Making the jump from Junior to U23, or U23 to Elite is tough. In each case, the fields are bigger, faster, and more unrelenting. The people that quit the sport of XC MTB often do it during these transition periods: used to being at the top of the results list, riders can find themselves lost in the pack. It can be hard to maintain motivation when this is the reality.
Having made both of those transitions myself, I can tell you that fortune favours the hard workers. Perseverance is worth more than almost any other quality. This past weekend marked my first HC race as a true member of the Elite field (even though the U23s race with the Elites, there seems to be a certain amount of self-handicapping among the U23s… meaning they race each other instead of racing the rest of the field), and it was pretty successful. After a horrendous start, I clawed my way back up into the top 15, crossing the line in 14th. Not yet where I want to be, but solid enough to light my fire for the next one. Motivation is at an all-time high.
In light of that, I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for making a successful transition to the older age category.
1. Race with guts and take calculated risks. If your goal is to make it the top, then at some point, you’re going to have to start racing there. U23 is a perfect time to test yourself against the best. Go with the leaders off the gun and see how long you can hold it! The length of time will increase each race, and you’ll build confidence in yourself in the process.
2. Set micro and process goals. In your first year U23, races can seem long. Especially in Canada, where you may have gone from doing only 3 laps in Junior to all of sudden 5 or 6 when you’re racing with the elites. The key is to set micro and process goals. Fully invest yourself in the tasks you’re trying to accomplish, instead of fixating on the place you’re riding in (which can discourage you – or, even worse, make you complacent). Focus on nailing the flow section, spinning fast up the next climb, or riding smoothly through the feed zone.
3. Check your ego. It’s easy to come into the new age category and find yourself discouraged if you’re not getting the 1st and 2nd places that you’re used to. The Elite and U23 fields are strong, and most people in them know what they are doing. Understand that the athletes you’re racing are fast, and respect them. If you race without an ego, you’ll find that it’s easier to stay motivated and process-focused.
4. Race short tracks. It kills me when people choose not to race short tracks. At what other point are you going to get a season’s worth of racing experience in a little over 20 minutes?! Short tracks are FULL of attacks, and they’re the perfect place to learn how to tactically race your bike. They’re also a great place to test yourself and really give it 100%. No matter the result, you will learn how to race like an Elite and you’ll build tons of fitness in the process. Trust me.
5. Look for opportunities to race the older age category – even if just in lap times on the results sheet. As a junior or U23, it’s really easy to rest on your laurels. It’s so common to hear “so-and-so was top U23 at the [insert Elite race] this weekend!”. It’s important to congratulate yourself on good races, but understand that unless you’re first… you’ve got more learning and improvement ahead of you. So don’t get complacent! If you’re riding in first place U23, try to see how many of the Elites you can catch. Always be reaching.
I suppose if I were to add a sixth tip, it would be to always search for the fun. The people that quit have often lost motivation, but they’ve also lost the love of racing. If you love what you’re doing and are having fun, then I can bet you’ll keep toeing the start line for many seasons to come.