How to make your paired stage race a success

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Here at MarathonMTB.com we are firm believers that paired stage races create some of the best mountain bike experiences. Mountain biking is often viewed as a sport for individuals – and it is. But mountain biking also offers so many things that are best experienced with others. The general rhythm of a stage race means we all go through highs and lows, and racing in a pair usually means the lows aren’t as bad, and the highs are even better.

What are the best value stage races to do?

Of course, choosing the right partner is a challenge and a key requirement. We’ve spoken about that before. But how do you make it all work on the day? We put that question to current and past MarathonMTB.com Team riders, and some of the other mountain bikers who help make our site what it is. The points below are what we all think work – take them onboard as you see fit. You’re in this together so make it work!

Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney of Team Investec Songo Specialized pull away from the bunch during stage 7 of the 2018 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held from Huguenot High in Wellington, South Africa on the 24th March 2018
Photo by Greg Beadle/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Be prepared for changes in the team

“Whatever you think you know about each other’s respective levels, you don’t. Anything can happen six days into eight,” says Will Hayter. “Be prepared for the ‘strong’ one to be sucking wheels, and the ‘weak’ one to come into their own. Or either of you to have a bad day, or a great day, any day. Or indeed anything else!”

Will Hayter at the end of today’s stage. Photo by Marc Gasch

“Be aware that stage racing is exhausting and exhausted people get emotional,” says Imogen Smith. “All your emotions, positive and negative, are amplified manifold, as are those of your partner. This can lead to all kinds of arguments, trysts, and passionate embraces. Prepare yourself before the race for an emotionally-intense rollercoaster of feelings, many of which you’ll project onto your partner – while they’re projecting a few onto you!”

Being ready for the shifts of emotions that come with fatigue is essential, and bear in mind that you’re not immune either. Most importantly, the results is based on how fast you go together, managing what you both have on the day, not just how one of you are feeling. “Your best day might come on their worst. Just remember that the reverse is also likely to happen,” says Anthony Shippard.

Your team is about compatibility more than ability, so working through any changes in one rider’s highs or lows is important. “‘We’re really evenly matched’ is a figment of your imagination – you both have relative strengths and weaknesses, and rest assured you will find them,” says Will Hayter.

And when that happens, Matt Page says it is important to remember the golden rule.

“Don’t be a dick. One of my more memorable experiences was riding with a rider who was stronger than I was and liked to show that. Wheelieing one handed alongside me while I was bumping up against my limits. It is inevitable that one rider will be a bit stronger, but there is no need to show off.”

Thomas Turner thinks overall success is about knowing your team mate well. “Know your teammate; their skill set and abilities. Try to match with someone who is comparable and complementary. Once you are matched keep it fun!”

Thomas Turner – he knows a thing or two.

Share your goals

This is so important. Do you want a top 10 in your category? Or are you mostly concerned about finishing in time so you can still order a beer and pizza at a Transalp finish town and watch the final 50km of that days Tour de France stage? You need to be completely upfront early with your team mate, and like the above point, be prepared to shift your goals.

Fun or fast?

“Set a race plan for each day and agree on it,” suggests Imogen Smith. “Keep communicating how you’re feeling. One of my worst ever days on the bike came about in a paired stage race when I didn’t tell my race partner I was struggling, so he ended up driving our very fast group on the front while I yoyo-ed off the back. If we’d been communicating effectively we would have made a decision to wait for a slower group and had a much more successful day.”

Stu Spies Cape Epic

Keep in touch – know where each other is at. Photo: Gavin Ryan.

“If things go catastrophically wrong, find a new goal,” Stuart Spies advises. “I had my partner arrive to Transalp undercooked, he was battered every day, he wanted to quit and let me just ride, I refused and made it my mission to get him to Riva, I fulfilled that goal, he hated me a little but we’re still best mates.”

Chris Pedder reinforces how important sharing goals is, after his experience at Transalp in 2012. “Little did I know it, but my Transalp partner had a sneaking plan to realise his ambition of racing so hard he ended up on a drip. So when he stopped eating during the stage, and then turned white and started shaking at the end of it, I was really worried. If only he’d told me that was his aim, we could have got it out of the way earlier than day 6, and both had the benefit of a drip for the following day…”

Leave it on the trail

Racing and hard effort can bring out the best and worst in us. There will be arguments! But it comes down to how you deal with them. Sure there might be tears on the trail, but will they be tears of joy on the podium? Understanding when to let something pass or not is key. “Expect to have a few fights – you’ll be friends again as soon as you cross the finish line,” Imogen Smith said.

Things will be ok at the end – don’t take arguments off the trail!

“Expect to be pissed off at the other guy/girl at some point; but whatever you do let it go.,” says William Hayter. You could do well to anticipate how you might react, and that’s exactly what Anthony Shippard suggests, “You should have at least one disagreement before the pressure is on. No matter how good you are as friends when the sailing is smooth, when you have a row or a falling out under pressure (and you will), you want to be confident of the way to diffuse any tension.” Diplomacy is great, but so is knowing when you just keep your mouth shut.

Cool heads win out when racing

It is too easy to get riled up over nothing. If you’re not keeping it fun and fast, you might end up with something trivial blowing out of proportion. This reflects on the above points – expect things to change, and understand your goals, and don’t let arguments carry on from the trail. This is important, you have a whole race the finish. Cool heads must prevail!

“When the shit hits the fan, let the rider who is most competent deal with the situation,” advises Stuart Spies. “Offer a different option but let them get on with it, you will be back up and flying in less than 5 minutes.

Got a drama? Just chill – fix it and continue.

