Staying cool, calm, and collected

My best races are also the worst ones.

When I got back into mountain bike racing I was at a weird time in my life. I had a 12-year-old bike (a dinosaur in the racing world) and didn’t know anything about training, eating properly, or rest and recovery, and to this day I still sometimes do not follow those things.

My first and best race was in the-middle-of-nowhere, Pennsylvania, close to the New York border. I had to wake up super early because of the three-hour drive and had only gotten two hours of sleep from excitement and just not knowing how much sleep I really needed to charge up my body.

I arrived early so I could get my bike together and warm up. I had done some online studying of this annual race and the course, checked finish times from the year before, and watched some videos. I felt confident that I could do well, especially with my “race plan” to attack at the beginning with a steady cadence up the first two-mile climb.

I lined up with my group and, bang, we were off. Not more than 10 feet off the start my chain breaks! I would like to think it was from my power and that I was some kind of vegan beast, but I’m pretty sure, like everything else I didn’t know, it was because of not knowing how to properly maintain my bike.

I jumped off the bike and fixed the situation as quickly as possible as I watched the group ride away. During this whole time the most important thing I did was stay calm and focused, and remember my plan: attack early, steady climb, attack early, steady climb.

As soon as the bike was working, I jumped on and rode as hard as possible to catch up with the back of the group. The plan was to draft a little while we were still on the fire road and then take off for the front group before the single track.

I hit the single track hot, almost losing control (that’s why you should always try to pre-ride a course so you know some turns) which made me slow down a bit, reorganize my head, and remember my plan: attack first and steady climb. I passed a couple of people and saw one person in front of me a bit further up. I kept this person in site at all times without working overly hard to catch up. I would see him turn around checking to see if I was there and I let him set the pace up the never-ending winding climb.

We finally reached the top and were off, I could tell he was tired so I turned it up and started riding his wheel. I asked what place he was in and was surprised when he said first; I had not only caught up, but was about to take over the lead.

We got to a flat open spot and as he let me pass, I thought to myself, “This is it… my first top step on the podium!” I rode as hard as possible, riding on the edge of tight downhill single track which started to look familiar from my warm up earlier that morning. I wasn’t looking back and when I hit that fire road, I saw the finish.

I won because I stayed calm, focused, in the right mental state, and stuck to my race plan during some of the toughest times.

Before getting into a difficult moment always have a plan, whether that is just having spare tools, or a mantra you can repeat during a long climb.


About the Author:

Nicholas Gjoka
Nicholas is an XC Mountain Bike Racer. He lives a straightedge lifestyle with his family in Atlanta, GA, and competes with Vegan Athlete Racing, a 15-person international endurance race team.