Next to the loud horns and vuvuzelas from race fans, the distinct high-pitch sound of whistles is a staple during mountain bike race events. Those whistles you hear at the UCI World Cup Downhill races aren’t from fans pushing or heckling riders although they are heard during all practice sessions and the race.
Contrary to popular belief, the whistles aren’t there to scare away wild bears on track. But there’s a hint of truth in that theory, only involving keeping the track clear from two-legged creatures. The race marshals on the side of the track blow their whistles for each rider going past them. However, the signal is not only for the competitors but also for other marshals, officials and spectators. So, then…
What does the whistle mean in DH racing?
During DH mountain bike races whistles serve important functions like alerting spectators, helping riders safely re-join the track, locating crashed riders, or signaling the race start. Track marshals signal every single competitor riding past them with a short, loud blast on a whistle as per the official UCI Regulations for Mountain Bike Races.
Even without visual cues, whistles make it possible to gauge where riders are, which is sometimes impossible to do otherwise amidst trees and bushes or solid rock faces.
Now, let’s get into even more reasons for the whistles at the races and what each of those reasons means in detail. And why any of this is important not only for rider safety but also for the coordination of an MTB race behind the scenes.
#1 Helping to re-enter the track safely
One very important function of the whistles is often not even seen by the public. It’s during all the practice sessions before the actual race at the end of the weekend. Riders can stop at any point on the track to rest sections, look at possible line options, watch other riders go through certain sections and try to learn the fastest lines.
During practice, there is no starting order and riders are dropping in as they come. They usually keep intervals of about 10 seconds at the start gate to give each other enough room. It’s not mandatory, but an unspoken rule amongst racers – race etiquette so to say.
This means riders are coming down the hill constantly while others are parking trackside on and off the bike. Some are even walking up and down near the tape. It’s always common mountain bike trail etiquette to not stand on track or drop in before oncoming traffic. And the sound of whistles above helps with gauging if and when someone is coming down.
#2 Alerting spectators
Similarly, a whistle further up notifies the next marshal in line and the crowd next to them of oncoming riders. With the speed, these racers are going, added to the vegetation and terrain it can be hard to spot riders coming down and to get out of the way in time.
Even though race tracks are taped off to create a barrier between competitors and other people like team personnel, course workers, and the crowd. However, it’s common that roads and walking paths do cross the course on the way down the mountain.
There are specific parts dedicated for foot traffic to cross the track with course marshals placed next to these crossings regulating access and keeping things safe. Spectators are not allowed to cross the track at any one point, only at those specified locations.
#3 Locating crashed riders
Quickly and reliably pinpointing the location of downed riders is crucial, especially during qualifying, timed training, and race runs when riders are actually expected to do a full top-to-bottom run without stopping trackside.
Marshals are located in direct line of sight of the next, wherever possible. At least they are within audible range, even with trees or terrain in between them. This allows them to locate riders that have passed the previous marshal, indicated by the blast of a whistle, but not the following one.
So even without direct visual contact, marshals are able to locate the general area a missing rider is located at. This is only the first line of protocols they follow in case of accidents. In case of injuries needing further assistance, they can escalate accordingly.
#4 Part of the flag safety system
Every marshal is provided with flags so that the safety system can function. During official training, the yellow flag is waved in the event of a crash to warn other riders to use caution and slow down their pace for the coming section of track.
Some marshals and the marshal coordinator additionally carry a red flag. They are stationed in a way so that they are in direct line of sight with their two closest colleagues earlier and later on the course. They usually all have radios too, but in order to reduce chatter on the radios, whistles provide a clear and concise signal of a rider’s location for everyone nearby.
During the races, the interval of 30 seconds between riders is usually enough to clear the track and not need any flags or interruptions. In case of a bad crash, ordering a course hold may be necessary to provide adequate medical care to an injured rider. This is indicated by the red flag, ordering all riders on track to stop and roll down slowly.
#5 Signaling oncoming riders from behind to let by
There are a couple of reasons why riders might get caught from behind by a faster rider even with the intervals between them and a staggered start in the order of their performance on track.
For one, riders who crashed before or ones with a mechanical issue may ride on track at a much slower pace just to get down. And then there are slower ones outright getting caught by a faster one. Especially during practice, the situation is more chaotic with riders still figuring out track conditions and their lines.
Mountain bikes don’t have rear view mirrors or engines … well, that’s not entirely true anymore. Let me rephrase that: They at least have no loud exhausts like motocross bikes do. And pro mechanics use every trick in the book to get these bikes to run as silent as possible. The loudest part is probably the hub.
It’s very difficult to hear bikes behind you that are just as quiet as your own. Even more so when concentrating on riding as fast as you can mistake-free. The loud whistles are practically impossible to miss, even more so when going off right behind you.
#6 Race start signal
Usually, the start of an MTB race is signaled by a starting pistol in a mass start or start lights for individual starting gates. If none of those is available or working, as a backup a whistle can also be used to give the starting signal. It doesn’t happen often, but in case electronics don’t play along, a good old-fashioned manual whistle can do the job just fine.
So, there you have it. Those are the reasons why whistles are blown at every MTB race. They do fulfill specific purposes. Some of them for the race organizers, some for the crowd and only some for the actual competitors themselves.