Monday, April 29, 2019

Noob’s Guide to MTB Racing #3: To Tool Kit, or Not to Tool Kit

Individual achievement, self-improvement and self-reliance are foundational values of mountain biking. Following this ideology, mountain bike races are completely self-supported. Outside help is not allowed. No pit repairs, no spare wheels, no hand-ups. So if something goes wrong with your bike, its on-you to get it going again.

No Tools, No Problem? You can save some weight and have fewer loose bits to worry about if you leave the tool kit behind for the race. The obvious downside is that you won’t be able to fix your bike if something goes wrong. For races with shorter laps you have a better chance of being able to hoof it back to your car to commence a fix. This decision depends on your level of confidence in your equipment or your mechanical ability, but really, it comes down to how you judge the risk of a mechanical mishap taking you out of the race and how important finishing is to you. Your call.

A flat tire is the most common problem, even with modern tubeless systems. A spare tube will fix this in short-order. So, the most bare-bones (and seemingly most common) tool kit combination includes a spare tube and a CO2 cartridge and inflator. Some folk simply duct tape these to the bike, on the seatpost or elsewhere, other people keep it all together in a plastic bag or tool wrap (recommended). Personally, I find that a plug kit like the expensive, but fast and effective Dynaplug Racer will almost-always patch a hole that is too big for sealant. So I might recommend something like this plus a CO2 as a great minimalist kit.

The second most likely thing to disable a bike is a broken chain. So leveling-up your tool kit means bringing a multitool that includes a chain tool. The Allen wrenches and other bits can also be useful if a handlebar or saddle get out-of-whack as the result of a crash. Before you buy a multi-tool, make sure the bits it has matches all of the bolts and screws on your bike. If you’re ‘in it to finish’, a tube, a way to inflate it, and a multitool with a chain tool and other bits will almost certainly have what you need to get you there.

Don’t worry about what you can’t prevent. A lot of other things can break especially as the result of a crash: derailleur hangers get bent, cleats get torn out of shoes, rotors get bent, spokes break, etc. For a lot of these problems, you and your bike won’t be performing optimally, but you can usually ride it out. Sometimes, random mechanicals that you would never expect take you out of the race. Usually those things will at least make for a good story.

For an endurance event, especially a point-to-point race, you’ll probably want some spare parts and repair supplies to fix these unexpected issues. Here is what I carry for long events and ‘epic’ rides:

- multi-tool with chain tool (a chain tool can also be used as a valve core remover)
- pump and CO2 inflator with one cartridge
- tire lever
- spare tube
- spare valve core (the whole presta valve is not needed, usually its some part of the core that fails)
- spare derailleur hanger (these are fragile and without them your bike can be crippled)
- spare cleat bolt (might be useful somewhere other than your shoe)
- spare tire plugs
- two band aids (apply at first sign of nipple chafing)
- shammy cream (apply at first sign of tant chafing)
- safety pins
- ibuprofen (aka Vitamin I)
- bit-o’ toilet paper (has literally saved my butt on a few occasions)
- 3-4 cable ties
- 2-3' of duct tape (wrapped around pump).

Noob’s Guide to MTB Racing #2: Tires

Generally, I’m trying to avoid recommending spending money on your bike in theses Noob’s Guides, after all, its the rider not the bike. However, tires are the component that has the greatest significance on your bikes performance. A tire upgrade is the best investment you can make in your bike. 

Go Tubeless!!!: There is nothing that will improve the performance and reliability of your mountain bike more than going tubeless. Even if you don’t want to invest in new tires, you can convert your current tires and rims to tubeless relatively inexpensively. Riding tubeless, you can run lower pressure for more traction, lower rolling resistance and more comfort. Plus your tires will be immune to pinch flats and minor punctures, and plug kits like the excellent but expensive DynaPlug kits, can very quickly fix the bigger leaks.

Find the Right Pressure: If your tires are tubeless, start at around 25 or 30psi (higher pressure if you’re running tubes, have narrower tires or if you are a heavier rider) and give them a ride, slowly decrease the pressure until you start to feel squirm in the corners or bobbing when you putting the power down. Raise this pressure until these problems go away, and that’s the optimal tire pressure for you (Note that if you’re sticking with tubes, you need to have the pressure up a bit higher to avoid pinch flats). For racing, add roughly 2psi over your standard riding pressure since you’ll be pushing your bike harder than normal. This will also give you a little air pressure to spare in case you do get some kind of puncture.

Lighten up: A lighter tire is always going to require less energy to spin-up, and with all the corners, short climbs and descents in our local trails and race courses, you will be accelerating a lot. The same model of tire can be available in different versions with multiple bead types and casing options which can greatly impact weight, rolling resistance and ride quality.  It’s hard to find new tires these days that aren’t sufficiently durable, at least for the conditions you will find in the Midwest, so go with the lightest version of your tire of choice. Paying more for a lighter tire is worth the investment. If your current tires have a steel bead (non-folding), then it’s a cheaper tire, and upgrading could make a huge improvement.

Skinny or Wide?: You can run wider tires at a lower pressure, which means less rolling resistance, more traction and more comfort. Skinny tires weigh less. It comes down to how important lower rolling resistance and higher traction are compared to better acceleration for the races and rides you’ll be doing. Personally, I’ll never be running less than a 2.2” tire again (my preference is for 2.4” to 2.6” tires), but if you are a real lightweight maybe you want to run a 2.0” tires. You'll also need to consider the width of your rims, narrow rims around 20mm internal width or narrower will work best with tires that are 2.2" and narrower.  If your rims are 20mm wide internally, you probably don't want to run tires narrower than 2.2". The lightest version of a tire in a wide size is the best compromise.

