Keeping The Rubber Side Down At XTERRA

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By Melanie McQuaid

April 26, 2007 — It is ironic that I would plan to write this story the week that I crashed out of the Sea Otter Classic mountain bike race, but also somewhat appropriate.

I went down in the cross-country race because I did not follow a number of the following rules, which when applied appropriately, can help prevent some unsightly post-race bruising. However, a couple of bumps and scratches are not that big a deal and the lessons learned can help you to find those few extra seconds to boost your finish.

XTERRA has a reputation as a “dangerous” sport, which I whole-heartedly disagree with. Poor bike handling skills equally contribute to crashes on the road as they do off-road. Riding a mountain bike and racing XTERRA can help you develop better skills to avoid crashes no matter what bike you are riding. In addition, mountain bike racing will help you corner better, descend better and help you to stay aero on your road bike by teaching you to relax your upper body while powering with your legs.

Here are my recommendations for a safe and speedy bike split:


1. Think about your tires. There are many, many combinations that can help you to navigate sketchy terrain or help minimize rolling resistance on high speed sections. Knowing a course or asking someone who does know a course can help you to put together the right rubber combination on race day. Tires can sometimes win a race because a lot of effort can be wasted pushing around slow tires and bad tires can cause nasty spills. In addition, the pressure you ride your with will affect the traction you get from the rubber, so experiment with that as well. If the trail is smooth and well-groomed you should be able to ride with your tires at their maximum psi.

2. Pre-ride the course if possible. This will help your decision as outlined above and allow you to check out any tricky sections at slow speed. After you have had a couple passes to gain some confidence, you can then practice at race speed. Knowing the course also helps you formulate a strategy for pacing and fuelling on the bike.

3. Riding sketchy sections is very similar to skiing the steeps. You want to look ahead and choose your line ahead of time. The difference is that instead of keeping your weight forward on your skis you actually want to keep your weight back. Having your center of gravity back (over your rear wheel) will help you stay behind the bars rather than going over them.

4. Once you have chosen your line and pushed your weight back – commit! The worst thing you can possibly do is change your mind halfway through. A bit of confidence that you are going to make it will prevent most of your crashes. It is usually a late exit that causes a bad crash.

5. Practice riding technical sections at race pace. It’s a different skill to ride descents while calm and rested versus riding sketchy bits while you are pinned at race pace. One of the reasons why mountain bike racing is such good training for XTERRA is it helps you practice riding single track at race effort and speed.

6. Be confident and relaxed. Relaxing will allow you to use your upper and your lower body as some extra suspension in bumpy sections.

7. Lastly, keep focused. If you focus, look far ahead, stay relaxed and commit, you will have your best ride possible.

Despite following most of the above rules, I still ended up crashing at Sea Otter. Basically, I entered a section quickly when trying to pass and ended up stuffing my wheel in some deep sand and went over the bars before I could correct. However, I would rather crash pushing my limits than never know where those limits are. Crashing means you are stretching and improving your ability, so don’t be afraid of it, just try to minimize it. As they say, there are two types of cyclist: Those that have crashed and those that are going to. It’s all part of the sport, both on-and off-road. Don’t be afraid, just roll with it and learn from every experience. I may have a couple of bruises, but getting that crash out of the way just helps me to be more confident for my next race. I guess you could say I now know what not to do.


Based in Victoria, Canada, Melanie McQuaid is a three-time defending XTERRA world champion. For more information about McQuaid, please visit

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