So you bought a dirt bike after some nagging from your riding buddies? You’ve noticed photos on Instagram of your friends crossing logs and splashing through the mud with numbers on their helmets. Suddenly you’re feeling more and more curious about this whole racing thing, but you don’t know who to ask or where to start?
Last spring I bought a race bike and spent the year competing in a full season of local cross country races (hare scrambles). I’m obviously not a pro, but here’s a year’s worth of lessons I’ve learned, most of which, the hard way.
What’s a Hare Scramble?
An off-road motorcycle race of varying distance and time where competitors ride laps around a marked course through wooded or other rough natural terrains.
Unlike the wide-open, well-manicured tracks and jumps of motocross, by contrast, Cross-Country races traverse a more rugged track laid out through the woods. Race organizers walk and mark a track with arrows and remove minimal obstacles to make the course as challenging as they see fit for their given series. Courses may be immaculate, sweeping double track through the woods, or tight technical single track through rock gardens, over logs, through muddy creeks, and everything in between.
To start the race, competitors line up in rows based on their skill level. Faster riders start in the front rows, slower riders toward the back. With this setup, racers are directly competing against other racers in their class, but must also navigate traffic from the rest of the competitors on the course at the same time. Most local series have a “trail rider” class for people that want to pay a few bucks to ride the course but don’t want to compete for points.
To start the race, the announcer will give the first row of competitors a 10-second warning, after which the flagman waves the green flag. The officials will repeat this process until all the rows are released onto the track. From there, competitors will complete as many laps around the course as possible until the time has expired or the leader has completed the predetermined number of laps.
Why should I start racing?
I make a lot of jokes, but the cliche rings true, “Dirt bikes. The most fun you’ll ever have hurting yourself”.
Racing isn’t for everyone, and despite my jokes, while a possible threat, pain is not a requirement for racing. For those of us with a competitive spirit, or anyone that’s always looking for more opportunities to challenge themselves, racing a dirt bike is tough to beat.
Race weekend is also a family affair. Lots of folks roll in the night before, unpack the RV, start a fire, and camp out. Mom, dad and the kids may all be racing in their own classes. At the same time, as you meet the same people weekend after weekend, you start realizing you’ve also built a racing family. You may be competing against the same people every round, but you’re still fist-bumping your biggest rival at the finish line, even if you don’t finish first.
Here on the east coast, public riding locations are a bit scarce and often mean a long drive to reach. Racing in the local off-road series means getting access to exclusive trails on private property. A given race series may return to the same property each year, but will also cut a new course to keep things interesting and preserve the land.
I will never minimize the value of taking riding classes or getting a coach. With that, I cannot overstate the fact that racing teaches riding skills at an exponential rate. Certainly, you can learn bad habits, however, by watching people that are faster than you, you’ll discover new ways to overcome obstacles. Moreover, as stated elsewhere, the eagerness to conserve energy almost forces you to learn to ride better because you’re simply tired of feeling exhausted.
What do I need to get started?
A mechanically sound off-road motorcycle, reliable bike transportation, some cash in your wallet, and a positive attitude.
You’ll also need to know where to go. Here in southwest Ohio, we have no less than three racing series to choose from (OXCR, IXCR, and KXCR). While not exactly local, there’s also the AMA Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series here on the east coast (there are rounds in Indiana, West Virginia, and Ohio that I know of). Tapping some friends on the shoulder and some googling will undoubtedly lead you to a local series.
From there, spend some time going over your bike. Spend a few bucks to fix those nagging repairs you’ve been putting off. Get a fresh set of brake pads, and if you haven’t already make sure you have a good skid plate and some handguards. An investment in a good set of knobby tires is also a wise decision. If it’s dry, about any tires will do… if it’s muddy, that extra cash spent may mean the difference between making a hill climb and picking up your bike for the third time.
How do I prepare myself for racing?
