Pete Webber has been mountain biking for more than 20 years, including six years as an internationally ranked professional racer during the 90’s. He raced in three World Championships and notched numerous top results at the national level in both mountain biking and cyclo-cross. Pete’s mountain bike racing is behind him, but he continues to race cyclo-cross, recently finishing 2nd at the National Championships in the master’s category. Pete now works for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) in the fund-raising and communications department. He served as project director for IMBA’s best-selling book, Trail Solutions, and is currently creating a new IMBA book focused on mountain biking management strategies.
Podium: When did you start racing?
Pete Webber: When I was growing up I really was into ski racing, alpine ski racing, and that’s because I lived at a ski area and my parents were involved in the ski industry. I started cycling as summer-time fitness training for skiing. I had this competitive background from a young age in racing, no matter what kind of racing, and I was pretty into it. I was really competitive; my nature was to always try to race. And I brought that from ski racing into mountain biking. And though I loved just being a recreational rider, there’s something about racing and competition that really got me psyched.
Podium: What’s it like for you at the start of a race?
Pete Webber: The start of a mountain bike race is totally hectic, and just full of frenetic energy, and it’s one of the most exciting aspects of the sport. When you’re standing on the start line of a mountain bike race, your heart rate is just pinned, and everyone around you is sweating and nervous, and they’re just on the edge. And it’s because the start of a mountain bike race can be so important. One reason it’s so important is because usually the trail becomes narrow within a few miles of the start, and it has to narrow down to single file traffic. It’s important to be as close to the front of the race as possible. So you have to be able to explode off the start line and practically sprint the first few miles of a race in order to establish a good position when the track turns into single track.
Podium: How do you practice that? Isn’t it a bit of contact sport sometimes?
Pete Webber: Well it’s true that the start can be pretty aggressive as everyone’s going for that hole shot. The best way to practice for it I think would be to create mock starting scenarios, whether alone or with your buddies.
Podium: How do you get yourself motivated?
Pete Webber: You know I think I was lucky in that things like motivation and focus came somewhat naturally to me. I don’t know if it was just that I was born with it, or if I developed it by being an athlete as a kid. But you know what? Motivation, I think, is really tied to two elements and probably the most important is passion. You have to have a passion for what you’re doing. And if you love it, if you sort of eat, sleep and breathe the sport, you’re going be motivated. It’s going to come fairly naturally and you’re not going to have to force it. So I think it’s really important that you identify what your passions are in life, whether it’s athletics, or work, or family; and try to pursue those instead of forcing yourself to strive for some goal that you’re not entirely passionate about. Identify what you love and pursue that avenue, and the motivation will be easier to find.
Having goals always worked for me too. It’s a pretty basic concept but some athletes neglect to set goals to chase. If you don’t have some good goals it’s hard to motivate yourself day after day. Having some clear goals in mind, short-term, long-term, writing them down and maybe telling your friends about them is a good thing so they can support you. It’s a basic, basic concept, and you can’t neglect it. You have to carve out the time to set those goals and they’ll be a tremendously strong motivating force.
Podium: Racing mountain bikes isn’t perceived as tactical as road racing: what’s your take on that?
Pete Webber: Yeah, not when you think of tactics as team tactics and drafting tactics, but there are different types of tactics in mountain biking; they’re individualistic, they’re more about you, not about your teammates or competitors. The tactics you have to employ in mountain biking are things like starting technique, bicycle skills, pacing yourself, and how you’re going to race compared to your competitors. Are you going to try to shadow them? Are you going to try to go off the front and stay away? Are you going to try to come from behind? I think it would be a mistake to say there are no tactics in mountain and it’s just hammer, hammer, hammer. They’re just different tactics than road biking. People that are into mountain bike racing, usually like the fact that there are fewer variables, in terms of team tactics, political tactics, and all the really crazy intricacies of road racing. They are fun and interesting, but for some people, it’s just not them. They’re more into just racer against racer, pure athletic contest.
Podium: Talk about pain.
