What It Takes To Be A Hillclimb Racer
Randall Merritt | On 24, Sep 2015
With the sled season fast approaching, I decided to dive in and see what it takes to be a backcountry slayer during the week and a Pro Hillclimb Racer on the weekend. So I talked to some of our local pros here in Star Valley, Wyoming, to find out how they do it.
Brandon Titensor, a veteran of the hillclimb circuit, has been racing for over 10 years. He has been in the top 5 of points multiple times, has had several top 5 finishes and was just outside of the pole position at the World Championships claiming a 2nd in the 1000 stock class.
Andy Thomas claimed the World Champion title in 2014 as a Semi-pro, and has made quite the splash in the pro circuit as an up-and-coming talent, with several top 5 finishes early in the season last year.
Taylor Wilkes was running top 5 in the Semi-Pros in 2014 when during a practice he suffered a season ending injury one week before the World Championships. He has since jumped up into the Pro class where he has proven that he belongs.
Gavin Balls chased down a World Championship in 2014 aboard his Yamaha sled, making him the first ever World Champion in the hillclimb circuit on a Yamaha. And he continued to shine in 2015 claiming several top 5 finishes in the shortened season.
What is the difference between your hillclimb sled and your backcountry sled?
Brandon: The two sleds are completely different. We want longer tracks in the mountains and the standard 155 inch tracks with screws for racing. Also suspension is huge, we setup the race sleds to attack the huge bumps and soak it up so we can be as smooth as possible and keep the track on the ground, while keeping as much ski pressure as possible.
Andy: The biggest difference is going to be the ski widths, running a wider front-end while racing helps keep the sled planted and able to take corners at a faster pace. Whereas a narrower front-end for the mountains keeps the sled agile and able to stick to a sidehill easier.
Taylor: Suspension is a huge difference between the two sleds. Adding parts to make the sled stronger and more reliable is a must even if weight is being added. I add parts like tunnel protectors, rail stiffeners, and a few other secrets. Other than that I like to keep the sleds as similar as possible so that I can stay comfortable on both.
Gavin: The biggest difference between the two sleds is the reinforcement added to the race sled. This is must due to the beating these sleds take.
What kind of physical training do you do for hillclimbing?
Brandon: We all do things a little differently, but most of us hit the gym every day, and ride mountain bikes and motorbikes in the off season. Also backcountry riding helps with the cardio training during race season. Eating healthy is also a big part of being in the best shape possible.
Andy: Training for the race season is a year-round event. I think keeping your body in the best shape possible is just as important as the condition of your sled.
Taylor: Physical training for me consists of a lot of cardio, weight training, and practice sessions as often as possible. The better you feel, the better you will race.
Gavin: Physical conditioning is a must. You have to be able to give it your all every run and be able to last the whole run. Your body has to have great endurance so you stay in control the whole run.
How do you take your backcountry riding and use it at a race?
Brandon: Backcountry riding is very important in my race style. I try to take lines as fast as I can so it will transfer over to the races. When you ride all day in the backcountry at a faster pace it not only conditions your body but it also helps you learn body control for any situation that can arise on the course.
Andy: Backcountry riding can help out tremendously for hillclimbing. It teaches you to look for new lines. It helps you learn how to commit to lines you’ve chosen. And most importantly it gives you confidence, and confidence pays a huge role in racing.
Taylor: Backcountry riding can be very similar and helpful for racing. I’m always trying to look ahead, pick my line, and the commit to that line. It is a must in both types of riding.
Gavin: Backcountry riding is a huge help with hillclimbing. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere but at the same time you are still competing with your buddies and pushing your limits and increasing your skill. It’s a great way to train also.
What’s the first observation you make when looking at the course?
Brandon: The first observation I make when I see a course is the snow conditions, so I can prepare myself for the style of riding I’m going to use. For example, if the snow is soft I can usually rail the corner without slowing down to turn and if it’s hard I know that I will have to watch my speed and position so I don’t wash out or blow through the corner.
Andy: The first thing I look for at a new course is the line nobody else is going to see. It’s easy to just follow the rut up the hill but being able to see that hidden line can make the difference between 1st place and 5th place.”
Taylor: I’d have to say I look for the smoothest line first. Smooth is going to be the fastest and allows you to maintain your momentum.
Gavin: When looking at the course, I always look for how steep it is. That will determine my speed and the style I’m going to use when racing.
What kind of time do you put into building, testing, practicing, and then actually racing?
Brandon: The time we put into our race sleds is endless, getting our sleds early in the season is important to make sure we have time to build them and have time to test. We can easily put 20 thousand into a sled just in the hopes of winning it back at the World Championships. Spending this much time building the perfect sled for just 10 to 15 minutes of racing in a weekend.
Andy: The time we put into making sure our sleds are perfect is insane. We have about 100 hours into our mods, 50 to 60 hours in our improved sleds, and 10 to 20 hours in our stock sleds. And that’s just building them. There is no way to even keep track of the time we put into testing all the components to make sure they run smooth and perfect. But it’s all worth it as soon as the race starts.
Taylor: There is a ton of time put into building sleds, obviously more time into the mods but plenty of time is still spent on stock sleds as well. Testing is a season long job, we are always looking to make our sleds better and keeping them maintained. Knowing the sled is in top condition just adds to my confidence during a race. Practicing happens as much as possible. Seat time is never a bad thing. Race weekend is just icing on the cake, all the time and preparation pays off then, and having the competitive atmosphere is what we are all there for. But building the friendships and being part of the RMSHA circuit and family is unexplainable.
Gavin: The time I put into sleds is endless. It seems like we are always making little adjustments here and there. As soon as we start building sleds, there are little changes, then you will test and tune some more. We are practicing as much as we can, the seat time is important and makes you the fastest that you can be. With all these endless hours involved then comes race weekend where you are hoping to get several runs that can last a minute apiece and sometimes less.
The time and effort these racers put forward is incredible. The sport really requires some dedication. The endless hours and sleepless nights, not to mention the time sacrificed from your family and friends. From talking with these guys there is no other way to be successful other than to give all of yourself to this sport and hold nothing back.
Of course these guys are really relying on sponsors and support from family and friends, and they could never do this alone. I have seen how these racers come together and help each other out when things go bad on the hill. As much as this is a competition, it is also a family!