I ride a REAL Schwinn!
Join Date: May 2002
Location: NH, USA
Bikes: Lemond Nevada City (stock), '00 Schwinn Moab 3 (very upgraded)
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I have more time to reply now.
Question 1: Search the forums, especially the mountain bike racing subforum.
2. Disc brakes really are that good over V-brakes, if you get a quality set. I have not ridden a bike nor talked to anyone with the Shimano mechanicals that come on the Apex. Mechanicals can easily rival the stopping power of hydraulics, especially in an XC situation, where the downhills/speed won't be as severe as those experienced by downhillers who often opt for the hydraulics. I know that many people have had very good luck with the Avid mechanical disc brakes, and I have ridden a bike with them. The difference they make is amazing. Perhaps you could get the LBS to swap the discs to Avid's when you buy the bike. If not, they are selling for around $70 at most any mail order place, and they are not hard to install, as they come with instructions. Discs may require a little more time to set up at first for intial setup, and you might have to fiddle around to make sure that you don't have a problem with one of the pads touching the rotor, but I feel that it is worth it. Otherwise, you can just go with a quality set of V-brakes, which will save you some weight, though many disc systems now are not far from the weight of some V-brake systems. Disc brakes should not be high maintenance. You should only have to worry about changing pads and cables, just like a V setup, if you stick with the hydraulics.
3. Travel is the amount of, well, travel that your fork has. When you are riding the bike, the travel is the amount of "squish" your fork has. So, an 80mm travel fork will "travel" about 80mm to absorb hits. You will probably want to stay in the 80mm or so range if you are going to be racing. If this will also be a multi-purpose bike, you might want the extra travel of a 100mm fork. The bike is still certainly raceable. 120mm forks are often found on more trailbike-oriented bikes, and may be a bit too inefficient as a race bike fork. If you have lockout, though, you shouldn't have to worry. I didn't check on the fork that the Apex comes with, but it would be worth finding out. You should also be careful about replacing the fork with one with a different amount of travel because it can change geometry of the bike noticeably by raisng or lowering the front end. Some people don't mind the change, but it would be worth considering if you will be looking at changing the fork.
4. Those "rediculously small pedals" are clipless pedals. They are designed to work with a cleat made by the manufacturer. The cleats attach to the bottom of a specially designed shoe with a very stiff sole meant to make as efficient a use of your power as possible, by keeping your shoes from flexing. They help by letting you pull up on the pedal while pushing with the other, creating a more efficient pedal stroke. They also help by keeping your feet on the pedals over the rough stuff. And they don't guarantee a fall while still attached to the bike. With a little practice, you can become profficient at getting out of the pedals very fast. They also have release tension screws, so you can start out with the pedals letting you out very easily, and increase the tension as you become better to avoid accidental releases. You will fall at first, but is well worth it, especially if you plan on racing.
Good luck with the racing! Hoped this helped some.
Edited for spelling/punctuation.