How to Race Your Bike in the Mud – An explanation, cautions and take-a-ways from my ability to run beside a bike

I won a race on the weekend. This has happened a handful of times in my career, and only once before on a day with any mud (Crank the Shield 2008!).

How/Why

I’ve been asked how I went so fast this past weekend numerous times over the last 24 hours.  While I tend to avoid talking about my racing too much (well, apart from that 10 years of blogging about it … ) I believe that a few coaching clients and ‘questioners’ are missing the practical ‘how-to race in the mud’ skills/concepts and expecting that I had some sort of mechanical advantage or super secret PAM spray that kept mud from sticking to my ‘Blak Majik’ Trek Fuel.  [Insert Technological doping, top tube and slippery tube jokes here to save time later]

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there isn’t any one magical thing that I used in the mud, cold and snow at the race, but there are a few things you can practice in your training and keep in mind next time the weather turns with the key items (explained below) being run more, move in a variety of ways, learn to dismount/mount and grab your top-tube if you are off your bike.
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Photo of one of my most awkward moments in race. AVOID unexpected dismounts / dead-stops
by Hans “solo” Clarke on the Facebook (gallery here, need to be friends with her to view)

But before I get into it, I want to start with a caution: if you are an aspiring XC racer, the sport has changed. These days of mostly running disguised as mountain bike racing —are very niche and increasingly do not result in world championship titles, although they might be a small part of some high level races, the front runners are not running much usually. I am not getting overexcited by my win, I assure you that I am aware of my place in the sporting world and that many people would have beaten me had yesterday been a world cup or more lucrative points/money race. With that said, I have some sort of knack for running beside my bike, and you may find yourself in a race where that skill and the associated concepts help you achieve a result: they did just that for me at Bonelli this past March where I got UCI points in an UCI-HC event that had many very talented and motivated athletes… many of whom I ran past holding my top tube in the final few laps as several climbs turned to peanut butter, bikes got heavy, running became more important, and weather (motivations) worsened.

 

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​Experience​:

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2005 Transrockies – This stage was one of the craziest days of my life, with the Mayor of Singhampton

An important background is that this ‘Snow-Cup’ at Highlands Nordic this past weekend aligned a lot of things I do often in training into an event. In my training, I am fairly specialized to mountain biking, but my rides typically involve sketchy sections, stairs, fences, giant logs, bush-wacking, significant hike-a-bike and frequent mounting (how to video) and dismounting (how to video). Clipping in without loosing speed and while on variable terrain is also part of this and worth practicing. Many of the people who know me well will describe certain sketchy rides that include those elements as rides that I would like or a “Pete ride.” Case in point, on the day after the race I was on my Trek Boone cross bike and tippy-toed across a river, was on gravel/grass for a bunch of the ride, scaled a sketchy barbed wire fence and ran through a wet ditch then remounted my bike with a cyclocross mount (onto my thigh) . It is just how I ride. I like to explore and put together crazy routes.

I run most days for 5-20 minutes in the morning, walk 5-20,000 steps a day, and Ride 12-18 hours most weeks. I think biggest week was maybe 25 hours this winter while down south. Strength is 1-3x a week and for last year has been mostly just some variation of my ‘anywhere core’ routine due to inconsistency of equipment with our travel. I also use a HIGH:LOW:OFF three-day cycle, meaning I go really hard on day 1, then long on day 2 and then off day 3 (walk/hike/light run/ light core routine/outdoor work). I Spiro-Tiger (respiratory training device) a couple of times a week and usually as part of race warm-up: it is most of my warm-up on crappy days to avoid getting cold and trashing my bike before the start.

 

My bike warm-up was about 15 minutes with 3 x ~1min efforts up grass hill by the start, getting HR >85% MHR (strava link to race/warmup).  I also wear a lot of clothes to try and get sweating and warm before I get to the start-line, as we would for any race.

This video (LINK) also embedded below, explains “Grab the top tube” (And this one for hike-a-bike in stage racing might help you see where seconds to minutes can be lost)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rq-2cjh-nQ]

In terms of specific training, running is a very large part of ‘riding’ well in the mud. Skills to descend (attack position!) and pump/flow terrain on downhills is very important, if you over-brake you will be off your bike a lot more. If you have a smooth pedal stroke and seated power than you can stay on your bike more (I do not have this).

Should you train like me? It depends what your goals are. I obviously believe that we should all be able to move really well in a variety of ways–Molly and I did start a podcast on that topic–but if you are trying to be world class, you will need to focus on that disciplines key skills and not on finding swamps to run through while holding your bike. If you want to do an MTB stage race, like La Ruta or Transylvania Epic, then I would suggest working on your running, hike-a-bike, remounts and gravel road riding in addition to ‘standard’ mountain bike skills. (If you like ‘hacks’ then check out 10 ways to go faster at Leadville without training more). Being able to run, move well in a variety of ways (gym work helps) and perform in a variety of conditions is generally a good idea (and as shameless plug, the point of the Consummate Athlete Podcast…)

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One of the athletes I coach and my TrekCanada team-mate, Sarah Fabbro, won the Junior Expert Women’s category. As I passed her, it was evident (to my delirious and biased mind…) that she was moving efficiently. Smooth dismount and running with her hand on the top-tube, using the bike to help keep her up on off-camber and not stressing that her tires were rubbing and/or that her chain was falling off. We had a laugh as we ran through a section together mid-race, the fun/smile is key. Run the flats/uphills and Coast/Pump the downhills. Clean the drive-train while you’re moving when long sections of pedaling arrive.

