Cyclocross Training and Racing
Cyclocross, or cross, is beauty in motion, a skill-building workout and good old-fashioned fun. The beauty is how the riders gracefully flow from bike to road, and then effortlessly back on the bike again, making the transitions look much easier than they are. Along with the seasonal change comes a few issues with the weather and as a result you gain high-level bike handling skills in all conditions. You will learn more about cornering your bike in one season of cross than three on the road.
If you are a Road cyclist, Track, Tri or MTB racer looking to add a secret weapon to your racing arsenal, cross is perhaps the easiest way to improve your technical skills, keep intensity in your training in the off-season and have a great time in all kinds of weather on your bike.
What is Cyclocross?
Cyclocross races are 30 - 60 minutes on 1-2-mile lap courses on a combination of dirt and pavement and include some running and getting on and off the bike to get over barriers or run up hills. Cyclocross is a great cross-training supplement and easy to fit into your fall/winter schedule because the races are short and held, rain or shine, on nearly every weekend in the Seattle and Portland areas from September til Christmas.
Cyclocross Skill Sets
Cyclocross develops a toolbox of aptitudes: descending, technical transitions, accelerations, running, cornering, time trialing and explosive starts.
If you are a beginning rider, expect cyclocross to develop your power and stamina while working on your cornering and descending skills. You will also get a great cross training workout with the running and lifting of the bike. For intermediate riders, cross will maintain anaerobic conditioning, train upper-body and running muscles and take your time-trialing to the next level. For elite racers, cyclocross is the place to hone high-speed transitions with agility, develop further handling skills and get that short, hard power training that is difficult to maintain in the off-season.
Here is a story from one rider. "I was in a criterium after my 2nd year of racing cross and there was a crash on a fast downhill section and it was right in front of me. I found myself compressing, then springing over the crashed rider! Because I had tried bunny-hopping in cross it was purely instinct and saved my race." As in any training, you develop those skills and abilities which you demand of yourself and nearly all of the tools you will develop in cross will help you next season.
Training for Cyclocross
If you decide that cross is something you want to give a whirl, you can either just jump in and use it as your once-a-week anaerobic skills session in the off season, or if you have tried cross as a beginner, you might want to get a bit more focused.
Take a mini-break of 1 week to 10 days and then rebuild some strength and endurance base prior to the first races. You will need this recovery because of the large power demands and high anaerobic system stress of cross. Slower pedaling intervals and some time in the gym during this rebuilding period will give you the power necessary to survive a cross race at the front and help to prevent over-training.
At a basic level, cyclocross is like any other endurance racing, the higher your aerobic capacity, the faster you will go. The starts are 100% full-on sprints to the single track, so lactate tolerance and anaerobic system development is critical. In addition, like any good time trial, you must develop the ability to recover while at or near your threshold.
Sample Cross training during the season
1hr Recovery ride or rest with lots of post-ride stretching, especially hamstrings, groin and lower back.
AM Run 20-30 minutes.
PM 1.5 hr road ride w/ short hard intervals.
Hard cross workout
Barriers and running transition practice with short technical race intervals.
Short race endurance practice 15-40 minutes.
AM Run 20-30 minutes steady medium
PM 2.5 hrs on road easy
1 hr spin very easy
Stretch and hydrate
1.5 hr cross or road ride with 2 x 5 minute medium intervals and 2-3 race intervals of 2-5 minutes each with 5 minute recoveries
Race (including minimum 30 minute warm-up and stretching)
Some pointers if you start to get serious about cross
Practice starts. Typically start in the big ring and large rear cog. This eliminates trying to shift chainrings as you are accelerating. Set up a 50-foot grassy straight with a turn into some single-track and find a friend or two to race for 6 - 8 starts.
Set up a short cross course with whatever barriers you can put together. The regulation height maximum for barriers is 16 inches, although you will find many promoters use shorter ones.
