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The start of a mountain bike race wether it be XCM, XCO, enduro or even downhill is the peak of nerves, excitement, intensity and fear for all riders. Training for this element of a race is often the most complex. And it is not just from the perspective of intensity and training structure but also from a mindset preparation viewpoint. As a racer myself I found this part of the race the most difficult, as a coach I have developed some strategies that I believe can help a racer gain composure and transition those nerves into power..

1. Watch the champions!

Without allowing the bike to completely consume your life I do believe watching races past and present to be a beneficial part of training to be a racer. If you watch a very high profile race where the athletes are racing for a high stakes reward like an Olympic gold medal it can be interesting to identify how each individual athlete deals with that pressure cooker scenario.

The common trend in the body language among the best of the best however is composure! Look at a Nino Schurter, a Cadel Evans, an Ian Thorpe, a Michael Phelps on a start line, they are composed. Composure is often a side effect of confidence. A champion athlete will accumulate the experience and mental fortitude to be able to confront a high stakes scenario with a sense of apparent calm, even though the inside of the head might be spinning a million miles an hour. They are able to channel the energy from nerves and put it into power for the pedals. This is referred to as a ‘teflon mindset’ “developing a teflon mindset allows our ‘machinery’ to work more efficiently” (Dr. Gloria Petruzelli, 2012).

XCM Worlds Imogen

The teflon mindset denotes what it suggests- allowing the mind to be like teflon- to let nothing stick when the situation gets hot! I believe this is a key element to work on for someone who wants to get better at race start’s!

2. Don’t let a false mindset dictate your start position!

I know when I was a pro road racer in many races my mindset would dictate my body language and my start position. I would line up at the very back of the back in many races as this was where I allowed myself to believe I belonged. Subsequently the race for me was over before it had even begun. From the back row you throw a whole lot of extra challenges between yourself and a good performance. This confounded an already self defeatist mindset.

Justin Morris at Tour of Taiwan

In XCO races there is often a grid so this is not up for negotiation however in many lower level XCM races the reliance is upon self-seeding. Don’t let your mindset turn an already difficult situation into an unnecessarily more difficult one – line up close to the front! Give yourself the best chance. Often EVERYONE in the race is scared of the start and hates this part of the race, realising most of the pack has similar feelings about the situation can be reassuring. The closer to the front you are the quicker the whole start scenario will be over for you. To get yourself in this position safely and comfortably requires CONFIDENCE, which can be another side effect of good training!

Your start position can often give you an express ticket to the grupetto (last group). Tour of Denmark, 2013.


If you know it is a weakness of yours, it’s worth devoting some time in your actual riding week to it. As you will unlikely develop the mindset that you belong upfront in a confident state if you have done no physical preparation for it! The key in a start is of course intensity, a big diesel with no sharp high intensity training will have to burn more fuel later on if it has missed a fast group from the start.

Training at home? Learn more about Training Peaks.

Tropical Training Camp Atherton Smithfield Cairns Port Douglas Bump Track MarathonMTB Subaru
Get out and train – chasing a friend off a mocked up start line can help.

A good way to prepare for such a situation is some sprint efforts that are followed by some longer anaerobic intervals. For example you might do 15s ALL OUT sprint but instead of going straight into recovery you only allow yourself to set back at an above threshold level for a further 5-10mins. Repeating this scenario on different terrain that might resemble the start line to your goal races would be a good idea.

4. No matter what the event- DO IT FULL GAS!

I used to have a Russian coach who had ridden many grand tours and Olympic games. Throughout his professional road career he told us no matter what group he was crossing the finish line in he would SPRINT FULL GAS! Wether it was for 1st of 121st! He said one day you’ll be sprinting for the win so you might as well get as much experience sprinting for it as possible! Whether it is your local club race, a bunch ride with mates who want to race or the national title – treat that sprint off the start line as your world champs. Then you are adding to the experience bank that helps enable that composure and confidence for the big one!

5. Body Position:

Starts can be dangerous and this is often the scariest part about them, you are realistically at the mercy of the abilities of those around you (remember those up front have more of these abilities normally). You can only control you though. Using elbows to get yourself space, staying low to increase your aerodynamics and picking a fast cadence yet high power gear will ensure you give yourself the best chance at hitting the holeshot or at least sticking with the riders at your ability off the start!

Hope this helps make a high pressure situation a little less confronting. Remember to BACK YOURSELF, off the start and all the way to the finish in races and in life.

Need more coaching advice? Why not get in contact with Justin at Mind Matters Athlete Coaching about a training program?

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