Whether you’re race-curious or just wanting to improve your downhill skills, I promise you will walk away from the VNTRbirds Rider to Racer program as a better mountain biker. Plus, you’ll make friends, build relationships, and gain confidence that will last a lifetime.”

For a long time I resisted mountain biking. Even though I participated in other “extreme sports”, mountain biking was not on my list of fun things to try. I’d watch people huff and puff up trails as I easily ran past them, and I’d meet up with friends who broke yet another bone from a mountain biking crash. But then, in 2019, a friend gifted me a mountain bike. Now, before you think “wow that’s an amazing gift”, here’s a photo from the internet of the exact bike:  

Admittedly, I was annoyed that I felt like now I HAD to try mountain biking. So, I put on some sporty shorts and a pair of running shoes and went for my first ride around Genesee Mountain in Golden, CO. It’s a green trail that’s 50% fire road. When I started the single track descent I was shocked that I wasn’t more terrified. I found myself trying to go faster and saying to myself weeeeeee! The next day, I went back and did the same trail again. Someone told me it would take 20 rides before I was hooked. For me it was 2. 

Being a beginner was the most exhilarating part. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I tried something new. I was stuck in my current sports and plateauing at all of them. But, when I got on the bike there was so much to learn, each day I felt like I got a little better. Maybe I cleared that small rock I fell on yesterday, or maybe I descended that green trail a little faster. I was elated with the feeling of improving at something in my life. It was like a drug, and chasing that feeling is what drew me to sign up for the Rider 2 Racer program with VNTRbirds.

I had been riding my bike for a few years, taken a handful of clinics, and certainly pushed myself to improve. But, I’d never raced. I’d be a beginner at something again and that drew me in. If I’m being totally honest, I was pretty narrowly focused. I just wanted to get faster. That’s all I cared about. I was sick of slamming on my brakes in the corners, sick of taking the slower “ride around” instead of riding a feature, and sick of feeling like once again I had plateaued at another sport. I’d heard from various people that “racing makes you faster”. Just that. No other context. It seemed like a fad diet in a way, like racing was a quick fix to getting better. All you have to do is race. While I love being a beginner, and learning new things I’m also not above a quick fix or anything that boasts immediate results, 6 minute abs here I come! So, I signed up for the program fully thinking I’d get faster if I did and this was an easy ticket. 

Here’s how the program played out according to me:

Step 1 Join the intro zoom call: with all participants and coaches. Man, this is more people than I thought. Why are there so many coaches? Why am I so awkward?

Step 2 Attend 2 days Snowmass downhill clinic: Ooo, I get to be in a specific group. I feel special and I have cool coaches. Go me! 

Coaches talk about racing, but not just racing on your bike. We talk about different types of races, race strategy, race registration, race mental game, race starts, race prep, race gear, phew! I thought you just showed up and tried to go fast. Pretty glad we are talking about all of this. 

We hop on the trails, time to go fast. Well, not so fast. We spend the day doing skills and drills. Cornering is the main focus for the day. I’d never spent so much time breaking down body position, bike position, pumping, and timing. This is immensely helpful. We practice corners all day. Towards the end of the day we rip down a berm centric trail and I make a right turn. My back tire grips the packed down dirt in the apex of the turn and I hear a whooshing noise as I exit faster than I ever have. Holy shit that felt cool! 

It’s day two and we’ll probably just rip all day just trying to go as fast as possible right? Wrong. We spent the day breaking down line choices on ONE trail! We look at flat parts of the tail just as long as we look at steep parts. I’m taking it all in as I realize I’ve never really studied a trail this in depth before. We practice lines that I would have never seen if I was just zooming by for the first time. We look at one pitch and practice multiple line options. At the end of the day we finally rip the entire trail top to bottom without stopping and I try to hide the fact that I’m beyond fatigued from the single run. I try to be cool in front of Coach Anne and Coach Tori, I don’t want them to see me gasping for air at the bottom of a downhill. I thought that was only something I did on the uphill. We wrap up the weekend and I’m stoked. I can’t wait to get on my favorite local trails and practice my line choice and cornering. 

Rider to Racer group learning body positioning with Coach Anne + Coach Tori
P: Julia Ordog @juliaordog

Step 3 Setup training app with Coach Jen for strength and conditioning: This app is super cool and really easy to use. Workouts are a breeze to follow and it’s great that the workouts are mountain bike specific. Didn’t know I needed to strengthen my neck, that’s new!

Step 4 Meet with Coach Uri to discuss nutrition: Learn that I’m not eating nearly enough during or after my rides. Must pack more snacks. Must eat more carbs. This explains why I feel like shit on longer rides. 

Step 5 Attend Rip Roaring Mini Enduro: Try not to puke the morning of the race. Why am I so nervous? It’s just a casual race on a blue run, nothing above my skill level. There are 50 people signed up!? Poop for the third time that morning.

Meet with coaches. Start riding up the trail. Coach Anne hollers back at me that I’m pedaling too fast. “It’s not an uphill race,” she reminds the entire group. Once we are at the top I gather myself. I eat a couple of gummies and take one last nervous pee at the Black Mountain Lodge. There is no official order or start time for this race so when I feel like I’m ready I get to the starting line. The timer looks at her stopwatch and tells me to wait for her to countdown from 10. A few moments go by and then I hear her “5, 4, 3, 2, 1..” I have my right pedal at the 1 o’clock position and I crank down as hard as I can. I pedal my way through the start gate and onto the course. I keep pedaling. I’ve never pedaled like this on a downhill. Usually I just coast. Time speeds up and slows down. 