Pete Webber: Well, bike racing is definitely painful, you have to be able to suffer; you have to be willing to do it. You have to be psyched to do it. And if you have a problem blocking out the pain, it’s going to be difficult to rise to the top in bike racing. A race can be hours long, and you have to be focused and suffering the entire time. You really can’t afford to let your mind wander during a race. When you lose your focus, all of a sudden you’re going to slow down, because you’re not able to push yourself as hard as you need to.
So how does a racer block the pain, push through the suffering and just keep going? That’s a really hard question, and I don’t know if I can give it just one answer, but it seems like the key is finding a way to have that focus and be locked-in on the goal for the whole race, no matter how long it is, and just being super-committed to that focus, into that zone, and not letting your mind wander. When the race is long, probably a good technique would be to focus on intermediate goals. So if it’s a three hour mountain bike race, and it’s three laps around a 10 mile course, it’s probably too hard to focus on the finish three laps away. So focusing on just one lap at a time and on what you are doing in that lap. Forget about the rest of the race. Just focus on that short-term period. Once you get through that, shift your focus to the next intermediate goal. And before you know it you’ll be at the finish, because I sure wouldn’t want to set out focused on a finish three hours from now. That would be damn demoralizing.
Podium: Did you ever try to disassociate from the pain?
Pete Webber: Yeah, definitely. You know what worked for me was to remind myself that the other guys were suffering just as bad, if not worse, than me. You can’t let yourself get out there and think that you’re hurting worse and you need to back off. Or that the other guy must be so fresh, and he’s hardly working. And I’m just dying, and he’s way better than me, and I better just back off. Because I guarantee you that everyone on the race course is hurting. It’s just a fact of life. And so when you’re out there, remind yourself that everyone’s hurting, and it’s not just you, and you’re in this together. And sometimes you can even work with another racer without them even realizing it. You can sort of join in their suffering together and sort of find some energy from it.
You know in bike racing your ability to dig deep and suffer is one of the most important aspects. The guys that can suffer more are the ones that win races. And they’re not necessarily the strongest guys on the course. They’re just able to overcome the suffering and work through it. And you need to remind yourself of that. And I think what you need to keep in mind is your goal. You have to be focused on your goal, and use that to dig deep. If you lose site of what your goal for that race is, it’s far too easy to back off and cruise. So push yourself really hard towards that goal and don’t let yourself back down.
Podium: Talk about your training.
Pete Webber: When I was in the peak of my racing days I was pretty scientific about my training, and I used heart-rate monitor, and SRM power meter to help dial in my training, and be really specific about the type of training I was doing. But as I got more experienced, I grew less dependent on the tools and relied more on my body to give me information. It’s not imperative that you use these gadgets in your training. For some people they’re great. If you’re not into it, that’s okay.
The key here is having what it takes to pace yourself for the length of a bike race; usually a couple of hours and that can be tricky. I think you have to push yourself harder than what your heart-rate monitor might be saying, or what your body and brain might be saying. I think that you can make the mistake of going too easy in a bike race, during the early part. And you’re convincing yourself that it’s a long race, and you have to pace yourself. But I bet you that the guy that’s winning is not thinking about pacing, and he’s got the hammer down and he’s at his limit, and he’s just hoping he can hold out. I focused on taking care of my body, basically eating and drinking plenty during the race. And I do think a lot of racers make the mistake of not keeping their energy stores up during the bike race.
Usually guys never even reach for their water bottle until 30 minutes have passed. And by then it’s too late. You’ve missed the opportunity to stay hydrated and to keep the sugar going. So you know, I think it’s really important that you have a plan for how much you’re going to eat and drink during the race, and that you really stick to it, and that it’s a really important tactic. Usually it means eating and drinking more than you’re really comfortable with, especially with your stomach churning and you’re breathing hard and you can hardly get the water bottle in your mouth. But you do have to make a special effort to stay on your plan for eating and drinking. And that means right from the start, don’t neglect the first 30 minutes. That window is important.
Podium: Talk about cyclo-cross.
Pete Webber: Cyclo-cross is the only racing that I do these days. It’s one of the most fun disciplines in bike racing. Now that I have a job and a family, and a busy life like everyone else, cyclo-cross is a good balance for me because it doesn’t take quite as much time in training and racing as some of the other forms of cycling do. Cyclo-cross races are only an hour long. The season is only a couple months long. It doesn’t require quite as much training beforehand and during. So it fits well with people who are both busy and love the racing.
