'Theoria'

How to Race Cyclocross Better

Cyclocross is an enigmatic cycling discipline. To many, it’s a circus, not unlike Paris-Roubaix from the persective of the likes of greats like Hinault: “Paris-Roubaix is bullshit!” (1981, he won). But cyclocross races at the upper end of the sport cannot be won by first-timers like Hinault. To excel in these races, riders must be highly specialized in their skills and fitness in ways more similar to mountain bike racing than any other cycling discipline.

It’s commonly repeated that cyclocross is HARD, perhaps the hardest form of bike racing. Whether it is hardest or not isn’t a debate I care to get into; suffice it to say it is broadly considered very demanding. At the same time, it’s a rather popular discipline, drawing hundreds of riders to local races across North America, Australia, and many European countries. So it’s really hard, but also somehow really alluring.

People often ask me what my favourite discipline of bike racing I do is. This is a really hard question to answer, because I have a lot of fun across all disciplines, and I’ve been more successful in the one I have the least experience in – criteriums – lately, which is weird. When pressed to understand why I do well in criteriums (read FLAT or mostly flat criteriums), and also gravel races, but generally less well in cyclocross races against the same or similar competition, I am forced to closely examine the key differences between my way of racing each discipline in order to figure out what I do well, and what I need to work on. Given I’ve not put in the performances I wanted to in cyclocross over the last couple years, I decided to really focus more on my race-craft for the 2016 season, rather than be preoccupied with training and my body weight. Over the course of the summer and early fall, I’ve worked out a number of key aspects to performing better in cyclocross races, and these are what I want to share with you here.

I will break down the ideas I’d like to convey into three parts:

  1. Setting up your mind and body for better racing
  2. Understanding why we often suck more than we really suck when we race
  3. Racing smarter on the day

This advice is not at all only relevant to ‘fast’ riders. After all, I’m not fast compared to the likes of Sven, Van Aert, and Van de Poel, but I benefit from implementing the recommendations below, just as any rider can. We all benefit from riding smarter and using our energy more efficiently and effectively.

Setting up your mind and body for better racing

Have you noticed that the majority of cyclocross racers are not winning, and actually never win? Ever? Clearly, they are getting more out of the racing experience than the thrill of winning, or even coming close to winning. For some, it’s a social thing. For others, its an improving little by little thing. For a small number, its a racing smart and getting the most out of their abilities thing.

What sort of rider are you? Are you already looking at CX courses analytically, searching for every possible spot to get or keep speed with little or no effort? Are you about as fit as you can reasonably be/care to be? Do you even think about cyclocross between races?

I’m going to assume that you are into putting some effort into becoming a better cyclocross racer if you’ve read to this point. If you don’t really care, that’s cool, no judgement. But if you want to push your limits a bit, here’s what I propose:

Become a student of the sport. This means studying cyclocross racing at its highest level. Over the last few years more and more European races have been streaming online, and are captured on YouTube. This has been a huge boon for those of us who never got to see high level racing consistently in the past. By watching these races, you have the opportunity to take a couple approaches:

  1. First, watch the race and get a sense of what happened overall. It’s not really important who won specifically, but how. Watch for how the start and first few laps are ridden by the top riders.
  2. Second, watch the race again, and follow the winner or top two riders (if they are fighting all the way) closely. This is a forensic approach, which will allow you to dissect every move the winner made to make the win possible. You are looking for a few key aspects of the performance:
    • pacing
    • line choice
    • skill execution
    • attacks
  3. By studying how the best approach their race craft, you can start to think more about how you can become and stay engaged mentally through your races, and make good decisions.