Treat Pattern: A faster rolling tread can allow you to go faster with less energy input, but the trade off is that, generally speaking, faster rolling tires have less traction. Then again, since our local trails are largely hard-packed dirt, some of the faster rolling tires with many short knobs can actually have superior traction and control on hardpack compared to aggressive tires with fewer, bigger knobs. Getting into specifics below, I’ll talk about a few Maxxis and Bontrager tires. Maxxis, because these are regarded one of the best brands doing MTB tires these days, and you can order them from our sponsor Revolution Cycles, and Bontrager due to the ubiquity of Trek products in our area. Even if you don't have these particular tires, you should be able to look at your tread and see how they compare.

Aggressive Tires: You might be looking at Maxxis Minion DHF, or the Bontrager SE4. These tires are awesome for Copper Harbor or heading out west, but they are overkill for our local terrain, and not recommended for racing. The big knobs are confidence inspiring in loose conditions, but they roll slowly, and on hard-pack they can actually have less traction due to fewer biting edges, and corner more poorly since the tall knobs can flex on the packed dirt.
Bontrager SE4. Photo courtesy
Maxxis Minion DHF. Photo courtesy

All-Rounder Tires: The Maxxis Ardent (or event Ardent Race) or Bontrager XR2, will roll fairly well and have great traction on our typical trail conditions and will even get you through rocky and sandy sections with confidence. They are not the fastest, but are a safe choice for a noob who will have more confidence and control with the greater traction.
Bontrager XR2. Photo courtesy

Maxxis Ardent Race.  Photo courtesy

Versatile Race Tires: The Maxxis Ikon or Bontrager XR1 are made to be raced fast, but also offer enough traction for more technical courses and can be used for trail riding too. A good choice to minimize rolling resistance and weight. This is probably the sort of tire I’d recommend to most people looking for a race-day tire.
Bontrager XR1.  Photo courtesy

 Maxxis Ikon. Photo courtesy

Fast, Race-Only Tires: The Maxxis Pace, Bontrager XR0 and my racing tire of choice the Kenda Saber Pro, don’t have much for center tread, and just a bit of cornering tread. This keeps the weight down and the rolling resistance to an absolute minimum. But you really have to know how to move your body over the bike to get sufficient traction for climbing and downhill breaking, and you need to know how to feel-out the corning limitations of a tire like this, and generally ride as fast as possible within the limits of these tires. Not recommended for noobs.
 Bontrager XR0. Photo courtesy
Maxxis Pace.  Photo courtesy

Noob’s Guide to MTB Racing #1: Bike Prep

Rule#1: Do any significant changes well ahead of the race. ’Bike Prep’ is the first part of this guide because its something you can’t leave until the last minute. If you’re planning on any pre-race upgrades, new parts or significant maintenance, do it at least a full week in advance of the race. You want all the bugs worked out well before race day. Untested gear or adjustments is one of the top reasons for DNF’s.

Don’t leave even minor maintenance until the day before the race. Inevitably you’ll inadvertently cause some problem, or discover a bigger issue, neither of which you’d have time to fix. So big changes weeks in advance, minor pre-race maintenance 2-3 days before the race. Most of what I am recommending below can be considered minor maintenance.

Lighten up: Take off any accessories you don’t need: racks, bag bottle cages (more on this in the Part #4 and #5 on nutrition and hydration), bells, etc. Except streamers, streamers make you faster. A lighter bike is a faster bike, and the simpler your bike is, the less there is to go wrong.

Smooth shifting: Make sure your shifting is set up as smooth and accurately as possible. You will be pushing your derailleurs and drivetrain harder than ever, and most likely flubbing your shifts, so you want the bike working as well as it can. If you can’t adjust these yourself, bringing it into the shop for a tune-up would be worthwhile.

Brakes: Brakes that are rubbing are going to waste energy, fix them. Other than that, yes, you can fine tune your brakes for optimal performance but modern brakes generally work well-enough and are low-maintenance. If you do want to fine-tune, see Rule #1.

Clean Your Bike: Regularly cleaning your bike won’t just help it look better, it will reduce corrosion and wear. Also, it will allow you to give it a look-over regularly so you can find and fix problems before there is a failure. Making it clean and shiny before the race will make you seem more "pro" and oddly enough, might just give you more confidence. Waxing your bike can reduce the build up of mud.

Clean Your Drivetrain: Most people don’t take good enough care of their chain even though a sad chain can be a major source of friction. There are a lot of ways to go about this, in order of time investment and effectiveness, you can: 
1) Remove the chain from the bike and give it a scrub with a small wire brush or old toothbrush using degreaser, WD-40, or concentrated Simple Green. Re-lube very thoroughly, and reinstall.
2) Buy a chain cleaning tool/scrubber and run it through that. Then re-lube thoroughly.
3) Wipe all the grime off with a rag. Then saturate the chain with lube, spin the cranks for a while to work it into the chain, wipe off the excess until nearly none will wipe off, and repeat as necessary until the chain is gunk free.
NOTE: If at any point in this process, if you see rust on your chain, toss it out and buy a new one. If there is a little rust on the outside, typically there is a lot on the outside. Rust causes excess friction and accelerates wear, nothing you want to happen on a performance bike.

Lube Your Drivetrain: Generally speaking, a “dry lube” will be your best choice for racing as they are low-friction and don’t pick up dust. They don’t last as long as some wet lubes, but they take dirt with them as they flake off the chain, keeping your drivetrain cleaner. They don’t generally fare well when its wet, but usually MTB races are canceled if its going to be wet and muddy.