In Review: The Cyclocross Season that Sparked Fire

rochester-cx-day-1-36Looking back on the 2016 cyclocross season, I can honestly say I am excited about winter, spring, summer, and next fall. I’m usually tired and feeling a real need for down time at the end of November, so my change in perspective has come as a surprise; and I love it!

Why is it different this time around? A big component is the way our club came together at the cyclocross races through the fall. From kids to masters, we had a great squad out every week, covering the whole gamut, from first-timers to veterans. The thing about it that made me feel particularly good was how much fun everyone was having. On top of that, a number of our rider really stepped up their game in 2016, and that was just awesome to see. I won’t get into naming names, as I will inevitably forget someone. Suffice it to say that progression was the constant. It was exciting. We have lots of room to develop, but I’m really happy with where our club is at.

It was really fun heading into the cyclocross season with a number of team-mates similarly motivated to train together. In previous years I tried to prepare for cyclocross to varying degrees, and saw improvement from season to season over a number of seasons. However, in 2015, the season, while ok, didn’t go great. I wasn’t really happy with how I felt in the races after Gloucester, where I felt fantastic on Day 1, had two mechanicals, and then was starting to get sick on Day 2. I never really bounced back and found my stride.

Following what I can only characterize as an ‘excellent’ spring and summer of riding and racing in 2016, I headed into this cyclocross season with a different plan than previous years. My focus would be on keeping my hours up as high as I could week to week, rather than spending one of my mid-week days on intervals and worrying about doing too much on Saturdays. Instead, I’d ride Tuesday and Wednesday nights with team-mates, and one of those would be a fast-paced trail ride with lots of climbs ridden hard. I felt the need to put down that sort of effort, and to remain used to riding hard back-to-back days. On Saturdays I’d do an endurance ride of 3-4 hours, again keeping the hours up, and with team-mates. Because Canadian Cyclocross Championships would be the ‘A race’ of the season, I’d ‘train through’ each week and race weekend, and hope to be on good form for early November in Sherbrooke.

As some will have read, the season opener in Rochester, NY, was weird and painful, but also fun. I really struggled on the Saturday during the C1 elite race, which, in hindsight, sucks, because I might not race one of those again. But despite the ‘extreme heat,’ I bounced back well and rode a great race the next day, taking 2nd in the Master 30-39 race, close behind Osmond Bakker. I felt not at all near 100%, yet came closer to Osmond than ever before. This experience suggested that maybe I had the potential to race better if the courses were hard enough for me to use some of the skills I have, but tend not to get to use a lot.

Following Rochester I got sick not once, but three times over the season. It seemed to be one of those falls for everyone, and I tried to just take it in stride and really rest when I needed to. At our local series Calabogie race I was in the running for a podium, but a derailed chain (the one and only I’ve had in a race on my narrow-wide) saw Derrick St John pass and hold me off on a course that seemed to – finally – really suit my abilities. Again, I was encouraged, despite the bad luck. In very different conditions, again with DSJ in the field, I put in a solid race in Lachute, Quebec, at a Cup race,  getting another glimpse of a greater potential than I’d seen before. A botched barrier are a radically different race, Cornwall, saw me lose my shot at another podium, but again, showed I had pretty good speed. The fact was that I was racing well, but not putting together ‘clean’ races. I needed one of those to see how I was really doing.

Getting sick just days before Nationals meant I’d not get to find out how my training and racing was really going. While I was really happy to feel ok on race day, I wasn’t at 100%, and it really showed on the highly technical, mud-laden course. I got my ass handed to me in the Elite race. However, I fared better the next day, riding much stronger, and importantly, wasn’t getting sicker. Seeing the caliber of riders across categories was very informative, and helped me set my sights on 2017: Masters 30-39 Championships. The course’s running, mainly, was hard on me, so rather than accepting that I suck off my bike, I decided to do something about it. Talking with Iain Radford at length after the weekend, we devised a plan that would see us return to Sherbrooke in 2017 better prepared. Underpinning this discussion was the decision I made on the return from the race: to focus my summer on cyclocross preparation.

Those who’ve spoken with me or read my writing about cyclocross over the years might – and some have – bring up the ‘risk’ of dedicating oneself to cyclocross. Isn’t it risky to tailor your summer to a fall that could involve illness derailing a racing schedule? In short, yes. It is risky, but that doesn’t have to be a problem, and the risk doesn’t have to be ‘big.’ It depends how one approaches the training, and what one’s objectives are. I’ll lay out how I’m approaching this, and I’m hoping my approach (which I suspect isn’t novel at all) will resonate with some of you, and perhaps help you orient yourself toward a step-up in your cyclocross racing. Oh, and no, I’m not writing this for elite racers; this is for ‘regular folks.’

