by Brig Brandt, Peaks Coaching Group Elite/Master Coach

Brig Brandt Peaks Coaching Group
Photo Credit: Tim Schallberger

1. Invest in good tires.

I highly recommend a good, fresh pair of tires to mount up on race day. Just like road tires, MTB tires come in a variety of durometers and thread counts. Use harder tires with a lower tpi for training and softer, suppler tires for racing. Using new or lightly worn tires in races will increase traction and drastically decrease your odds of flatting. Bonus tip: keep a set of mud tires around. When you need them every shop in town will be sold out.

2. Skip the tubes.

Nearly all mountain bike pros are running standard tires (tires meant to be used with a tube) on a tubeless rim, sealed with a tire sealant. This makes for a much lighter wheel set-up and allows lower tire pressure (read: better traction) with virtually no risk of pinch flatting. The downside? The sealant is messy, and it can be difficult to mount tires (a nifty trick is to remove the valve core for increased airflow, seat the tire, and then thread the core back in). I train on my MTB with a tube in my tires but go tubeless on race day.

3. Keep your bars wide.

Know why downhill racers don’t use skinny bars? Because those guys go downhill fast, and you can’t do that with skinny bars. Yes, I know you probably have a trail in your area where you have to squeeze between two trees, but wide bars ride better. They make the bike handle like a dream on descents. Try running the bars at their stock width for a week. If you don’t like it, cut a little off (a little!) and try that for a week. Remember, the general (road) rule of thumb that bars should be shoulder width is not true on MTBs.

4. Use correct tire pressure.

More is not better. More might actually be terrible. I own a digital tire gauge, so I always get the pressure I want: 25 psi in front and 27 in the back, for most courses. When tire pressure is spot on, the awesomeness is exceptional, but only a few psi separate awesome from pinch flats and sliced sidewalls. Play with tire pressure when pre-riding a course, then make sure you have the same pressure on race day.

5. Play with your cockpit.

Cockpit set-up, especially on mountain bikes, is highly personal. Generally speaking, a more upright position will improve descending, and a lower, more aggressive position helps keep the front wheel down for climbs. Brake levers should be somewhat in line with the forearms and easily reached with the preferred braking fingers (nearly all brake levers have adjustable reach). Most mechanics when assembling bikes put the shifters inboard of the brake levers; try it the other way for a ride or two. You might like it.

6. Keep your brakes dialed.

Hydraulic brakes are pretty low maintenance, but when there’s air in the line they are no fun. Keep an eye out for decreased performance and explore different pad options. Metallic pads are powerful, wear slowly, and generally make more noise. Resin pads are softer, wear quicker, and are quiet. I prefer resin pads on my front brake and metallic in the back.

7. Tune your suspension.

As a starting point, set your sag correctly. Remember, if you normally ride with a hydration pack, make sure to have it on when setting sag. More aggressive riders (or those with less travel) might prefer less sag. When riding use a zip tie or rubber gasket to make sure you’re getting correct suspension travel. Unless the terrain is very tame, you should use all (or almost all) of your travel on most rides. Play with rebound and compression damping. Try full compression damping, and then try none. Do the same with rebound. Then start to mix and match. There are no hard and fast rules for suspension, but the manufacturer’s website often has some good guidelines.

8. Ride your mountain bike. Fast.

Okay, so this isn’t a set-up tip, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. When riding a mountain bike at high speeds, the suspension and tire pressure — even pedaling — change. But so many mountain bike racers rarely train hard on their mountain bike; they either ride along with their buddies or race. Doing some intense efforts on the mountain bike will help you get an idea of how differently the bike handles at speed and improve your technical skills.

Good luck out there!


Brig Brandt Peaks Coaching GroupBrig Brandt is a USA Cycling Level 2 and power certified coach who earned the USA Cycling “with distinction” award for his ongoing commitment to continuing education. He has had the pleasure of coaching masters and professional athletes to multiple national championship podiums and believes that any athlete, even one with limited time, can see significant improvement with focused training. He and our other coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Brig can be contacted directly through or via email at


  1. so tips 1-6 are have a good bike with good parts? Awesome advice. I mean they are all correct but if you own a mountain bike and are reading this site, you probably have these steps pretty well nailed. How to pump, cornering technique, and how/when to manual might have been more productive for this crowd.

