Adventure Racing 104: Mountain Bikes

by Bill Gibbons, DO, FAWM, President GOALS Adventure Racing Association

Adventure Racing

Adventure racing is, among other things, a journey of discovery. Each event is an opportunity to travel over varying terrain on a course that is unknown to you and is designed to highlight scenic and/or historic features along the way. Just like early explorers who traveled the world with an adventurer’s spirit, we use different means of transportation that are best suited for the conditions. To the adventure racer, the mountain bike is the modern equivalent of the horse. The bike and rider must be compatible. Size, weight, design, and accessories are factors that can lead to a successful adventure racing experience.

When you first start out, it’s okay to beg or borrow anything with two wheels. One of the best life lessons that came from racing was told by my friend, Robyn Benincasa, who raced professionally in international expedition races. Her team was competing in a Raid Gauloises in Nepal. They arrived at the final transition area ahead of the caravan of all the support crews, which meant that their bikes weren’t there yet. Somehow, the French team’s bikes were there, although teams were not allowed to receive outside assistance, and the race was organized by the French. Draw your own conclusions.

As the American team was arguing with the officials, the French team arrived and mounted their bikes to continue racing. A crowd of locals had gathered from the nearby village. The Americans pooled whatever cash they were carrying and bought the “beyond beat-up bikes” from the villagers and began to give chase.

A few miles down the trail the support vehicles, with bikes, were seen driving to the transition area. The team was required to travel back to the transition area to get their bikes. By the time they made it back, the Spanish team, who arrived at the same time as the vehicles, was able to move into 2nd place.

The Americans mounted their competitive bikes and rode with great determination toward the finish line, figuring that they were headed to a 3rd place finish. When they crossed, they were told that they had come in 2nd! As it turns out, the French team received a dose of karma. During their ride to the finish, they rode through some traffic lights and were arrested by the Nepalese police.

The moral of the story is that they were committed to riding the local, rusty, beat up bikes in order to keep moving forward.

Adventure Racing

Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of different mountain bikes is the first step to your decision. Under certain conditions, a full-suspension bike is superior to a hard-tail and ultra-fat tires are superior to thinner tires and vice-versa.

In the Greater Philadelphia area, you will find terrain that fits the strength and will test the weakness of any bike design. Some will argue that the solution is to have more than one mountain bike. The classic cycling community joke is that the correct number of bikes to own is n+1, where n is the current number you own.

Before using this equation, you might want to consider the equally valid s-1 equation, where s is the number of bikes owned that would result in separation from your spouse or partner. Also there’s the uncomfortable couch factor, but storage space is a minor issue that can be overcome by hanging the bikes in your living space like on Seinfeld.

For our purposes here, we’ll give a basic discussion of what you might find out there when thinking about what should become your trusted steed.

Hard-Tails vs. Full-Suspension
Hard-tail mountain bikes are the most essential of the breed. The front suspension fork can absorb a lot of the force that would otherwise be transmitted into your arms or throw the bike off course. These bikes tend to be a bit lighter than full suspension bikes at a given price point, which means a lot. Suspension equates to speed over rough terrain, where a fully rigid (no suspension) bike and rider would either get knocked around and possibly crash when hitting rocks and roots, or have to trim speed if the rider navigates around the rough stuff.
Most bikes will be able to lock out the front shock, too, for parts of a course (fire roads?) where the terrain is fairly stable. This can save energy.

Although it may weigh more, a full-suspension mountain bike is the way to go in areas that have ultra-technical trails, or for longer races where the bike section alone could be 100+ miles. Current models allow you to lock out the rear suspension so that the bike will ride like a hard-tail on smoother trails or paved surfaces – this mean the suspension doesn’t sap your energy when it isn’t really needed.

Wheels: Size Matters
Wheel diameter has become another decision point.

Prior to 2005 or so, and really since the mountain bike’s origins in California in the 1970s, all adult mountain bikes had 26-inch wheels.

Then Gary Fischer and others started espousing 29 inch wheels, which are really just 700c (common road bike diameter) rims with tall, fat tires mounted on them, effectively giving a wheel diameter of about 29 inches. The result was close to 10 inches more distance travelled per revolution of the wheel, more surface contact with the ground, and an increased ability to roll over small obstacles without having to pop the front tire off the ground. It didn’t take long until every manufacturer had a line of “29rs.”

