I came into cyclocross as a mountain bike racer, having spent the majority of time racing downhill. So I brought the sessioning approach to cyclocross from the beginning, and always knew my purpose was to figure out how to ride faster and faster on the courses, without relying solely on increasing fitness to do that. I came from the skills-based riding, so I always tried to improve my skills. However, it took years to figure out how to do that well, for numerous reasons (and I’m still figuring it out).

Pump track riding on a drop-bar bike (with tires larger than 33mm, when required) is a great way to push your brain to learn a whole lot of handling nuance. Pumping the bike is totally foreign to many riders. Photo: Chris Snow

Today it’s quite clear and obvious to me what steps riders can take if their objective is to ride cyclocross well and fast. A huge component is simply putting in time riding on non-smooth surfaces over summer to ensure the brain is accustomed to all that information in front of the bike. You do that, check.

Next is constant work on the fundamentals, which really comes down to understanding there’s a minimum speed we should hit while on the bike, below which we run. That’s a little about getting over ego for some.

Then there’s the specific skills, like dismounts and remounts, barriers, run-ups, and riding tape-to-tape (corner trajectories). That’s the basic stuff, and it all happens around race days, not at the races. The time to try out skills for the first or fifth time isn’t at the races.

Getting out of the house for even a half hour and creating your own skills features might be easier than you think. This is called ‘sessioning,’ and it involves executing the same skill/movement pattern repeatedly, experimenting with subtle changes in body position, braking, pedaling, etc. I created this rut in a construction area from riding about 50 laps.
Sand is all over the place. It’s best ridden when damp, and figure-8s are great. So much to learn, every single time.

Getting onto the course at races is how we can both experiment with some of the skills we’ve been honing, AND try to determine which tactics will leverage the skills we have to the greatest overall effect. This means trying different lines and making decisions about plan-a, plan-b, etc. This probably also means not trying to win the race in one turn, but thinking about how to use energy optimally across the whole lap for the greatest overall speed.

By taking on an immersion approach to how we spend time at the races, we take the time to really look at each course, how people are riding them, and we analyze those decisions. This compliments our individual experimentation and decision-making process. It is also vital to taking on ‘real’ cx courses and having a chance at riding well. The immersion and experimentation approach to cyclocross draws far more from mountain bike racing than road racing.

Experimentation also means doing some standing starts where the actual race-start is to determine what gear is most likely right, and practicing the fast clip in. The opposite side of this coin is examining the final metres to the finish line and making a judgement on how to handle the final turns if going to the line with a rival. These are just some of the opportunities we have at the races, which most people don’t take advantage of.

Try not to worry about falling down. If you fall, learn something, move forward. It’s ok. We all fall.

For 99% of the riders out there each race is an opportunity to learn, first, and perform, second. Only those who are super experienced and have very little left to learn (I know nobody who would qualify) should be focused on their performance as their top priority at races like these. For Nationals, ok, sure. But not local races. These races are for immersion and experimenting, because that’s what supports actual development for each rider.

Focusing on fitness and using placings as a gauge for how that’s working is folly. There is way, way more to be gained by focusing on all the processes/tasks/skills that truly masterful racers have learned and employ, because those are the things that take the longest to really hone, way longer than developing V02.

So CX isn’t really about smashing intervals as much as possible; it’s about long-term development of skills and race-craft. Keep it fun and fresh, and cyclocross will be the gift that keeps on giving.

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