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Following the example of the young riders who brave colder temps and often worse weather early in the morning

Mindset:

​I have a rule that I don’t quit, and that I start if I register. The rule has been broken perhaps twice, three times at most. This rule of  ‘the only way out is the finish line’ eliminates hesitation about the sanity or rationality of what we are doing and on days I feel like crap, it eliminates the option to quit. While I did cringe as we looked at the course before the start; thinking about what the race would cost in bike repair. We had committed to the day and so motivation to do the best I can, to see how my training experiments are going, is high. Eliminate hesitation, the only way out is the finish line.

I am also fortunate to have the support of a great mountain bike Ontario (and beyond) community. Highlands might be considered my ‘home course’ as well, indeed I have won another Ocup there and narrowly missed provincials last year. I have developed a reputation as a hard-man–I am not sure I deserve it given my affinity for the trainer and California–but when the race organizer and several racers are calling you for the win, there is a certain level of ‘social motivation’ where you need to/want to defend your ego/identity. I feel all of these things worked in my favor but are also possible for you to leverage by telling yourself and others that you like riding in the rain, that a race will be good for you and by committing to race/warm-up as you would expect someone who does well would. No complaining or hesitation in your routine.

​GEAR​:

I have the fortune of many years of great support from the Trek Store​ of Toronto/Barrie/Aurora and Trek Canada. We are a small team largely supported by “mom and dad” so while the store makes sure we have great equipment to minimize the chances of things like broken chains, flats, chain suck, etc. it is important to not use that as an excuse. I prepped my own bike, changed to bigger tires the day before a race and did a test-ride to make sure the discs didn’t rub and tires seated. I’m not sure that any of my equipment was that much different or specialized for the conditions. As I go through the results, perhaps there is something in the frame:tire clearance in the Trek vs. other brands, but I am not sure as many riders had good days for them on other brands: Liam on a dually Scott in second for Pro-Men as an example, where he (in his own words) had many new experiences on Sunday and was motivated to have another podium in his first year elite. Liam also has a cross-country running background. Even tires are debatable as many people did well with smaller/dry weather tires (e.g. Bontrager XR1).

The tires I used we​re Bontrager XR2 ​2.2 width, but I suspect a 2.0 or even classic mud tire with 1.8 and big knobs may have been tire of the day if you could find one. In a perfect, free bike world, I​ think a hard-tail would have been faster strictly because of less surface area for mud to grab onto and less overall bike weight.

Single-ring setups and drive-trains generally were an issue for both big component brands. We run SRAM and I had my chain come off a couple times. I wiped the ring with my hand and sprayed the cogs/derailleur and carried on. I believe not pedaling while spinning on low traction mud is a mistake that causes excess accumulation around the BB and rings and that is why so many people had problems. I dismount quickly to move forward faster for same energy if I am sliding. So this means many remounts/dismounts in sketchy areas and a lot of running. Many people rode more than I did, but if running is not efficient for them than that might have been their best option.

 

 
I tend to over-dress always so on inclement days I am usually wearing 1-2 more layers than others, so I am very used to performing (usually moderately) while wearing arm and leg warmers so I have ones that don’t fall down, fit well and that I am used to. During this weekend’s race I wore an undershirt, 2 jerseys with a vest in-between to keep the wind out, a trick I use this more often then I might admit to stay warm and not obviously wear a vest.

 

Technique:
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TextBook!! Grab your top-tube and run, lean on top tube as needed (Hans Clarke Photo)

The biggest thing to focus on is dismounting and grabbing the top tube quickly every time: traction is lost (basically any flat single track or uphill) and running for all you are worth. I rarely picked up bike the whole race, occasionally would lift rear wheel by lifting top tube and pushing on left grip/handlebar to keep rear wheel out of sticky mud areas. Having your right hand on the top-tube gives you something to lean on when running so when you slip you don’t fall. When tires got really gummy, I would jam my hand between the tire and frame at BB and seat stays while pushing forward and then hop on and mash until wheels rolled. Kyle Douglas of 3Rox, rode more than I did and was doing similar mud clearing while riding his bike.
I hit every puddle/wet area of dirt (look for rivers / puddles). All my water bottles went on drive-train, at key portions of race course where pedaling became more possible/efficient.
 
If I could race again today: 
I would have put in the mud cleats into my shoes as it would have boosted my speed and prevented a few painful slips. I think narrower tires, 1.8 or 2.0 might have been really good given the mud accumulation / wheel rotation issues. Throwing down a gel might have added some extra pop for last 20 min of race, but at 1hr20 minutes and equal lap times it is hard to think fueling was huge issue.

 

It was a win. I cherish any I get, as there are few in most careers. Olympian Sue Haywood said something similar at this year’s Whiskey 50 rider meeting, where she was honored. Her point was to be a good person, have fun and enjoy your ability to get out there and work hard. I hadn’t really thought about it, especially for a rider of her caliber, but there has to be more to why you race than just the chance of winning, and for me, pushing my limits and riding stuff I find fun has been my goal for the duration of these 20 years. On the odd days that races line up closely with this skill-set I’ve created, I grab my top-tube and run for all I am worth, while the other races, I am content to pedal, learn something about myself and have some laughs with friends along the way.  Perhaps this article gives you some ideas or motivation to find your favorite version of riding a bike and survival skills for the next mud-fest.
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