There are three elements that underpin dedication to cross being a good idea, rather than ‘risky.’

El Camino was all about FUN.

Fun. Everyone’s idea of ‘fun’ is different, but I really like riding drop bar bikes off-road, tough climbs, sliding around, and pedaling all winter on snow. I enjoy a lot of ‘skill-based’ riding, all of which supports good cyclocross racing. This means that the sort of training rides I do all summer ‘for cross’ will be fun in themselves. If my approach were to do hill repeats and/or intervals inside on the trainer, training benefit would be good, but I would not have enough fun doing those things to go the distance. I’d burn out. And perhaps most importantly, if the actual racing in the fall didn’t go great, I’d look back and say, ‘Shit, I wasted that time. I could have been having fun with my friends instead.’ Making the training fun is the sustainable approach, from my perspective.

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Max Rubarth’s #theweeklylegs appearance

Hitting the gym. Training more specifically for cyclocross means training for better full-body strength and fitness, which makes for a more rounded athlete. Beyond the benefit of not being too frail to carry groceries, the big plus here is injury prevention and longevity. To truly prepare for the rigours of cyclocross racing, we need to do workouts off the bike. We need strong cores / girdles (thanks for the latter term, Mike Reeves), we need strong arms and shoulders, and obviously, we need strong legs. By shifting focus to what is required to become the best cyclocross racer I can be, I need to get stronger across every dimension. By shifting focus away from road races, especially those that are really hilly and don’t align with my physique, even when I’m ‘skinny,’ building up strength, including a bit more muscle density and weight, won’t be a detriment, it’ll be a benefit. This approach will likely not see me drop to my lowest ‘race weight,’ but my body composition will change, and being stronger without being tooooo heavy is the goal, not hitting a specific number on the scale. As I write this I’ve already been at the gym for three weeks, and I feel the difference; I like it, and each small, clearly quantified gain in strength motivates me to do more. I’m inspired by Nino Schurter’s routine, and look forward to delving into some of the exercises he does later this winter.

Photo: Scott Emery
Photo: Scott Emery

Training skills. Incorporating skills rides all summer will be more purposeful and productive than doing easy ‘filler’ rides. I can fit in a couple skills-focused rides of an hour or so all summer on the cx bike (in proper cx format, which I think it important) without riding at a high intensity. Drilling skills might not rack up the kms, but it will mean that I never get out of the habit of dismounting and remounting, for example, but instead, work on upping my speed. I can also chip away at bunnyhopping barriers, which is a specific cx skill. The idea is to expand and reinforce my ‘bag of tricks.’ The thought of running steep hills with my bike every week and actually getting to the point where I can look forward to runs as spots on courses where I have an ‘edge’ is really motivating! Whereas I never used to choose to run climbs I could ride on trail rides, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Turn your weaknesses into strengths!

By pursuing the above three elements of my new approach, even if I get sick and can’t race well in key races in 2017, I’ll still have put myself onto a path of continuous improvement in cyclocross (and better overall fitness and health). This is the thing about the discipline that is so incredibly awesome: you can get better every year without having to continue to improve your FTP.  Yes, I expect to get fitter for cx, but a some point that progression will stop. However, refining skill never stops, and refining decision making doesn’t either. So I have limiteless capacity to become a smarter cyclocross racer, ultimately, hopefully, a grizzled, wily old fox of a competitor. That’s what I want to work toward, being a truly great cross racer. Winning big races won’t be the focus, and, going back to Masters, there are no truly ‘big’ races. But who knows, perhaps I’ll see myself progress enough to want to try C1 racing again! One thing feels certain: it’s going to be a fun ride!

I truly appreciate all the support my sponsors have given me and out club through 2016, and I am very much looking forward to continuing to work with them in 2017. Look for posts (already rattling around in my head) featuring all of these fine folks and their products/services over the winter: GiroWoven Precision HandbuiltsMad AlchemyVegaCompass tiresSilcaAbsolute BlackRe:Form. I encourage you to check out their fantastic feeds on Instagram: @girocycling@wovenprecision, @madalchemy@vega_team@compasscycle@absouteblack.cc and @silca_velo.

My Instagram account can be found at@cyclosomatic, and our club’s is @teknecycling.

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