Assess your stengths and weaknesses. Are you consistently being dropped on barriers, steep climbs, run-ups? Think about where and how you get detached from your rivals, and try to work out why. For example, I tend to have trouble staying on my rivals heels when we have to run up medium-length hills. I identified this weakness in the summer, and have been doing stair running drills/intervals with a focus on form in order to learn how to run up hills better. Doing run ups with the bike are the next step. The key is not to run faster as much as it is to focus on running smoother 

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If your weakness is starts, practice a lot of starts. Both these examples are more about fitness than skills. On the skills side, if all of your ‘practice’ is occurring at the CX races, you’re going to see slow improvement, and more likely a plateau. What we are trying to avoid here is reaching the ‘Ok plateau‘ (click the link for a full post on the concept from 2012, and some clues about where Tekne came from) and staying there. Instead, we need to continuously put ourselves in situations where our skills are pushed to the limit, but short of scary and/or crashing (much or badly). But that’s not the only way. We can also break skills down into component parts and work on the pieces in an additive way, building a ‘skills tower,’ as I like to describe it to my 5 year old son. Recently listening to a Trainer Road podcast with Ryan Leech reminded me that most road riders and even many mountain bikers have never ‘sessioned’ skills or sections of terrain. While a couple of the hosts are very experienced riders, this approach was totally new to them. I highly recommend listening to the episode, whether you are experienced with sessioning skills or not. The idea is that you break a skill like ‘cornering’ down into small pieces you can chip away at regularly. The key here is that you really need to be consistent, working on skills regularly. And the whole gamut is on the table, from wheelies to skids to bunny-hops. It all supports more stable bike riding.

Be careful about piling on tonnes of intervals at the expense of endurance miles. I used to think I had to do a lot of intervals into cx season, or else I’d not be prepared well enough. I wanted to be able to accellerate a lot, and better. My new and preferred approach is to instead keep endurance miles up, and to get less structured intervals in by riding offroad climbs as hard as I can over 2-3 hour rides each week. Underpinning this approach is the reality that road riding/racing (if that’s what you do in the summer) is not great for maintaining full-body strength, which is required for cx. Instead, the upper body is pretty inactive, and needs to wake up and get firing. So riding offroad is a good way to do that, and doing it on drop bars is ideal, because it keeps the body positioning consistent with cx racing, and forces the right adaptations. Granted, 33mm tires pretty much suck for trails, so I ride and recommend bumping up to 38mm or larger for trails. Also consider riding some climbs in harder gears than you would normally want to, as this simulates the demands of cx. For those at the elite level, more structured training will likely be more desirable; different strokes for different forks.

If you race for fun, keep the focus on fun. This is something I remind myself of regularly, especially when I get stressed out about having a cold or whatever other generally insignificant life event that only perturbs athletes. Bike racing isn’t my job, and its probably not your job, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s more fun this way. So, in order to have a good cx season, you need to be motivated and enjoy yourself. This means putting fun rides on your schedule that support your cx objectives, rather than sequestering yourself in the basement for trainer intervals.

The late summer and fall are beautiful times to ride outside, and there are lots of ways to get your time in on the bike while mixing in cyclocross-specific elements. One way to consider keeping the season fun is to scrap worries about being tired on Sunday for your weekly race (around here we don’t tend to race both days), and go for a nice endurance ride if you have time. I used to worry about being tired on Sundays, so I’d only do an hour-long opener on Saturdays. That sucked, I didn’t get to ride my bike enough. Now I am comfortable doing a 3 hour tempo ride on Saturday with some hills in the mix, and tend to feel good and ready to race on Sundays. Of course, this window is scaled to your fitness, so 2 hours might be better for you. But when you continue to get in a solid endurance ride each weekend, you both have a better chance of having more fun, AND of maintaining or even building fitness. Win-win.

Understanding why we often suck more than we really suck when we race

I’m reading Michael Hutchinson’s book, Faster. It’s good, I’m enjoying it and learning a lot. Hutchinson is an elite time trial specialist form the UK who dives deep into what makes the world’s best endurance cyclists and other endurance athletes particular, and by virtue of their particularities, faster than you and me. Henderson, being a time trialer, digs deep into the physiological side of his discipline’s performance requirements, which is all about VO2 max, lactate thresholds, watts per kilo, blood volume and composition, and a bunch of other geeky but important stuff. What he doesn’t talk so much about a aspect of relevance to cyclocross: race-craft. In time trialing there is definitely race-craft involved, in the pacing and some bike handling, but it doesn’t compare closely at all to cyclocross. In cyclocross, we’re head to head with our rivals, and the dymanics between racers can range from simple to complex. The most confounding aspect, however, in cyclocross, seems to be pacing. I believe this is where most of us are going wrong most of the time. Here’s why.

