We all have our own ways of handling pressure and going about racing. One of the challenging things when you begin racing is approaching the pre-race nerves, your strategy for handling practice, seeding/qualifying and then racing and keeping it all together.
We want to explore how this works in the top racer’s minds, from before a big event to practice and race day and beyond, so we caught up with some pros who’ve done the hard yards across multiple races domestically and internationally to ask them what keeps them in the pointy end of results. But before we get into the questions let’s do a run down of each rider’s bio…
One of Australia’s best female downhillers and also racing some Enduro, Sian A’Hern has been racing since a young age first in Motocross and then moving to MTB. The 2016 Junior Female World Cup series winner, 2017 Queen of Cannonball and winner of multiple national DH and Enduro events from Queanbeyan has plenty of top results, an ex-Olympian dad and a brother signed up to Canyon Factory Racing, Kye A’hern. Some pedigree!
To those in the downhill community Jack really needs no introduction, but here we go. “Shark Attack” Jack, as he’s called after his encounter and 500+ stitches from a shark while surfing, has been in and out of the pointy end of results for a few years. Recovering from a dry spell of injuries over 2015 and 2016 then moving to career-best performance in 2017 aboard his Intense prototype 29ers, coming 2nd at Fort William World Cup, 4th at World Championships in Cairns and slotting into an overall 7th place in the World Cup series.
Hailing from the Blue Mountains area of NSW, 2017 National Junior Enduro series winner Harrison Dobrowolski is a young racer having huge success in his time in Enduro. Now with a deal to race on Specialized / Fox / SRAM / ANVL and other brands he’s looking to dominate the Junior Enduro events this year and hopefully move to the EWS when the timing and budget allows.
Long-time BMX racer moving to DH and then full-time international 4X dream chaser with multiple wins and podiums, Blake’s another rider from the Blue Mountains of NSW. He’s got a determined focus to always improve and get the best out of his time in racing.
How do you prepare the in the days before a big event? And on the night before is there anything specific you do?
Sian: In the days leading into a big event I prepare by tapering in training as well as organising bikes, kits ect… making everything super clean and dialled leading into racing. I’ve always believed a clean bike is a fast bike so I make sure everything is super clean and feeling great beforehand.
The night before a big event I always have a big meal of usually Spaghetti Bolognese, my favourite! I also get prepared with everything I will need for the following day so I can get some extra sleep.
Jack: I don’t change to much really… I mean I make sure I eat good food, and go to bed at the correct time, thats about it. I like to keep it casual and keep the routine as normal as possible.
Harry: The days before a race i usually spend making sure i have all my gear and any spares that i may need on a race weekend. I also clock up a couple of easy Ks on the roadie just to make sure the legs are feeling prime for the weekend ahead.
I like to keep it casual and keep the routine as normal as possible. – Jack
How do you approach practice runs? Do you try to put down full runs or go over sections multiple times?
Sian: I approach practice runs very similar in each race, always depending on the format and what race it is but I usually try a put at least 1 full run down before any timed run. If I am feeling like there is a section on a track that I am struggling to find flow in I would focus more on that area but a track walk always seems to help when I need a better line.
Jack: First morning is just cruising, making sure i’m comfortable on the bike/track and picking out all the fastest lines. By that afternoon 3-4 runs later, I hope to have most of it dialled enough to do 2 timed training runs.
The next day I will relate back to the timed training split times and see if there are any sections where I need to try switch up lines. Timed training is the only time I do full runs. I see them as a bit of a double edge sword. They let you know how it feels to hit a section at the bottom while tired, but they also tire you out more.
Harry: I try to approach practice runs at 70% race run pace. Some sections i’ll hit a bit harder, some bits easier. Anyone who races will find that you can never re-create a race run pace and the tracks will feel completely different when you’re racing. I always try to put full runs down unless there is a section there are multiple lines on.
Blake: This depends on the track, if I’ve been there or not & how I’m feeling at the time. I won’t do full runs at full pace, that just seems like a waste of energy to me. However, I do find a lot of people stop at the same place every practice run. I avoid that, when it comes time for a seeding or race run, you’re coming into that section after where you stopped all the time at a different speed & track position that you have done before.
If there’s seeding, timed training or qualifications do you approach this much differently to racing?
Sian: In any timed run I always try to lay down a smooth run but always holding back a little bit when it isn’t the final race run. I aim to hit all of my lines at 80% race speed. I find qualifications and seeding a great indication of where you are sitting, so come finals day you know what you can expect of yourself.
Jack: For timed training I’m just kind of doing a full run and still remembering where to go. Where as qualifying and racing I use the same approach.
Harry: There’s never really seeding in enduro! If I had to, I guess I’d try to approach this as kind of a practice race run and try some sections at race pace.
Blake: I do treat them differently these days. In my 4X days where you qualified was incredibly important, that determined how difficult your first few rounds were, as well as series points. These days though a qualifier run is just another practice run for me, keep it relaxed & build up some more speed for the final.
You can never re-create a race run pace and the tracks will feel completely different when you’re racing. – Harry
How do you approach your race run? Is there anything specific you do to calm the nerves?
Sian: I approach all my races trying to be as calm as possible and positive. I think nerves are sometimes hard to control depending on how large the event is, but I try not to put too much pressure on myself and just believe in myself and enjoy the ride.
Jack: I start off with a warm up on the wind trainer, combined with a few other little exercises, and sometimes a pedal on the bike. I like to listen to music and go over the track in my head. This helps me to get in the zone and helps my mind to remember where to go in race run without having to think about it.
Harry: I try not to think about that it is a race to much i guess, it takes a couple of solid races to calm the nerves and feel comfortable riding at near max pace, but leaving enough in the tanks to last a full day of racing.
Blake: Going back to the preparation thing, I used to be very methodical in my pre race run routine. At the bigger 4X races, you would hopefully have 5 “finals” in you will if you made it all the way through, so keeping everything familiar seemed to get me in the right frame of mind. Just some stretches & warm up things I would do. These days though, a bit of a warm up & a laugh with the guys at the top seems to do the trick.
I try not to put too much pressure on myself and just believe in myself and enjoy the ride. – Sian
What tips would you give people to achieve the best mental state for racing?
Sian: Positivity is a big one for me, if everyone around me was negative I would have such a hard time racing. Surround yourself with people who bring the good out of you and are supportive. Trying to think of nerves as a good thing and embrace them, I was always told when I was a kid racing motocross “if your nervous it means you’re ready”.
Jack: There’s no one tip that I could give to help everyone… Everyone is different, there are so many different approaches you can use, you just need to find out what works for you. For example, while i’m quiet and keep to myself before racing, my team mate Dean likes to talk a lot. I guess this is his way of calming the nerves before racing.
Harry: A good tip that I could give for racing is to train enough to think you don’t have to worry about fitness, then you can focus on the job at hand. Also, just race as much as possible and it will eventually just feel second nature.
Blake: Keep it fun, don’t take it to seriously. At the end of the day it’s the preparation long before the event that will determine your results. All you have to do is what you have been doing! We don’t ride bikes because it’s a chore & we have to, we do it because it’s fun as hell! So make it as enjoyable as possible.
Words & Photos: Ben Sykes
Thanks to Jack, Sian, Harry and Blake for being a part of this.