Cyclocross has become all the rage over the past few years. Everywhere you look companies are coming out with cross bikes, now disc equipped cross bikes, espousing the fun and camaraderie of the sport, and pulling riders across the spectrum into its tangled web of mud, crud, and barriers. As the season begins in earnest, let’s consider what it is about cross that makes it a nearly perfect winter sport.
Cyclocross. It’s just plain, dirty fun.
Short on Duration, Long On Intensity
“Sixty minutes of suffering” is a common refrain, and a truism at that. Then again at most race sites only the elite men and women are doing the full sixty, for the rest it likely ranges between thirty and forty five minutes, a completely reasonable duration for head to toe suffering!
We’ve assuaged your fear of the duration, so let’s talk about intensity! Yep, it starts hard and fast. I like to tell first timers and those questioning their fitness to start at the back and see how many people you can pass. A similar strategy is to take the first lap at a reasonable pace and then light it up. Of course this may eliminate you from contention, but in that first race of the season results are a bonus anyway.
Here’s the thing about cross. It is VERY easy to go too deep at the start and spend the rest of the race playing catch up of the aerobically destroyed kind. If you aren’t carrying some decent road fitness, or have trained specifically for ‘cross season, then avoid those 9 and 10 level efforts right off the line. You simply cannot dig a huge aerobic hole in the first lap and expect to recover and get back on a rhythm because you are riding at the frayed edge of composure anyway just trying to negotiate the various obstacles and try to retain some semblance of your placing.
Embrace The Technical
Perhaps the greatest addition that CX brings to your game is in the realm of bike handling skills. I’m sorry to say it, but too often riders upgrade without the proper skills set to manage the faster categories. CX can cut that learning curve dramatically. You’ll learn how to handle your bike out of problems quick, how to anticipate and avoid problems to begin with, and how to navigate varied terrain surfaces ranging from pavement to grass, gravel to mud, and everywhere in between.
It is the skills component, in the end, that outweighs fitness. Give me two riders of nearly matching fitness and I’ll take the one with the skills for the win almost every time.
Certainly riders can get by on fitness. Three time Olympian Eric Wohlberg rode for my team for a few years and was pretty dreadful in the skills department, but his fitness level was so high that he pulled top 10s out of nearly every race despite his technical limitations. Of course over several seasons he developed a repertoire of skills that took him onto the podium regularly as well.
You will be amazed how easy and ‘sticky’ the road feels after a season sliding around on dirt, grass and mud!
Equipment Lovers Rejoice
The common refrain is that cyclocross requires a big equipment investment, and it’s true, but not to the level you might think (or indeed wish for?!). While two bikes are often deemed a necessity, the truth is that you can race a full and complete campaign on just one bike if necessary. Now, should you opt to have a second bike most people will tell you to set them up exactly the same, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. I have run a single speed as my second bike the past couple of years and it works just great on 90% of the courses we use. In addition it opens up a whole new field of racing.
Wheel and Tire Choices
Wheels, or more specifically tires, on the other hand, are a necessary and vital accommodation. The first question is tubes, tubeless, or tubular. Tubeless has come a long way in the past few years, but I still defer to tubulars for durability, reliability and performance. They have the distinct advantage of permitting much lower tire pressures. In addition, tubulars permit much more supple movement of the casing, resulting in much better grip and traction.
Generally tires are broken into three different styles:
• All conditions – characterized by tires like the Challenge Grifo, Clement PDX, and the Dugast Typhoon, are good for most any race year round and should be your primary set of race wheels, or only set if that’s what you can afford.
• Mud tires like the Dugast Rhino or the Challenge Limus offer spectacular performance in muddy conditions, so if you race in mud regularly, get a set or two.
• Lastly there are file treads, the closest thing to a road tire on offer, they have a very fast tread pattern and usually a mediocre set of knobs on the edge of the tire to help with cornering. File treads are fast if you can corral them!
You Have to Stop Sometimes
The second most important component on your CX bike are the brakes. In this case, cyclocross is a harbinger of things to come, namely disc brakes. Legal on UCI cross courses for a few years now, it is a sure bet that they will UCI legal for road races within two or three years. When Shimano and SRAM get behind a technology it’s a near sure bet that it will be race legal and each has a full hydraulic disc offering. In addition there are two new systems from TRP Brakes, including a hydraulic caliper that is cable actuated, that easily installs on all existing disc bikes using traditional cables.
V-brakes (or linear pull as they are called) and cantilevers are the other two brake options. Cantilevers are classic “old school” and generally perform well enough to slow you down, but a step or two below your road bike calipers. Into that void stepped linear pull brakes a few years back. They offer impressive stopping in an easy to use system. Once you’ve ridden linear pull it is difficult to go back to cantilevers, spoken from personal experience!
Plan It Out
If you are going to jump into the fray, you should consider a couple of training adjustments. First, if cross is merely a weekend distraction then there isn’t much need to train for it. The racing will act as your weekly intensity in the off-season if you are hardcore about road, so don’t fret that.
If you find a gnawing desire to be competitive, or if you want your weekend distraction to be a lot smoother and more fun, then you’ll want to throw down a couple days of skills practice. Make one of them an interval workout. Recall that cyclocross is sort of like a time trial except that it has 10-20-30 little sprints every lap, so easy!
If you are doing intervals then I have my riders focus on Neuromuscular type efforts mixed with VO2 intervals of appropriate duration. Typically that’s a 3-10 minute block of 15 seconds on/off with lots of corners acting as the starting point for the “on” portions. That type of workout can alternate with a more VO2 type effort of 3-5 minutes duration. It’s a very time-efficient workout and you only have to do it a few times to get the payoff!
Whatever your level of fanaticism and focus, cross can make the winter fly by and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the retention of top end acceleration and snap as your road season commences. Give it a try this “off” season!
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more by visiting his website at www.sterlingwins.com.