Where to Improve Single Day Races

We’re sure you’ve done at least one. A shocker. A race that’s poorly organised. A route that’s poorly marked. A course that’s generally unrideable. We’ve used some of our reader survey data and Seamus Allardice spoke to a bunch of riders about what bugs them about, and on, mountain bike races and used that information to produce a guide for race organisers to help get all little local races up to a general standard.


We’re very fortunate in South Africa to be spoilt with a massive array of mountain biking events. From the world’s biggest stage race in terms of sheer participation numbers, in the sani2c, to the host of weekend races, conveniently held nearly every weekend in the Western Cape and KZN in particular. Most of those races are well organised and the more established races are world leaders. The MTN National Series for example is the envy of marathon racers the world over. But while there is room for improvement in even the slickest running local race, sadly there is significant room for improvement in other races. Others are just down right terrible.

If you’re an event organiser, you need to take an honest look at your events and fix where you’re going wrong before riders simply stop entering your events.

You should have ridden a fat bike

Technical routes, though a constant source of complaints due to the perceived inability of fellow riders to navigate technical challenges with enough speed, aren’t an issue in themselves and the matter is actually quite easily resolved. But more on that later…

The real issues arise from long sections of unrideable terrain. Kilometres of soft sand, unless it’s Stage One of the Epic (where the aim is to sort the wheat from the chaff) should be a major no. A couple of sandy stretches are okay, but when then entire field is reduced to trudging along pushing their bikes for 20 out of the 60 kilometres you’ve got it wrong. And you should have known better! Sand is avoidable too, it’s not like things suddenly become sandy overnight, riders are understanding if torrential rain turns a route to a mud bath or washes dongas into your trail, that’s nature. Planning your route along a sandy road is stupidity.

Route markers? Where were they?!?

The second route issue that kills the enthusiasm of a field is poor route marking. Now as I heard an organiser say recently, “[you] can’t mark for stupidity”, and that’s true, some people can get lost even with ideal route marking.But the general rule of having a clearly designated route with arrow boards at every intersection is a must, unless your route is GPS navigated. Go for bright contrasting colours and place them in highly visible locations, not half behind bushes. An odd bit of red or yellow duct tape on bushes or trees lining the route will let riders know they’re still on the right track between the markers; just remember to remove them after the race.

Then it’s also important to brief the marshals. They have to know which direction riders need to go and it’s especially important where various distances split.

And finally, how about a bit of improvement, why not introduce pre-signals for high speed corners?


The safety of every rider in the field should be your number one priority. I was told by a friend about a race he did in June where there was not a single medic on the route. That’s bordering on criminal negligence. Accidents happen and as a race organiser you need to be prepared to deal with worst case scenarios.

You should mitigate the risk by offering chicken runs for potentially dangerous route features, and if that’s not possible communicate clearly to the riders that they will need to be able to safely navigate that particular challenge in order to complete the race. If they can’t do so, they can’t enter. Don’t downplay the danger for fear of losing out on potential race entrants. Surely having someone seriously injure themselves (or worse) at your race is far worse than having a half filled field?

Another safety issue is road closers and road crossings. Make sure your marshals are switched on to the very real danger. One of South Africa’s top multisport athletes was very nearly hit by a car at a road crossing because the marshal was taken by surprise at his early arrival.


Here we get into the Doctor Phil stuff, but it needs to be said so read on.

Providing a race briefing in Afrikaans isn’t ideal. Even if you’re organising a race in a small town, with the growth of mountain biking in SA, there will be a foreigner or two in the field. And if you speak only Afrikaans they won’t know what’s potting, I’m afraid. So for the sake of clarity please do the race briefing in English, or at least repeat the key points, like what colour markers to follow, in English.

If you go to the expense of hiring an MC, brief them well. And if you get a chatty mate to do it, don’t let them waffle on, get the essential information across rather than let them go on until everyone realises how disorganised things are behind the scenes.

Communication includes making effective use of the media. If you’re organising a small event it might sound daunting, but it really shouldn’t be. Here’s what you need to do. If you can’t afford a website, and even if you can, set up a Facebook fan page. Not a Facebook event. Then produce press releases about your event, one to announce its launch at least six months before the race date, monthly reminders about the event – try to keep them fresh and interesting – a prerace briefing in the week before the race and a post-race report. If you don’t know who to send the press releases to you can start by sending them to sussed@fullsus.co.za and if you’re nice the Full Sus team might just give you the contact information for the relevant people at the other publications too.

Yes not all your press releases will be published everywhere. But every little bit helps. And if you can afford a bit of advertising it’ll greatly help ensure your content get published too. It might sound a bit “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, but remember that the publications are businesses too and although all we want to do is ride too, we need to find a way of paying the bills, just like you.

Then start building a database of email addresses of race entrants. Send them newsletters about your races, it’s the most powerful way of building a loyal group of riders – if you keep them happy by providing good quality races, that is. But please don’t just send a normal email, make it look good. An easy way to do that is to sign up for a free ChimpMail newsletter creation account.

Added Value

People love free stuff. And as a result goodie bags are always appreciated, but it’s still a good idea to keep the products vaguely mountain biking related. If you really want to treat your entrants, give us a call a month before the event and let us know that you’d like copies of Full Sus for your goodie bags. If we haven’t allocated them all for that month yet (the earlier you ask the better for you) we’ll send you copies of the latest issue.


The great technical debate

Everyone likes to moan about slow riders holding them up in the singletrack. But singletrack bottle necks are an inevitability, they even happen in the Elite Men’s races in UCI World Cup events. There are a few ways of reducing the issues. Firstly institute batch starts. Secondly spread the field with a good few kilometres of jeep track or gravel road and ideally a sharp climb before the first stretch of singletrack. Thirdly if you’ve got a technical feature that’s sure to cause riders to slam on the breaks offer a chicken run and brief the riders and the marshals thoroughly.

If you’re reading this and have never been held up in the singletrack, go book a skills session now because you’re holding everyone else up. And if you’re the one moaning after every ride about being held up lay off the beer and ride more, if you’re fitter you’ll be ahead of those riders you love moaning about next time you get to a stretch of singletrack.

For race organisers you also need to communicate the technicality of the trails to the race entrants. The easiest way is to grade the trails according to the International Mountain Biking Association’s “Trail Difficulty Ratings and Signs” criteria, that way races around the country can be judged relatively objectively against each other. Again be honest though, don’t promise black diamond and deliver green, or vice versa.

A final word

According to the  responses to the Full Sus reader survey only 15% of our readers want a finishers medal, 23% would prefer a unique trinket (like a wire bicycle – but those are getting tired quickly too), 24% of riders would rather you didn’t charge that extra R40 or so that the medal costs and make do with only a cup Coke after crossing the finish line. The largest number of riders though, 38%, would prefer a photo of themselves in the race, so advice we’d give race organisers is to spend the cash on event photographers and send each rider a nice photo of themselves. If you add subtle branding you’ll be getting free advertising all year from those photos too as riders use them as profile photos or hang them up in their offices.

Beg to differ?

If you’ve got a complaint, a question or just looking for a sounding board for improving and growing your small event give us a shout. Email sussed@fullsus.co.za or join the debate on Twitter by tweeting @FullSussa with your #RaceImprovement.

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  1. Pingback: MTB Route marking – Reader Feedback | Fullsus

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