Podium: Overtraining is talked about a lot these days. What did you do in recovery?
Pete Webber: What seems to work for me is to take a really nice, long break between seasons. And I did this when I was mountain bike racing too. It was important for me to take a break totally away from the sport. I wouldn’t even ride. I would hardly even do any training. I would only do what was fun, and what I was into. And it gave me both a mental and a physical break. So during the winter these days, I really don’t do much training and much working out. It works for me because when I do return to training and preparing for the cross season, I’m fresher. You know I feel like I’m more into it, I’m more motivated, and there’s none of that lingering burnout that you inevitably get at the end of every racing season. I think it’s important for athletes to carve out the down-time, force themselves to take a break between seasons, or even in the middle of the season. And yeah, you might have a set-back, in terms of losing some fitness, but I usually think it’s worth it, because you’ll come back fresher, and be able to dig deeper when it’s time to.
Podium: Talk about descents: the steeps and speed and dealing with the fear factor.
Pete Webber: I think there are two things that you can do. Most important would be practice makes perfect. Be sure to practice your bike-handling skills, your descending skills, and gradually you’ll overcome your anxiety about those sections of the course. The second thing to do is to stay focused on your goal for the race, and stay in the zone. When you’re approaching a section of the course that scares you, don’t let yourself get out of the zone and start saying, “Oh shit, here it comes, here it comes.” Keep your mind focused on the goal, stay in the zone and ride that section. Just like you do the rest of the course. Don’t let your mind wander and focus on the negative.
Podium: What gets most overlooked in mountain bike racing?
Pete Webber: I think one vital aspect about mountain bike racing that doesn’t get enough emphasis is preparation. I’m not talking about physical training, or aerobic training. I’m talking about other forms of preparation for the race; things like your bike-handling skills, your strategy for the start, your hydration, your mechanical preparation; all of those other little aspects of the sport, when added up, can be more important than how physically strong you are.
You must make preparing for the race a vital part of your training program. For race day, that means you have to pre-ride the course a couple times to really feel confident about how you’re going to tackle the course, and especially how you’re going to handle the tricky sections, the technical sections. Preparation also means, “What are you going to do in the event of a mechanical problem?” Are you prepared to change a flat really fast? If you’re not good at changing flats, it’s something you need to practice. You need to do it during your training, just as you practice hill climbing.
You need to go into the race with your bike tuned, and perfectly dialed in. If you’re not a good mechanic, you need to get someone to help you and you need to learn the mechanical skills, because mountain biking is self-sufficient. And it would be a real shame to focus all year on getting really strong, and then blow out of the race with a mechanical problem.
There’s an added benefit to being fully prepared for a race, because when you’re super-prepared, you can relax. When it’s race day, you know that you’ve taken care of all the little details, and nothing has been left up to chance. And you’re not going to be stressing out on the morning of the race, because you forgot to prepare your bike, or you forgot your energy drink, or whatever, because you took the time to be prepared beforehand. And when it comes to race day, you can just relax and just ride, and not worry about all the details.
Podium: What about support systems?
Pete Webber: (You) perform for your team and the people that are supporting you, and so a group effort is easier than doing it all solo. I also think that it’s important to take personal responsibility for everything, and yes, you should ask someone to help you, but don’t rely on them 100%. Because they might not know exactly how you want your bike set up, or exactly how you want your energy drink prepared. Blaming them at the end of the race isn’t going to fly. So ask for their help and tell them what your goals are, but then also be sure to be personally responsible for the things that are important to you.
Podium: Talk about coaches. What makes a great coach?
Pete Webber: Well, great coaches do a lot for your motivation, and a great coach will find a way to keep you motivated and keep you psyched. And I think one way they do that is by building up your self-confidence. You know, they keep you charged, they keep you confident, and they build your self-esteem. And they do it subtly. It’s not just giving you pats on the back and saying, “good job.” It’s more of a long-term process of them helping you set goals, and then helping you hit those goals. And before you know it, you’re starting to feel pretty confident about yourself, but it’s not because they just said you did a good job. You’re confident because you’ve achieved your goals. And so coaches, good coaches, have a knack for doing that.