finished in a particular year, but I will never forget how I raced and the friends I spent an hour and forty minutes in the wood with. For the next year, you’ll remember what and how it all happened, not the digits on the results sheet.
Have fun, go fast, and most important of all, look out for each other.