Pacing for The APEX & Other Mountain Bike Stage Races

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Pikes Peak APEX
Pacing for Pikes Peak APEX
Photo credit: Elevation Wheel Company

Mountain bike stage races present unique challenges in terms of pacing, nutrition, and recovery. For one-day races, whether they are shorter and more intense XC races or longer and steadier ultra distance events, you can leave everything out on the course because there’s no need to repeat the effort the next day. To thrive during a 4-day race like Pikes Peak APEX presented by RockShox, you must gauge your efforts wisely in the early miles to have something left in the proverbial tank for the finale. Many riders tell us they are excited about the 4-day stage race format, mainly because it represents such a large challenge. Whether you are new to mountain bike stage racing or looking to improve on previous performances, here is a guide to help you achieve your pacing and performance goals.

Establish your goals

Your goals and your vision of success are the first factors for pacing in a mountain bike stage race. If you are racing Pikes Peak APEX to win a share of the $25,000 in prize money, then you’re going to have to take bigger risks in terms of pacing. Likewise, athletes looking to win their age categories (and a RockShox fork of their choice) will also have to risk losing.

Winning the overall or an age-group competition depends on your own choices, but is also affected by your rivals’ fitness, skills, and strategies. Athletes looking to achieve personal goals that are more controllable – like beating a specific finishing time, setting a record for trail miles in four days, setting PRs on trails you’ve ridden before, etc. – may be able to dictate their pacing more personally if competitive standings are not a high priority.

And finally, we know many riders enjoy mountain bike stage races more for the opportunity to ride great courses with route markings and full nutritional and safety support. Finishing and feeling great are the highest priorities, rather than the competitive standings. For these athletes benefit from pacing conservatively, but not so conservatively that they are out in the elements longer than necessary or flirting with time cuts.

Examine your training

In order to set realistic pacing goals it’s important to examine how your training has prepared you for a multi-day event. In the case of Pikes Peak APEX, look at your training to see if you have completed 4-day training blocks equal to or greater than the duration (or Training Stress Score if possible) you anticipate for APEX.

It is likely that Pikes Peak APEX will represent higher-than-normal intensity, duration, distance, and elevation gain compared to a normal training week. What you’re looking for is the workload you achieved during a maximal training week – like the last big week before the event, or a big training block during a prior training cycle. How did your body respond? Were you strong for three days and fell apart on the fourth? Could you ride strong for two days, ride easier on Day 3, and then have a great Day 4 to finish it off?

Use prior experience to guide – but not limit – future performance. And remember to factor in the altitude in the Pikes Peak Region. The Pikes Peak APEX features altitudes from 5,000 – 10,000+ feet above sea level.

Start fast, then settle in

Pikes Peak APEX
Photo credit: Elevation Wheel Company

From a pacing perspective, it is good to ride in a group that includes riders who are a bit faster than you. It’s worth burning a few matches to get into a good group.  The trick is to get into that group, which is why it’s important to start fast. It requires a bit of a balancing act, in that you don’t want to start so fast that you exhaust yourself way too soon. Rather, you want to start fast enough that reach the single track – where passing is more difficult – in a good position and surround yourself with riders who challenge you.

Settling in is just as important as starting fast. After a certain point – which could be 10 minutes or 30 minutes or after a selection is made – you want to dial back your intensity to a sustainable pace for yourself. This often means holding your position in the standings or gradually drifting back. Having a few people catch you isn’t always a bad thing; you may have opportunities to work together, or at least gain motivation to increase your pace.

Ride long climbs at or below threshold

Lactate threshold intensity marks the upper limit of your sustainable pace. If you’re using a power meter on your mountain bike, you may recognize this as your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is often used as a proxy or estimate for lactate threshold. Either way, the more time you spend above threshold, the faster you burn through muscle glycogen, which is the stored carbohydrate in your muscles. Although greatly simplified, the end result is that today’s stage takes more out of you. As a result, it is more difficult to replenish energy reserves and recover for the next day.

During the early days of mountain bike stage races, you may want to ride long climbs at an intensity or power output below lactate threshold. If you don’t have a power meter on your mountain bike, you can pace by Rating or Perceived Exertion (RPE), either by a 0-10 scale (0 being super easy and 10 being as hard as you can go) or a ‘talk test’. Using the 0-10 scale, a 6-7/10 is likely to keep you slightly below lactate threshold. The easiest way to confirm this is through the talk test. At intensities below threshold your breathing should be deep, labored, and controlled. You should be able to speak in short sentences. Above threshold, your breathing will shift to shallower, less controllable panting. You will only be able to speak one or two words at a time.

When racing at altitude, as you will be during Pikes Peak APEX, RPE is the most useful and accurate way to pace your efforts. Sustainable power output decreases at elevations greater than about 6,000 feet above sea level. By the time you reach 9,000 feet, your FTP may decrease by 10% compared to sea level. However, the extent of this decline varies from person to person and can be affected by other factors, including fatigue, temperature, and hydration status. RPE is valuable because it’s nearly impossible to accurately apply any formula to determine a sea level athlete’s target power output 30 minutes into a climb on Stage 4, on a 75-degree day, at 9,000 feet above sea level.

Descend aggressively when you are fresh

Descend aggressively (but safely) early on when you are fresh, strong, and not mentally fatigued. This may help improve your stage times on the early stages, with the knowledge you will (should) probably descend more slowly as you fatigue in later stages.

In stage races it is always preferable to have a time advantage rather than having to make up lost time. Your technical skills and mental acuity are best when you are rested and fresh, and they get worse as you get tired. It’s not ideal to be under pressure to descend over your limit on the last day, trying to make up time.

Warm up before stages

A warm up will be crucial before the Pikes Peak Apex Stage 1 Time Trial in Palmer Park, because it’s a short and high-intensity effort. As fatigue builds over the four stages, you may roll out of bed in the morning with ‘heavy’ legs. As you roll to the start line your legs may feel blocked or sluggish. To get your legs and body ready for a fast start (see above), you’ll want to complete a warm up routine.

An effective warm up routine should gradually move through the exercise intensities you will experience during your event. This means starting off with some easy spinning, but then moving on to moderate and high-intensity efforts to prime your body for action. Specific warm up routines are highly individual, but generally speaking, relatively short warmups work well for long endurance events. This means you may fare well with just 15-20 minutes of warmup prior to Stages 2-4, but may want a longer warmup prior to Stage 1.

Fueling and hydration are parts of pacing

Pikes Peak APEX
Photo credit: Elevation Wheel Company

You can get away with a lot of hydration and nutrition mistakes in one-day races and reach the finish line before paying the consequences. Those mistakes catch up to you during multi-day events, so you must always eat and drink with tomorrow and the entire race in mind.

You don’t want to get behind on either hydration or nutrition. Remember to continue eating and drinking during the final hour of a stage. You may feel like the finish is quite close and you don’t need food or fluids to reach the line, but you’re not eating for those miles. You’re eating to start the recovery process for tomorrow. Read a complete guide to eating and drinking for Pikes Peak APEX.