Think of the number of times you’ve wanted to quit in a cx race. Every time? Most of the time? Sometimes? This often comes down to expectations and pacing. I will illustrate with my own case.

I’ve often been beaten by guys I felt I should beat. Why? Pacing. You know how a lot of coaches say that the first lap is everything in cx? Well, it is, and it isn’t. For the majority of us amateurs, it isn’t. There’s plenty of space to pass, and tonnes – I mean tonnes – of us are going too hard on the first lap. Pros are way better at pacing their first laps; they’re just way faster than us, so it looks like they are going at 100%. They are not. Back to studying, go and watch Sven Nys’s races, and observe where he places himself in the early laps of each race: 6th wheel. He is not riding on his limit. Neither should we, it just doesn’t go well!

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So here I am saying the start is important, but not necessarily in the way  that coaches tend to say. They will tend to say you have to go ballistic off the start in order to get clear of slower riders, hang onto stronger ones, gain a mental edge, do your best. I’ve believed that, in very simple terms: get to the front immediately or you’re screwed. Back to the Trainer Road guys, they said the same coming out of their Wheelers and Dealers race ay Interbike in Las Vegas. In that race, the field was massive, and the course was fast. Getting up to the front early was important insofar as the field was mixed in abilities, and getting slowed by riders in front was a reality and a problem. But was going ballistic worth it? When the three hosts really get into this question, they end up a little less certain than at the beginning of their discussion, where they say the start and first lap was everything.

Going too hard off the gun in cyclocross will make you blow up, it’s really that simple. If you blow up, you’ll require at least 5 minutes at a fairly easy output in order to recover. This ain’t road racing! You don’t have 5 minutes to ride at 100 watts! Sorry, there isn’t any real coming back from totally blowing the first five-ten minutes of the race.

How’s this for a confounding element: when we get our effort right on a first lap, are wherever in the race we want to be based on our rivals positions, then we do a great race, we might think we ‘went to the limit on the start’ and it worked! But what if the course was actually favourable just in the right ways for us, and unfavourable in the right ways for our rivals, and we didn’t actually need to ride at our limit to be where we wanted to be? Maybe we come out of the race saying, “Yeah man, I just went so hard, to the front, and held it there. That’s what you gotta do, it’s all about the first lap, you gotta go deep.” Did we really go ‘deep?’ How do we know? If we run powers meter we might be able to make these statements with some credibility, but most riders don’t and more don’t have a great sense of their effort level when flustered with bike handling and people all around them.

So what to do? When we dig in, it becomes apparent why pacing is so hard to get right in cyclocross. What are our options for gauging our output? Well, we can go by others, and how fast they are going. That’s not bad if you know your fellow competitors well, and have lots of data points in the bank. You can get to the point where you know who the fast starters are, who the early blowers are, who starts slower and ramps up, etc. But these are general traits, not exact. The course itself will play into how each individual handles the first minutes of the course, which makes it hard to know whether rider-X is ahead of you because they are executing skills better, or whether they are simply laying down more power. Should you try to get up to them and hang on? That’s a toughie. What if they overcooked it today, and you end up following suit?

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You can’t use a power meter to tell you whether you are going too hard or hard enough. Even if the technology was a good fit in this context – how can it collect running data? – you couldn’t ride to it. What would you do, look down all the time? Maaaaaybe you could set a power threshold to sound an audio cue, but how would you determine what that threshold should be, when you’ve got X-number of recovery bits in the mix? But what about the fact that we can usually race better than we train? If you hav a power meter, you’ll have to look at the numbers after and relate them to how you felt and try to figure out whether you were at your limit or not, what your pacing options might be.

Heartrate is not useful here. Yes, it can tell you you’re working hard, but you know that. After the fact, HR will give you a sense of how hard you worked overall, but the delay between power output and HR reflecting that output is too slow to ride to.

Perceived exertion: this is what you have to work with. If you’re a power meter junkie, you’re going to have to learn what your limits feel like while in different states of fatigue and stress. In other words, you need to know what the right amount of effort feels like, despite a million things going on around you, and adrenaline coursing through your veins. Everyone feels great off the line, adrenaline is great for that. But you actually don’t want adrenaline in your system at all, because its presence in your blood and brain actually blocks the neaural receptors that receive the happy hormones released as you race. That’s bad!

