If you’ve been mountain biking for several years, you have probably had seasons of riding where you have looked for new challenges. Saturday rides, short-track racing, and epic trips were all in your past, and you weren’t sure what to do next. Fortunately, the world of mountain biking is close to inexhaustibly huge, so there are probably a large variety of disciplines that you haven’t tried yet. One of these incredible opportunities is an adventure race.
What is adventure racing?
Adventure racing is one of the most niche and unadvertised sports in the endurance world. However, you may not know that the United States Adventure Racing Association has been around for close to 25 years and connects racers to hundreds of adventure races across the country. This organization, along with dozens of other state and local groups, hosts incredible races and series that pit endurance athletes against the harshest conditions in the most remote areas of the US. The marquis discipline of almost all races is mountain biking, which affords trail enthusiasts across all experience levels the opportunity to race in an entirely new setting.
I’ve only done one adventure race, but I absolutely loved it. I rode for a couple of years before registering, and was looking for a new way to explore the woods and race on my bike. Trying to find a competition without doing a race based on speed or distance is challenging. I had crashed in a mountain bike race earlier and wasn’t too keen on diving back into the fray that can sometimes be mountain bike racing. Adventure racing usually comes in various time cutoffs, ranging from short races at 3 hours to over ten days.
One of the hardest of these races is the Eco-Challenge, which Amazon made into a mini-series a couple of years ago. I completed the Pisgah 10-Hour Adventure Race. It included kayaking/canoeing on the French Broad River, close to 30 miles of mountain biking (some on the road, though), and hiking/trail running. I was in a team of 3 racers but raced with another team I coached of 4 racers. I’ll never forget that racing together was an experience that few other sports allow.
How adventure racing works
Mountain biking during an adventure race is very different from riding in any other setting. First, you are racing, so you constantly need to stay moving but not too fast. Adventure Racing includes finding checkpoints, which are usually little hole punchers that hang from tree branches just off trails (or maybe really far off!) from triangle kite flags. Finding these checkpoints is essential to “win” the race, and if you’re mountain biking too fast past them, you will certainly miss them and have to backtrack, wasting precious time. When I raced in the Pisgah 10-Hour Race, roughly half of these checkpoints were on the mountain biking section, which meant that I was frequently off my biking hiking in mountain biking shoes and my helmet to find the flags.
What you should bring to an adventure race
Mountain biking during an adventure race is also tough on bikes, making versatility key for your bike’s setup. Terrain ranges from paved roads to gravel to single track to straight-up bikewhacking. You may find yourself on the highway with cars whizzing behind you or fording a creek foaming and spitting with whitewater from winter melt off. All these conditions necessitate that your bike can handle probably the widest variety of terrain possible; there’s no room for your full-suspension enduro bike here. Also, spare parts are a must on any adventure race.
One of my competitors in the Pisgah 10-Hour made it almost through the mountain bike portion before snapping his derailleur off his bike. Since he had no replacement, he had to scoot, run, and hike back to the race start on his own and received a DNF. Finally, being the strongest on the bike doesn’t mean much during an adventure race. The combination of awareness, preparation, skill, and patience all serve would-be adventure racers much more than taking the best line on a trail.
If you are looking for new ways to experience the woods on your bike, I strongly recommend adventure racing. The races are usually point-to-point which means you get an excellent survey of terrain in some of the most incredible regions of the US. Speed isn’t the only requirement of racing, so you have time to slow down a bit, look around, but still keep your wits about you. It’s an incredible discipline that generously rewards everyone from the most experienced adventurer to the brand new rookie rider.
Matt Chisholm is a data analyst and freelance writer who studies the environmental history of the Southern Smoky Mountain region of North Carolina. He was a contributor to Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia and the 2016 edition of the Journal of East Tennessee History, for which he won the 2017 McClung Award. When not writing, Matt enjoys road and mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and drinking beer around Concord, NC where he lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys.
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