From there, some developed a 27.5 inch wheel (650b) that would give tighter handling on switchback trails compared to 29ers, but greater travel than the 26 inch wheel. Fat Bike (4-5 inch wide tires and Plus Bike (tires around 3 inches wide) were the next to enter the scene, with even better rollover ability. Plus you can easily ride on sand or snow because of the big tires. (See the March Digital Edition for more on Fat Bikes, or

No matter which one you choose, be prepared for another rider to ask you why you didn’t pick one of the others. No one bike does it all well, which is why we have n+1.

Adventure Racing

This is where the true value of your decision will be. Many times, the frames are basically the same between mid- and upper-mid priced bikes. When you buy a more expensive bike, you’re really paying for upgraded components. Compare the drivetrain, brakes, wheels, shifters and more to see where your money is going.

There is a sweet spot for choosing components. Entry level recreational bike components will not be able to stand up to training, let alone racing. You will spend a lot of time with your bike in the shop. Elite bike component require a fat wallet. Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes will be a group of parts that’s tough enough for real riding but won’t require a 2nd mortgage. And remember, you can easily upgrade components, and a good lighter set of wheels is generally the best way to improve performance.

Safety Equipment
You MUST wear a helmet and you MUST replace it if you take a fall that cracks it! When it comes to choosing which one, don’t pinch pennies going the Amazon route: Go to a shop to be properly fitted. Some trauma experts put it, “A 10 dollar head only needs a 10 dollar helmet.”

Try helmets on—sometimes a mid-priced helmet will fit your head well. Sometimes the more expensive helmets will fit your head better as they typically come in three (S-M-L) rather than two (S/M and M/L) sizes. The really expensive helmets will be a bit more comfortable and have slightly better air ventilation, and they will often look sexier and be lighter, but they won’t make you faster. Adventure races fall into the category of “Cross-Country” in mountain biking terms. As such, there’s certainly no need for full-face helmets.

Front and rear bike lights should also be on the list of always with you gear – and using lights bright enough to be seen during the day (Daytime Running Lights!) is a great idea for any road riding you do. There are basic light sets to let cars see you at night, and then stronger lights that feature daylight visibility and much better night visibility.

If you ride fast at night, particularly off road, expect to spend a lot of money on one or two very powerful front lights of 600, 800, perhaps 1100 lumens. These can go on the handlebars or commonly on the helmet. While still not cheap, the price of decently powered lights has come down and they are definitely worth the investment.

A saddlebag should be stocked with basic bike repair supplies. A spare tube, patches, a multi-tool that has a chain tool incorporated, and a quick master chain link for whatever speed (8-,9-,10- etc) chain you use is good to carry. And either a small pump or a CO2 inflation system (or both!) are required for any serious riding.

And make sure you haven’t lost a handlebar end plug if it’s an older bike. Some events have bike inspections and won’t let people race if both bar ends aren’t plugged.

Adventure Racing

Adventure racing allows for some innovative modifications in all aspects of the sport. Most teams will use towing systems in order for all the team members to move as fast as possible and so that the team stays together. There are rules about the maximum distance team members can be from each other. Anyone who has done a group ride knows how easy it is to drop someone.

On bike, towing systems come in a few forms. There’s the retractable dog leash which gets attached to the seatpost between the saddle and the saddlebag. Then there’s the bungee cord type which is run through a rigid PVC tube that is long enough to extend past the rear gears and derailleur. Each has some type of loop or hook that can be attached to the handlebar of the rider that needs a tow.

Communication is important when towing. The stronger rider needs to know when you’re on or off tow. It’s a bit of a surprise to suddenly have an extra load and the way they steer has to be gradual. Also, it’s not possible to tow on technical trails.

Since the entire race is based on orienteering/land navigation, many teams will have map boards attached to their handle bars. The mounting hardware stands high enough that the front bike light can be centered.

We also use headlights mounted to our helmets, sometimes even two. The high powered lights make it easy to see further up trails, but a lower powered light works fine for paved surfaces. Using two separate lights conserves battery power during multi-day events where you may not be able to recharge the high-power light very often.

So, the next time you’re out and you happen to see a rolling Christmas tree with what looks like a snack table on the front and an antennae sticking out the back, you’ll know it’s an adventure racer. If you see a whole bunch of them, then obviously an event is under way.

Better yet, I hope you picked up some ideas that will make your training and racing better as we are entering the busy Fall 2018 race season.

Bill GibbonsBill Gibbons, DO, FAWM, along with his wife, Anne, founded the GOALS Adventure Racing Association in 2003. GOALS-ARA, a 501c3 organization, conducts training clinics, organizes competitive adventure races, and fields an elite team that travels nationally and internationally to compete. Dr. Gibbons is an invited lecturer for topics in wilderness medicine, endurance nutrition, sports-related injury, and osteopathic manipulative therapy.