I’ll repeat this until I’m blue in the face “The first rule of Zombieland is Cardio”. I started racing after adventure riding for a few years. It’s a diametrically different experience. To me, adventure riding meant riding hard trails, but it was almost always a group affair, and you’ll always end up taking a break somewhere. Racing means giving it everything you have until the clock stops. In my case, that’s riding flat out for 2 hours in Kentucky. You’re tired, and when you crash, you’re even more tired from picking up the bike. Exertion is cumulative, each time you drop the bike, the more tired you’ll be, and the more mistakes you’ll make because you’re exhausted. The more fit you are, the less you’re affected by pushing hard and picking up the bike, and most importantly the fewer mistakes you’ll make later.
That said, this isn’t a requirement. I sat on my butt a lot in 2019. I obviously didn’t finish well because I was tired, but still finished. I don’t recommend signing up for a gym membership before racing, give it a go and see if you like it, and use that as motivation to get in shape if you’re having a good time.
With that, there’s fit and there’s bike fit. Per my previous comments, the body wants to put in the least amount of effort possible. Cardio is good, but not at the expense of seat time. Riding the bike in hard conditions can simulate bike cardio and help teach you the skills necessary to keep the bike upright in bad conditions.
Attitude is Everything
Most of us mortals are highly unlikely to make the podium on day one. Racing is humbling. I thought I knew how to ride when I showed up at my first race. Boy was I wrong… A few turns in, I questioned if I’d finish at all. Riding home, I questioned if I’d ever race again. That evening I questioned if I had fun. After a week or so I realized I had a great time and couldn’t wait to do it again.
For some, staring defeat in the face is a motivator. They feel pushed to keep going, just to finish. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so don’t lose sight of what makes motorcycling “fun” for you. There’s nothing wrong with signing up to “trail ride” a race and just enjoying access to fresh singletrack you’d never get a chance to ride otherwise. Looking back at a few tracks I’ve raced, I wish I could have slowed down to enjoy the view. Most importantly, don’t sacrifice your body or your bike just to cross the finish line. Also, there are course marshalls all along the trail to help keep people moving along the track. I’ve seen course marshalls ride bikes up gnarly hill climbs for trail riders so folks can keep going.
What skills do I need?
This answer is going to vary for everyone. From my perspective, I struggle with starts, sharp turns at high speed, and generally staying on the bike. I find most people struggle with hills, both climbs, and steep descents, and especially what to do when they’re “stuck”. It’s worth your time to find a place to ride locally and practice all of these things. Get stuck on purpose, try obstacles you find intimidating, and work on improving your balance on and off the bike. Doing difficult things slowly will pay dividends later.
It would also behoove of you to know some basic maintenance on your bike. What to mess with when you’re having a hard time getting it started. Knowing how to fix a flat tire would also be a wise skill; not necessary for the first race, but it will likely make it more enjoyable if you get a flat, versus packing up a broken bike and going home. I also recommend you know what basic tools you need to work on your bike so you can bring some with you, including a few small tools while racing. I bent foot pedals, twisted front forks, and knocked handguards askew a lot in early races, that stuff is pretty annoying when you’re already struggling in a race. A set of vice grips, zip ties, and an Allen wrench can often get you out of a pinch.
What gear do I need?
You’ll get varying advice from everyone, but I’m firm on good moto boots, a helmet that fits correctly, a roost guard (chest protector), and shin/knee guards.
Goggles are another must. They come in all shapes and sizes and don’t forget the tear-offs. You’ll also want to practice wearing goggles with tear-offs in some crappy situations. If you’re not used to your goggles fogging, you’ll want to be prepared for that, it’s going to happen on race day.
I personally recommend elbow pads. Maybe I’m old, but I see a lot of racers skipping those. After busting my elbow on hardpack dirt that stung the next day, I’m glad I wore elbow pads.
Gloves is kind of a given, and there are a million to choose from. For typical motocross racing, I see a lot of folks wearing the motorcycle equivalent of Mechanix gloves. I personally pay a bit extra for a heavier set, which also includes a knuckle guard. I beat my hands up pretty good picking the bike up off rocks and whatnot, so it’s one less thing I want to worry about. Your mileage may vary.
I highly recommend you invest in a water bladder of some kind. After years in the desert, I wear a Camelbak religiously, but it really depends on how well you hydrate, fitness, and all that.
Lastly, you may want to bring an action camera. Most of us aren’t going to become professional YouTubers, but sometimes watching the race after the fact will show you where you made mistakes and can improve. The video might help you see better lines and what the faster riders are doing that you’re not. If nothing else, you and your friends can laugh at the carnage.