  2. #1 BRING A BEER
    #2 GET LOOSE

  3. Tips for road riders getting into mountain biking? (MTB enthusiasts probably know this stuff).

    “Nearly all mountain bike pros are running standard tires (tires meant to be used with a tube) on a tubeless rim, sealed with a tire sealant.”

    I always use Tubeless Ready tyres. Standard tyres are fractionally lighter as the sidewalls are thinner, which makes them more porous so they take longer to seal initially as the air gets through the sidewalls, and they slash easier. The extra sealant needed to seal the sidewall probably negates the difference in weight. I run tubeless all year round, no flats last year.

  4. He says “Generally speaking, a more upright position will improve descending….”

    That is the most hilariously bad piece of advice I have seen in a very long time. Awful, just awful.

  5. This is (mostly) great info for newbies. I wish I had help dialing in my cockpit when I first started out.

    I say “mostly” because of points 2 and 4 and 8. Thin race tires coupled with low pressures and fast speeds will equal some pretty bad pinch flats if your trails are rocky. Even with Stan’s. Add a bike with little to no rear travel (which I assume this article is geared for) and it gets even worse. Smooth (boring) trails with no features? Sure, go for it.

    I don’t want to trash this article completely, I think it is helpful for some, but newbs out there reading this need to tailor their set up for terrain and purpose. When in doubt use the heavier tires. What costs more in a race… 1 extra pound or having to fix a flat?

  6. higher cockpit will improve confidence descending, but will probably reduce cornering traction.

    ok tip for newbs, but pretty dang misleading.

    work the front of dat bike!

    PS> so….where are the CX race tips?

  7. A pretty disappointing list. I think of myself as an above average casual rider and this list is not what makes a rider good. It might be what makes a rider the best they are capable of on one day but doing those things won’t make you a better rider.

    I run tubes sometimes and am “feels about right” with my pressure. I buy less than the best tires and my brakes are squishy for a while before I get to messing with them. Know why? Cause I ride all the time. That’s what’s makes a good rider. Not getting digital pressure anal over your gear. If you’re new to biking then learn how to fix what breaks and ride your bike until the chain falls off!

    That and what workingoutinjeans said!!!!!!

  8. I’m pretty sure that putting a ziptie on your stanchion can seriously f-up the seal on your fork. Better to stick with a rubber band/gasket.

  9. Would like to see this coach out-descend Marco Fontana(runs 650mm bars) on an XC bike with his wide bars and upright cockpit.

  10. Julian: spot on! the advice laid out is like saying ride a XL frame no matter if it fits you! additionally wide stance is very fatiguing on long rides. that is exactly why you see XC racers putting there hands on the center of the bars.

    a lot of what is said in the article is bad advice.

    8# i have no idea who they are riding with but see plenty of guys on the trail riding hard and fast. proper training requires a balance not all out race effort every single ride. Its more important to ride smarter then faster.

  11. “#8: If you’re a roadie, enter mountain bike races put on by road race promoters. They’ll choose a course made of 98% paved road, sprinkle rocks bought at Home Depot on race day so it can be called a mountain bike race, and make sure that the most technical portion is the part where you have to navigate through a crowd to get your medal.”

    See: CCCX XC races in Fort Ord, CA.

  12. Unmount your tubeless tires and replace the day before the race! Great advice. /sarcasm

    From a former mechanic, always ride your rig at least once before race day. Make sure everything is in good working order. Going tubeless and then racing without testing the waters is like playing Russian roulette. If you must, go tubeless a couple days prior and then keep an eye on the pressure. Plus, you can make sure the drivetrain is up to snuff.

    Also, you’re not that guy on race day running into the shop freaking out because your air compressor at home decided to stop working last night. Because that friggin’ happens.

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