I like to take 1 month off from racing before the first cross race. This helps the brain and body rebuild for what can be a five month (September to February) season for the elite.
Although it is often tempting to continue racing immediately after cross because fitness is so high, I recommend taking a rejuvenating break. This is key in establishing a good yearly cycle.
Transitions on and off the bike
Whether cross is the focus of your year or simply a training tool, to survive a cross race will require being able to mount and dismount from the bike to get over barriers and run up hills.
First practice lifting the bike and find your two grabbing locations. Use 2 fingers under the top tube and find the balance point where both wheels rise evenly from the ground. This will be where you grab the bike for barriers and short runs. Next grab the downtube, usually in about the middle, and practice lifting the bike onto your shoulder for longer runs. Do 2 x 20 reps of "bike ups", lifting the bike from the two basic holds up into the position you will carry it.
Once you have established your grabs, start practicing mounts and dismounts at walking speed. First ride around on some grass and practice swinging your right leg over the bike and coasting as that leg dangles straight down behind your left leg. Keep your hands on the hoods and practice cornering and coasting as long as you can like this.
Once you feel comfortable riding and coasting like this, then step the right leg between the bike frame and your left leg still on the pedal, and begin to walk. (Hint: click out of your pedal with the left shoe before you start and just stand on the pedal to avoid staying clipped in once you dismount.) Practice stepping the right foot through for fast and flat dismounts, typically into barriers, and simply step back off the bike for slower (the cowboy dismount) typically uphill. Practice both ways very slowly until you feel comfortable, each time just throwing the right leg back over the saddle and remounting at walking speed.
In practicing the remount, start at walking pace and keep it very slow until you eliminate repeated hopping on the launching foot onto the saddle. Work toward one smooth lunge onto the right pedal and instantly begin to pedal. Keep your eyes looking forward; use your peripheral vision to help your feet find the pedals. Just keep pedaling, your feet will find the pedals. If you need to take a quick glance down at the pedals before you remount, do it. Just like the dismount, once you feel comfortable (or at least not totally spastic) then add a little speed, and eventually a flat barrier, then a full 15-inch high barrier to practice regularly.
Running for cross
Running is essential for racing cross at a high level. You can't avoid it in a race, and although you might hear of guys who don't train their running, on courses with longer runs or very muddy conditions, they will suffer. Although most racers can sprint up a cross run-up, an untrained runner will not recover as quickly or be able to stay with good runners on the longer runs.
Running is best approached in a similar way to your cycle training. Start easy and build up a base of moderate running time, typically three times per week for 20 minutes for a couple weeks, then add some longer threshold intervals and then peak your running with short, sharp hill accelerations during a moderate 30-minute run.
10-50-minute runs beginning with walking the downhills and flat portions* and working toward steady threshold intervals with recoveries 3x/week.
20-30-minute runs starting with 3 x 3-minute intervals at race pace 2x/week.
20-30 minute runs with short explosive uphill running bursts of 5 - 30 seconds 1x/week.
*Running uphill is very similar to the pedal stroke and is the ideal transition because it is easy on cycling-trained muscles and decreases your risk of injury.
Quick Cross Tips
. Steer the bike underneath you, do not lean body into corners.
. Lift butt at least slightly off seat through corners.
. Pedal while remounting, even if pedals aren't there yet.
. Ride easy for 15 minutes and stretch prior to practicing barriers to avoid pulls. Practice perfectly smooth transitions, slowly first, add speed later.
. If you feel rough and out-of-control over barriers, slow down a notch or two.
If you want to be a better bike racer and take your riding to a new level, then cyclocross is for you. To get better at the technical side of cross, watch the best. Go out to Seattle or Portland cyclocross races where you will see some of the best racers in the country ride the same course you just finished as a beginner and then study books, videos or DVDs to learn more and to mentally rehearse smooth transitions. For Seattle Cyclocross info check out: www.marymoorvelodrome.org and for coaching packages look to: www.trainright.com. Now get out there and get muddy!