I can’t believe how exhausted I am from a 1.6 mile descent on a blue run. But, I know I can do better. So, I take a moment and slowly start pedaling back up for a second lap. 

My second lap was better, and I knew it the moment I started down the trail. My slight change in brake timing and line choice made all the difference. When I got to the bottom my time reflected those adjustments I made, and that was the best feeling. Improvement. It was the feeling I’d been chasing, and I was stoked to see just a few seconds separating my first and second lap.  

Mia racing the Rip Roaring Mini Enduro Course at Arapahoe Basin
Photo: Katie Young @kaytii

Step 6 Relish in the fact that the Rip Roaring Enduro race is over: Begin to dread racing in the Revolution Enduro in Snowmass at the end of August. This was an optional add on to the R2R program. Why the hell did I sign up for this race? Why am I torturing myself? 

Step 7 Find myself waking up on August 19th and putting on my R2R jersey, knee pads, chest protector, and full face: As I head down to the gondola the anxiety builds. The Rip Roaring Enduro was a friendly woman and femme identifying only race that felt well within my ability. The Rev Enduro was a two-day race, down 6 different trails, some of them double black, with riders who are literally paid to race their bikes. I really did not want to do this race. 

Racers get final pep talk from Coach Anne!
P: Kelley Wren

But, I’ve bailed on things before. Many times. And every time I do, I regret it. Wasn’t the point of the R2R program to gain knowledge, experience, and skills racing? The Rev Enduro was a legit race with start times, categories, stages, transfers, and timing chips. If I didn’t do this race now, I knew I never would. 

It was a small group of us who decided to participate in the Rev Enduro. Coach Anne was there to support us. She didn’t give us any last minute coaching, or try to cram a couple more nuggets of race knowledge into our brains. Instead we focused on doing Coach Jen’s warm up, using the breathing techniques we’d already practiced, making sure we had snacks and fluids for the day. It was all fairly relaxed. Our category was the last to drop, and I was thankful that stage 1 was the “easiest stage”. It consisted of a network of blue downhill trails that I had ridden the day before and thought would build my confidence at the start of the race. I get to my starting position for stage 1 and I hear the timer countdown “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and I take off. The trail is tragically different compared to the day before. I didn’t realize the havoc that 300 racers could make on the course as they all descend as fast as possible. I felt a little shaky as I cruise down this recently torn up trail, and as I approach one of the final corners I crash. Crap! I quickly brush myself off and use the surge of adrenaline to get me to the bottom. I’m shattered. This was the easiest stage of the race and I crashed. 

I carry on to the next stage and feel okay. I’m glad there is only one more stage for the day and then it’s over. Stage 3 was the scariest. I had ridden it before, but I couldn’t imagine racing it. I drop in and try to stay in control as I descend narrow, steep, and loose terrain. I surprise myself by riding a challenging chute into a corner and staying on my bike. But then I fall apart, I tip over on the next corner, and the next, and the next. The remainder of the trail feels like a suffer fest, just trying to make it to the bottom in one piece and I’m holding onto my brake so hard that my forearms start to throb. I’m not racing, I’m simply surviving. I get to the bottom and I’m in a horrible mood. This is not fun. I suck at biking. I should just drop out. 

That evening I ice the bruise on my leg from my stage 1 crash and find myself laughing about how poorly I did. When I got to the bottom of stage 3 earlier that day I wanted to quit, but now I think “I’ve already crashed so many times how much worse can it get?”. 

I showed up on day 2 of the race, expectations as low as the depth of the ocean. What do I have to lose? I’m just here to ride my bike and LEARN about racing. Who cares if I do well. 

Maybe a shift in attitude was all I needed because I had the most fun on all three stages during day 2. When I crossed the finish line on that final stage I felt an immense sense of accomplishment. I immediately knew I made the right choice to sign up for the race, not quit after day 1, and finish the damn thing.

 As a fellow R2R crossed the finish lines moments later we embraced and maybe shed a tear or two. We shared an easy pedal back to the village giggling and smiling ear to ear the whole time. Awards took place, and the weekend wrapped up. I spent a lot of time reflecting on that weekend. I was so humbled by all the amazing riders who participated. I was thankful to the race organizers for creating a category for never-evers. I felt gratitude towards all the R2R coaches. And, I felt so proud that I pushed myself way outside my comfort zone. 

In conclusion, will I become a professional enduro racer? Definitely not. Will I do another enduro race? I’m not sure. Have I become a better mountain biker? You bet your ass I have! Since wrapping up the R2R program I’ve focused more on weight training and proper nutrition (two things I absolutely did not do before the program). And, I repeat little queues in my head when I’m riding – things like “tip the bike”, “let off the front brake”, “pump”. The R2R program has changed the way I approach riding, and I learned more than I ever would from a clinic or lesson alone.

Whether you’re race-curious or just wanting to improve your downhill skills, I promise you will walk away from the VNTRbirds Rider to Racer program as a better mountain biker. Plus, you’ll make friends, build relationships, and gain confidence that will last a lifetime. 

Mia Barbieri (she/her) has participated in a lot of VNTRbirds and VIDA MTB Series clinics and events including the unique Rider to Racer program. Some have said she’s the nicest masshole you’ll ever meet. Cut from the suburbs of Boston, she was a competitive gymnast for 13 years and studied Environmental Science at UMass Amherst. After graduation, Mia followed a boy out to Colorado. Even though the relationship didn’t last, her love for the Rockies sure did. When it’s not bike season Mia is chasing snowboard season for as long as she can. Non-athletic hobbies include cooking, reading, and making pottery.