What’s the first race going to be like?
Here in southwest Ohio, I’m usually a two-hour drive from the closest race. I get up early, load the bike on the Jeep and head out with enough time to get gas, and take at least one break on the way there (be it breakfast or a necessary “pre-game pitstop”). Having been through this process a lot, I usually show up about an hour before the race starts. First go-round, I recommend you allot for as much time as possible (more on that in a second).
When you roll up to the entrance there will be a gate fee. Locally it’s like $10-20 (it may be per person; I’m always solo so I don’t know). I always ask the gate person where the registration booth is, you’ll be headed there first. You’ll likely notice a large number of RVs and Campers in the parking area. I try to find a spot that’s close to registration, or at least somewhere with firm ground and easy to get out of when it’s time to leave (I’ve raced a lot of mudders and seen people get stuck).
You’ll want to take your helmet up to registration as soon as you get parked. For your first race, you’ll pay a registration fee (~$40), and you’ll need to buy your race transponder (~$10). The transponder is a sticker that goes under your visor that keeps track of your laps when you ride through scoring. I also recommend “pre-registering” if you know you’re going to show up “rain or shine”, which lets you skip ahead in line, which may be exceptionally long depending on weather and time of year. Locally, registration will also give you “cheek” numbers for your helmet; these are used as a secondary method to keep track of how many laps you’ve done to make sure electronic scoring is accurate. Lastly, you’ll get a “row sticker” for the back of your helmet; this sticker will tell you where to line up at the start and is based on whatever “Class” you told registration you wanted to compete in.
Once you’re paid up, head back to your bike to get things prepped to ride. I always bleed my forks and check tire pressure before a race. A moto race stand isn’t necessarily required for this, but it sure makes the job easier. I typically start the bike and let it warm up some while I start getting dressed. I make sure my action Camera is working, fill my Camelbak, and packed with a few hand tools, then head over to the starting line.
Depending on how early you arrive, you may have time to watch some of the preceding races. I get kicks out of watching the PeeWees race, every time. A lot of those kids have more talent on a dirt bike than I ever will. You may also want to scope out the food truck, for a pre-race snack or to know where it is for some grub afterward.
As time gets closer, you’ll see other riders headed toward the start in droves, just in case you’re not sure where it is. You’ll see rows marked with big numbers and you line up with the rest of the folks competing in your class. I try to look over my bike one last time, make sure the gas is “on”, etc. I also take this time to stretch a little bit.
Eventually, you’ll hear the announcer talk about the course, some tips, and rules, and then they’ll play the national anthem. And then you wait. This is the worst part of the race for me. You’ll be standing in line, waiting for the race to start, anticipating what’s about to happen. That’s when nerves finally start getting to me. It’s obviously better now after many races, but I’m anxious every single time.
The announcer will say “10 seconds”, and the flagman will wave the green flag for the first row. Starts are typically “dead engine” starts, so you can kick start your engine as the first few rows take off, to make sure it’s still warm. The flagman will wave a red flag for everyone to shut down, and then the process repeats until every row is on the course.
A hot tip from my buddy Jake, “You can’t win the whole race in the first turn, but you can lose it all right there”. Remembering that I have to be at work the next day, I tend to hold back a bit to let the “hard-chargers” get upfront to bang bars and whatnot. Do what you feel comfortable with obviously. For me, hanging back means dealing with more traffic as the course tightens up, but it beats being run into.
From there, you go around the course as many times as you can until time runs out. As you reach scoring, you’ll see a flagman waving yellow “caution” to have everyone ride single file, slowly through the timing gate. They will also wave white and then the checkered flag depending on how many laps you get in (I’ve seen just checkers in the past).
You’ll be tired, you may be miserable, but hopefully smiling. Ideally, you’ll still finish, but even if you don’t, the course marshalls will help you get back to the finish (they have tow straps, tools, ATVs, and whatever it takes to keep riders safe and get them home). Regardless of how you finish, you should feel accomplished, most people stay home on Sunday, but you’re trying something “hard”. From here it’s the long ride home, and ideally… that’s when race fever sets in.