Why is that bad? Think of all the times you’ve felt bummed about what’s going on in your cx race. I’ve felt like quitting while winning! WTF? I’ve learned that adrenaline is not my friend early in a race, and I now do what I can to avoid the panic-mode that triggers its release. Panic = bad. Cool = good.

Why else might we be down 20 minutes into the race? Well, if we’ve blown up we’re getting passed, and we can’t do anything about it. If we’ve focused on the outcome of this race, rather than the process goals we ought to be focusing on, we’re left with a steaming pile of ‘Shit, I’ve totally screwed this up’ 20 minutes into the race, and we’ve got another 25 to 45 to go! That’s not a mental state that is going to see you chase your rivals down.

So, aside from avoiding spiking our blood with adrenaline, we need to approach and race the race with process goals in mind. In other words, we need to break down the elements of the race that matter, and have a plan for each. Pacing is one of these, probably the most important, because this aint road racing! Being on someone’s wheel isn’t going to matter as much as riding a pace you can sustain, or perhaps build on. If buddy-X always starts hard, blows hard, and you blow 30 seconds after following him, why follow? Don’t follow.

How can we tell whether we’re getting our pacing right during the first third of the race? After years of focusing on the wrong things and being totally stymied about how to pace the start of my races against stronger riders, I had to get to the point where I said, ‘Ok, I have to choose not to follow him. I have to let him go, and get to 20 minutes into the race feeling ok, then work from there.’ ‘Work from there’ means something specific: go faster each lap. How?

Racing Smarter on the Day

Your race performance hinges on everything you do to prepare, obviously. But it continues to amaze me how common it is to see riders put a lot of time and energy into their training, sleep, eating, and equipment maintenance through the week only to arrive at the race an hour before the start and not have time to inspect the course and warm up well. I used to be one of those riders, arriving with little time to spare, but I finally settled into arriving early, during the first of three races, in order to spend more time on the course and warm up better.

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There isn’t much early racers can do to prepare as much for their races as those racing mid-day or later. Big races that are set the day before tend to allow riders to inspect and ride the course on Friday night. For out of town races for Ottawa-Gatineau riders, for example, races like Gloucester and Rochester have training sessions open on Friday, which are vital for those racing early Saturday. For those racing later in the day, arriving early enough to get onto the course after the first race, then again during the break between each subsequent race, is key. But how do we use that time?

Course Inspection

During course inspection, it’s important to quickly get a sense of trouble spots that will potentially cost you a lot of time if you don’t know how to handle them during your race. The best approach is likely to ride the whole course at a mellow pace and look as closely at all its features as you can as you go. Next, ride it a bit faster and look for the ‘problem spots’ where you’ll be challenged to keep your momentum or choose a line you can ride well repeatedly. From there, it’s really worthwhile to session each of the most difficult, tricky sections, trying different lines to work out what will work best for you. ‘Best’ might not be the fastest, but it will need repeatable during the stress of the race. Ask yourself: is the weather going to change, from dry to wet, vice versa? If so, what will I need to do differently? How might the section degrade over the morning and through my race? Will I have options to adapt to those changes? When assessing your options for lines, you need to keep in mind that the most obvious line isn’t usually the fastest. Where the track is packed down is not generally where you want to be as you set your turns. You’ll want to ride further out, at the tape, more often.

Think about where you should run, even if you can ride. Try both ways if it’s not obvious. Time yourself, or have a friend time you or do the opposite technique head to head.

Consider your shifting strategy for hard transitions. Where will you have to pre-shift in order to avoid shifts under load? Plan ahead.

Similarly, put some effort into planning your braking points. If you will head into a technical section fast, for starters, should you pedal deep into it and brake hard, or ease up and not brake as hard? Think on it. Where’s the traction? Will you have to brake where it’s smoother, then let it roll over rough stuff? Analyse.

If you add up all these inspection components, you’ll see that the sum is significant. You can’t accomplish all this in 15 minutes. Give yourself the time you need to work out the course to the greatest extent possible before your start. This way, you can apply your strategies on the first lap, rather than working your way to the same point by your last! You won’t get it all right, so make sure you look at what others are doing to see what you missed, and keep looking for ways to improve your traction, preserve your speed, and smooth out your effort. This is an art, one none of us will ever master. But the process of learning is very rewarding.

