People don’t pay much attention to the rider who comes in second in a mountain bike race. The winner gets the glory, and whoever finishes second is soon forgotten.
Nevertheless, the rising stars of our sport can often be found on the lower steps of the podium at the awards presentation. They may not be the champions yet, but they’re often heading in that direction.
We decided to find out more about the rider who came in second at USA Cycling’s Mountain Bike National Championships last summer. A quick scan of the results showed that the guy who finished right behind the winner (Howard Grotts), was a rider named Luke Vrouwenvelder (also known as Luke V.).
We did a little digging and found out that Luke is a recent college graduate who works as a mountain bike coach when he’s not working on his own training and racing career.
We contacted Luke to see what kind of riding and racing tips he could share with us.
MBA: How old are you, and where do you live?
Luke V.: I’m 23 years old and I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
MBA: How long have you been mountain biking?
LV: I’d say I really took interest in mountain biking at around 10 years old, but had been riding mountain bikes with friends to and from school and riding a little bit of road with my family before that.
MBA: What are some of your best racing results to date?
LV: I have six national titles from my time racing the collegiate circuit, of which the first was the sweetest. The rest of the results I appreciate the most are not necessarily the best outright position, but rather races I felt like I had a breakthrough.
As a junior, for example, I finished second in the cross-country race at Nationals in Bear Creek. I didn’t win, but this was one of the first instances that I realized I was capable of results on a national scale. The same year I was fifth at the World Cup at Mont-Sainte-Anne, again having the same realization that the racers in those fields were fast but not unbeatable. Still looking for that top five in the elite ranks.
MBA: How do you think a racer should deal with the disappointment of losing a race?
LV: Although keeping a positive attitude can be a tough task in the moment after a loss, the disappointment of a poor race/performance can be broken down into positioning yourself to improve upon your performance in the next opportunity that you have. Most athletes have heard the expression that you either win or you learn, but few are able to capitalize on that notion. By looking at your own performance and learning from the goods and the bads of your race, you’ll be able to take focus away from negative thoughts and what-ifs that tend to persist after a loss, and redirect focus towards preparing for the next shot at a win. A mantra that I’ve learned, and repeat to my own clients, is that you need to “control what you can control” and let the rest happen. Stressing about what you could’ve done isn’t helpful, but planning what you will do next time will help you improve your mental state and help you meet the goals you set at the races.
MBA: How do you make sure your bike is ready for a race?
LV: This is an often-overlooked aspect of racing—having a working bike can mean the difference between a win and a DNF.
I am my own mechanic 90 percent of the time and tend to be pretty in tune with the way my bike is working as a result, so oftentimes there isn’t much maintenance to do immediately before the race. I prefer to handle repairs as needed and keep my bike fairly close to race-ready. Of course, as a privateer, there are always a few things that require attention and are a bit more difficult/expensive to source. I put a lot of miles on my gear and don’t have too many replacement parts on hand, so cassettes, chains, chainrings and brake pads all get additional scrutiny before a race. When I’m at larger events, I also try to get my bike to a suspension technician to check seals, dampers and look at other wear indicators.
MBA: What do you think is the best time to work on your bike in your daily or weekly routine?
LV: I think the best time to work on your bike is directly following your ride. My mountain bikes get cleaned after almost every ride, the drivetrain specifically, and receive maintenance as needed. The road bike gets cleaned every other ride—the focus again being the drivetrain—and is usually pretty maintenance-free.
Washing and working on your bike immediately after your ride is not only important for drivetrain longevity, but also allows you to address issues on your bike while they’re fresh in your mind. After washing, I go straight to drying the chain with compressed air or a rag, and displacing any leftover water with oil. If you’re thrifty, 3-in-1 oil is actually a pretty solid option as a wet lube, and standard WD-40 does a great job quieting squeaky SPD pedals.
MBA: How do you make your training program enjoyable?
LV: The biggest thing here is to listen to the athlete and build a plan that will help them reach their goals. When the athlete is confident that the training is a productive means to an end, then it’s much easier to find enjoyment from the workouts. Of course, variety within an athlete’s plan is helpful in a training sense, and also in keeping training from becoming monotonous, but it’s the listening to the athlete and creating a plan that best suits their needs that keeps the training enjoyable.
MBA: If you could offer three tips to riders in regard to racing, what would they be?
LV: 1) Set goals. These goals don’t necessarily need to be result-oriented, but they can be. Sometimes these goals are as simple as saying, “I want to develop and stick to my pacing strategy at XYZ race” or “I want to improve my FTP [Functional Threshold Power: the highest-average power a rider can sustain for an hour, measured in watts] by 10 percent.” Goals will help you measure your progress throughout the year, and help motivate you to improve your preparation so that you have something more tangible to show for your efforts.
2) Appreciate the process. It’s not just a cliché as I once suspected. One of the keys to success really is to trust the process. Once you’re enjoying the preparation and lead up into an event, you’ll be more effective in your training, in a better state of mind come race day, and likely a more balanced individual off the bike as well. Don’t let negative tendencies consume you, and trust in the work and preparation that you’re doing.
3) Look at races as opportunities to achieve, not tests to fail. You may never fully rid yourself from the nervous sensation leading up into a big event, but controlling the way you think about the race ahead may help. A pessimist sees obstacles and challenges to induce failure, whereas an optimist sees opportunities for success. Embrace an optimistic approach, and you may just feel the nerves subside. After all, it’s just bike racing—enjoy the ride!
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