James and Sampey started racing together in 2015 after meeting at a mountain-biking adventure race in Guatemala.
James and Sampey started racing together in 2015 after meeting at a mountain-biking adventure race in Guatemala. (Photo: Brendan James)

Balancing Independence and Teamwork: A Duo’s Racing Survival Guide

Adventure in sport is a microcosm of the ups and downs you experience in life—here's how to work through it together

Emotions run high in adventure mountain bike racing. Must play well with others.

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“You're slowing down—a bunch of people just passed us! Why are you going backwards?” my teammate Brendan barked at me as I fought against the rough rocks grabbing at my mountain bike’s wheels. “I don't care,” I gasped. “I need to back off and eat now, or I won't finish.”

“Why didn't you eat earlier?” He was obviously full of adrenaline and annoyed at me. This was our second race together, through the mountains of Guatemala, and our first conflict. I said nothing and stuffed my mouth full of cookie. 

Emotions run high in adventure mountain-bike racing, a sport I’ve done solo for the past nine years. I love the self reliance that it fosters and never thought I’d race with a partner. My excuse has always been, “I don’t play well with others when it comes to competition.” 

But when I found out about a partners-only race called Vuelta al Cotopaxi in Ecuador, I decided to give it a go. I invited Brendan James, a guy I had met at the competitive international stage race, El Reto del Quetzal, in Guatemala earlier that year. He’d only been racing for a year, but I watched him fight his way into the top five despite having a broken fork in the first stage. We barely knew each other outside of a few sporadic Facebook messages, so I was surprised when he said yes to my invitation. We would spend two weeks in Ecuador, preparing and competing in the two-day backcountry stage race circumnavigating the Cotopaxi volcano.

We ended up getting along great, and we finished second among a highly competitive field of 50 duos teams. Fast forward six months: We’ve completed two more successful duos stage races together plus a major three-week bikepacking/mountaineering expedition on Guatemala’s highest volcanoes, and Brendan is now my best friend. We have our low points—see above—but we’ve learned a lot together, and we’re a lot more dialed as teammates these days.

I have always looked at adventure in sport as a microcosm of the ups and downs you experience in life, and if undertaken consciously with a partner, both can be incredibly fulfilling. Here are some of the most helpful lessons I’ve taken away from the experience.

Choose a Partner with Similar Goals and Expectations

If you just want to make it to the finish line but your teammate is gunning for a podium spot, there is going to be conflict. Make sure you are on the same page before you come up with a training plan. On race day, I find a goal of “Always do your best in every moment” to be useful.

Know Thyself 

You and your partner should talk about how you can work together to amplify your strengths and minimize the effects of your weaknesses. I have more racing experience than Brendan, so my biggest asset is logistics: ensuring we both have an adequate fuel and hydration plan, knowing how long I expect any given course to take, and executing a smart pacing strategy during the race. Brendan is the physically stronger partner, so he carries more weight, allowing me to race lighter and faster.

Brendan is also a faster starter than I am, so I ask him to pull me as much as he can at the beginning of the race until I have warmed up. In return, he tells me that he tends to get mentally dragged down hours into a long race when it becomes arduous. This is when I tend to be at my strongest, so I make sure to give him extra encouragement during this part of the race. 

Talk About Logistics and Possible Scenarios Ahead of Time

Trying to make tough decisions when you’re exhausted can cause unnecessary conflict. Learn all the rules that will be relevant if anything goes wrong—it could save a bad situation from getting worse during the race. We learned this the hard way in our last stage race in Guatemala, where Brendan got two flats on the last day. We decided that I would ride ahead at a moderate pace and he would catch me. When 20 minutes went by and Brendan didn’t catch me but our entire competition did, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t remember how much we would be penalized for being apart at checkpoints, or how far ahead of Brendan I was allowed to be.

It ended up causing a lot of stress when I finally decided to wait and we nearly lost our overall podium spot to our closest competitors. We wasted energy arguing about it afterwards and finally just resolved to memorize all those rules you hope you never have to deal with—the ones that only matter in worst-case scenarios like the one we’d narrowly escaped.

Be Conscious and Communicate

If you are the weaker partner, prepare to be pushed and prepare to hold your ground when necessary. If you are the stronger partner, know that it will often be your job to encourage your teammate, but be receptive to signs he or she needs to recover.

In the Guatemalan race, I’d been letting Brendan push me, but I knew when I’d pushed past my limit. I had to hold my ground about stopping to eat right then, otherwise I couldn’t keep my legs going. Since that situation, Brendan has been conscious about checking in with me and making sure I am able to eat and drink at the pace we are going. The goal is to ride your best, which includes pushing one another, and in turn giving as much as you can. It also includes recognizing when you need to conserve energy, and communicating that to your partner. 

Leave Your Ego at Home

When Brendan and I race together, he takes most of the weight in a backpack and I ride with just the basics: my two water bottles, my own food, and a basic tire changing kit in my jersey pockets. Brendan takes the extra water and clothes if necessary. We also use techniques called drafting and pulling to go as fast as we can, given our different strengths. For drafting, I ride very close to his wheel on fast road sections to catch his draft. For pulling, I mean literal pulling: Brendan has much more power than I do on gradual road climbs, so I grab on to his backpack on these sections and he will pull me for anywhere from five seconds to five minutes depending on the terrain, until the hill gets too steep to pull or it changes to singletrack. Then, he slingshots me ahead, and I climb as hard as I can while he recovers. I am still pedaling hard when Brendan pulls, but with his added power we both go faster.

This was hard for me to do at first. I am stubborn and used to being independent, so it was hard to let go of my ego, letting Brendan pull me and take most of the weight. But once I did, I realized that it was actually fun and got us better results.

Bite Your Tongue

I’ve seen teammates yelling at each other during or after the race: “Go faster!” “Why are you going so slow?” “Why did you get off your bike? You should be able to ride that!” I even have a friend whose divorce was initiated by the way she and her husband treated each other in a stage race.

Make this a hard rule: No negative thoughts or words while racing. Ever. They do absolutely nothing helpful. If you want to yell at your partner, do it inside your head. Better yet, banish those thoughts and turn that energy into something constructive. 

Manage Your Own Mental State

It is each of your responsibility to keep your own head on. When I find myself feeling annoyed at Brendan for something during a race, I take a step back in my head and remember that I’m the only one who can control my thoughts. Even if you’re not saying it aloud, blaming your partner doesn’t help anything. If there is something legitimate that needs to be fixed—anything related to tactics or strategy—communicate it in a kind way. If you’re just annoyed and want to take it out on your partner, consciously refocus your energy on the race and what you need to do in that moment to perform well.

Live, Learn, and Leave It on the Course

This is the most important thing I have learned from duos racing. Brendan and I have a time period after the race, when we’ve both cooled down physically and emotionally from the effort but when it is still fresh in our minds, where we dissect the day and talk about what went well and what could have gone better. We question each other about incidents we may have bitten our tongue about while the race was underway, and sometimes we argue. We may debate about the best times to pull on a certain course or who should lead on a certain descent. But we are conscious to keep our discussions respectful, and we always close them having learned something constructive that we can use in our next race or endeavor. Then we let it go. 

Lead Photo: Brendan James