Warm-up

This is a very individual thing. Some physiologists argue that very little warm-up is required for cyclocross, while others contend that a protocol similar to that used for a 20-40k time trial is ideal. Some like to warm up on trainers or rollers, others on the course. Jeremy Powers recommends the latter, and he’s rather good. My personal preference is to inspect the course as much as possible before the race preceding mine, then get onto the trainer for 20-30 minutes. I ride mellow for a bit, then progressively ramp up, doing some high cadence efforts toward the end that really get my systems going. I also like to stand up enough to get some lactic acid flowing, which I feel is important. After this warm-up I head onto the course to run through a couple laps to make sure I know how the conditions have changed. Hopefully the tires I’ve chosen from earlier on are still correct! If you’ve never paid much attention to your warm-up, it’ll probably take a while to settle on a protocol you are happy with. It’ll take experimentation. But if you have one or two A-races each year you want to be primed for, where you’ll take the effort to warm-up well, you’ll want to know how to do that, and experience is how you’ll get there. Practicing warm-up at small local races isn’t so much about being at 100% on those day as it’s about learning how to do it well for when it matter to you the most.

Its about the first 20 minutes

The first 20 minutes of the lap is the phase where we can feel out the course and really figure it out. Where do you need to ride hard? For your reference, you need to ride every climb hard, because that’s where more power will make the most difference in terms of time gained. Where do you need to ride easy? Really sketchy sections, where full gas will only yield a second or two of time gained while amping the risk level up significantly qualify as spots to ease up a bit and take it safe.

Pedal harder versus softer or not at all. If you’re approaching a turn that you will have to take at medium speed, you can either pedal into it and brake hard, or not pedal into it and brake less. Watch the pros to get a sense of how they do this. They don’t pedal hard, brake hard; everything is as smooth as possible.

If you find yourself feeling like you’re on the ragged edge, look at your computer, and see you’ve only raced for 10 minutes, you’ve done it wrong; you’ve gone too hard. If you feel like you’re going hard, you can see how you can get more speed out of the course, and you look down and see 20 minutes has passed, you’ve probably done it right! By no means do you want to be in the red zone 10 minutes into the race. If you are, you’ll have to recover for a solid 5 minutes at low power while rider stream past you, triggering vicious negative thoughts. If this happens, the odds of you actually racing the next 40 minutes are slim to nil. Instead, you’ll likely look back and wonder who you can afford to let catch you. No good.

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Plan for dialing in the first 20 minutes of the race, then building from there. Use this 20 minutes to work out where you need to ride full gas, and where you need to recover. Get the rhythm worked out, seeking better lines through the turns the whole time.

The middle 20 minutes is going to be horrid if you’ve blown the first 20. Instead, don’t blow the first 20, and use the next block to move forward, tracking down riders ahead of you, building steam. Sure, some reading this will tend to be in a group, a few at the front of their races. The middle 20 is the time for these riders to plot their last 20! For the rest, it’s time to move up.

The final 20 minutes is where the magic needs to happen! If you’re still reeling in riders, awesome. If you’re with a group, great. Plan your move! Work out where you think you can establish and then hold a gap. This is the most fun part of the race if you’ve handled the first 40 minutes well. And fun is why we’re racing, right?

The second last lap is where you definitely need to plot how you’re going to cap this thing. If your rivals are suffering, attack them hard and break their will, then hold onto your gap until the line. If they seem strong, you’ll need to know where you can get a gap, and work out whether it’s close enough to the line to hold them off. Maybe you’ll need to go earlier so you can use two moves to seal the deal.

Remember, on the last lap you can afford to bury yourself, but make sure you have enough oomph to hit climbs hard enough to make the difference you need.

After the race, partake in conversation with your friends and rivals about the race. Don’t be afraid to share the lines you were taking; this will only encourage others to do the same. By sharing intel, everyone benefits, the caliber of racer goes up across the board. This is a good thing.

I hope this helps! If there are any specific areas I left out you think should be here, please let me know. I can add to this piece through time, making it a more complete resource, little by little.

See you at the races!

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