Justin Morris agrees with Spies, even suggesting that the cooler operator take charge in stressful situations. “Having at least one partner with the skill of keeping a cool head in times of chaos is very important and can often be the difference between having some terminal blow up that turns into a race ending argument usually over something quite trivial. When you are tired and exhausted little things can become annoying or frustrating and tempers can boil over quite easily. Ensuring at least one of you has a cool head and some perspective can help avert these situations. Also being able to see the humour in situations is crucial to team mate harmony too. After all it’s just a timed bike ride with a mate!”

Time together, time apart

Yes, pairs are faster than solos.  But you can still do your own thing off the bike, and each team mate needs to be ok with that.

“Off the bike get the essentials done but don’t feel you need to hold hands,” says Stuart Spies. Not that you should stop thinking as a team – you just don’t need to be in each other’s pockets.

Be mates, but don’t be joined at the hip says Stu Spies (right)

“Respect one-another’s needs off the bike, too. If one of you needs a hot shower straight after the finish, help them get there. If you can’t relax until the bikes are cleaned and dried, let your partner know so you can find a compromise and operate as a unit on and off the bike,” Imogen Smith suggests.

While Spies says space is good, like Smith he says you should still think as a team, “You get a pizza slice after a stage and your team mate isn’t there? Get two, just in case.”

“Remember to schedule in time for yourself during the event,” adds Rachel Fenton. “If you like a morning walk alone, take one, if you want to eat dinner alone one night then say so. Just because it is a team event doesn’t mean spending 100% of your time together.”

Understand your equipment

This works across a few areas. Understand what you need to bring to the race for essential equipment and things to make it more comfortable. But know your bike inside out too.

How to choose a bike for marathon and stage racing.

“Know your kit. Now know your kit better,” says Will Hayter. “And keep knowing it better so that you can help your bike handle what a long race will throw at it.”

We can’t stress this enough. You need to know the strengths and limits of your equipment. Have you got a wider gear range than those you are racing? Great, use that to your advantage on extended climbs or long valley trails.

Are you running dropper posts? Excellent, really work the bike on the descents to gain an advantage.

Spend time checking your bike each stage. And know it so well that you can sense changes when racing.

More importantly, you should know how your bike operates. What sounds it shouldn’t be making, and stay on top of maintenance before something causes an issue. Get used to doing a check over of your bike after cleaning it after the stage, and where possible collect your bike right after breakfast so you can do a double check before the stage – not right on the start line. Things like shock and tyre pressure, chain lubrication, sidewall checks, spoke tension checks, check for movement in all bearings and that bolts are snug – this takes barely 2 minutes and might just save your race.

Stay close on the trail

Most paired races state you need to be within two minutes of your partner. But if that’s the time gap you’re working to – you’re doing it wrong.

“The beauty of a strong duo pair is that you can move faster as a team than you could as solo,” says Gordon W. Wadsworth. From pacing, to shared decisions, even drafting on open sections – you’re faster when together.

“Don’t be that pair with one rider two minutes up the road from the other. Closer really is better,” says Will Hayter. Staying together also works for communication. On a long descent if you’re out of sight, what if the other rider flatted and needs help? Being closer is just faster. However Matt Page does feel that sometimes, working to each rider’s strengths can allow for some flexibility here.

“At the first Swiss Epic, we knew that I was better downhill and Stu was climbing like a goat, so where allowable within the rules and the course he would get a slight head start on the descents and I’d catch him up going down. It worked a treat!”

Sometimes working as a team can take different forms, says Matt Page. Photo by Cathy Zeglinsnki

“Other places where we used this advantage was through feeds, where Stu would stop and fill up all bottles and catch me up to save vital minutes.”

Riding together also means making decisions together, and on descents you might tend to have the rider who has better line selection in front. Will Hayter thinks this isn’t the time to find new lines, especially for the rider following your wheel.

“Follow the line most travelled. It’s a long race, you haven’t seen the lines before, and you’ll be tired. Through a haze of exhaustion after five days racing is not the time to get creative on lines through a rock garden.”

Appreciate the moment

Never, ever forget that you’re lucky to be where you are. You are riding your bike, probably somewhere spectacular.

“Be stoked you are not in the office,” says Stu Spies. “I never underestimate the value of getting to do what I love, and I refuse to stop enjoying that simple fact throughout an event no matter what!”

Stu Spies Cape Epic

Stuart Spies during stage 1 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race held from Saronsberg Wine Estate in Tulbagh, South Africa on the 14th March 2016
Photo by Ewald Sadie/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

“Stage racing is as close as most of us will ever get to being a pro,” adds Will Hayter. “You literally just eat, sleep, ride. Enjoy the feeling.”

To this end, make time for yourself, as Rachel Fenton pointed out earlier. Take a walk if that helps you relax. Enjoy a beer or wine before dinner. The social element of stage racing is just as important as anything else – and a good way to take your head out of the race situation and appreciate where you are.

The recovery starts at the winery

Rest is best

With all this communicating, bike prep and racing never forget how crucial your recovery each stage is. Take a nap if you have the chance.

Crocodile Trophy MarathonMTB mountain bike

Euros doing Euro things.

You should also consider what makes you sleep well at home. Is it a quiet environment? Do you sleep better when warm? When cool? With your favourite pillow? Some races put you up in amazing hotels, and others have you camping. Make sure you know you will be comfortable and warm. Ear plugs and half a buff over your eyes blocks out a lot of light and stops ear plugs falling out. This can be a huge saviour when in mass camps like those at the Cape Epic.

When it comes down to it, how well you and your team mate do comes down to the two of you. As we have pointed out, you both need to be willing to get along and work to the same goal. That has a lot more to do with your result than having identical physiology. Plan your race, your kit, and your approach – and make sure you’re ready to think and act on the fly, as a week-long race can throw just about anything at you!

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