'Praxis'

Preparing Mind and Body for Cyclocross

I’ve been posting cyclocross training rides on Strava lately, having gotten off to an earlier start than usual this summer. In recent seasons I’ve taken in more road racing, and had a very short transition period into cyclocross. Somewhat organically, I grew into wanting to focus more and more of my year around cyclocross, which breaks down into shifting perspective on road racing late in the season to being more about training than results. I am one of those people who tries to win every race I ride (or help a team-mate win), and I would typically want to smash the local training races too. That doesn’t mean I’d taper into the latter, but I’d tend to avoid thrashing myself doing cx skills and drills on a Sunday, for example, when I had a crit coming up on Tuesday.

Entering the 2017 season, I was building two bikes for cx racing. and planned to make Vermont Overland the last non-cx race I’d do for the season, at the end of August. Overland is characterized by hard climbs, many of which are off-road, and relatively technical descents on trails (Class 4 ‘roads’). These climbs require the same sort of strengh as needed for cyclocross climbs, and sharpening up off-road handling is obviously on point too. So preparing for Overland would also mean preparing for cyclocross, exactly what I was aiming for. The only downside to preparing for Overland was that I felt the need to back off the more brutalizing cx training during the week leading in.

Preparing for cyclocross early enough to be keyed up and ready for the demands of your first race – of the season or even ever – might mean making certain compromises. However, there are many benefits to giving yourself adequate time to adapt to the demands of the discipline, especially if you are new to cx, and have to learn fundamental skills.

I’ve been asked by a few folks lately to provide advise on how to prepare for cyclocross. Most people asking are getting into the sport for the first time, and this is AWESOME! I’ve not been doing cyclocross since I was a kid, so I still remember the learning curve, and how damned hard it was as a neophyte. I’ve studied the sport since beginning, and continue to learn; I don’t profess to be a leading authority. However, being on the learning curve myself, a lot of lessons are still fresh in my mind, which makes it easier to convey advice than it might be for a seasoned pro. I hope what follows proves helpful to you in at least a small way.

I’ve handled this transition (from road heavy into CX) ‘wrong’ in the past, but it’s been a process figuring out how to do it ‘right’ and I’m still figuring it out. Here’s what I feel will really help for those starting out:

Fundamentals are key.

Cyclocross isn’t so unlike road racing if you look at it a certain way. In road racing, the fittest rider doesn’t always win; far from it. A rider with a lot of experience but less fitness than the majority of the field can jump into a flattish race, conserve energy better than everyone else, make one big effort, and win. This is one of the allures of the discipline: winning and losing is about far more than watts per kilogram. Smart, skilled riding can compensate for less than stellar fitness.

Cyclocross is the same way. Yes, fitness is big, and there are many steps we can take to improve cx fitness. But the FUN of cyclocross lies in the ability to improve skills and decision making consistently, extracting more speed from the course for a given amount of energy spent. This is the magic, the crux, of what makes cyclocross alluring, exciting, and eternally fun. Each course is a puzzle to be cracked, and each lap that puzzle changes form. With a solid base of skills, fitness, and strategy, we can all put ourselves in a position to race each event, rather than simply time trial each course. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things to work on toward that end.

Overarching Principle

Minimum speed – This term refers to the lowest speed you can ride your bike before jumping off and running will be faster. Cyclocross is not observed trials, the point is not to ride every section of the course without touching the ground with your feet. It is all about speed, regardless of how you achieve it. If you’re riding a section so slowly that you could be walking or running it faster, that’s what you should be doing. The artful aspect of this is that it takes refined judgement to forsee when minimum speed will be reached, and jumping off the bike before that speed it reached in order to maintain a higher speed on foot. This is vital when riding sand and mud. If we wait until we have lost all momentum to jump off, we’ve lost seconds.

Key Skills

Dismounts and mounts

Getting on and off your bike without losing speed in order to traverse unrideable barriers is a cornerstone of cyclocross, and it is what helps us stay above our minimum speed.

Championnats Canadiens CX 2016

What to do: Practice dismounts and mounts as much as possible. There are lots of youtube videos; check those out, practice on grass. Do this as much as you can, and allow some time for recovery after your first session or two for your groin etc. to recover. Try to incorporate cx dismounts/mounts into all your riding, commuting and all. You want it to be second nature. Start now!

Once dismounts and mounts are pretty good, speed up your dismount speed. Dismount, run, remount. Lots and lots.

Now integrate jumping over a hurtle of some kind. Lots!

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Complimentary actions: Core stength (this is about way more than abs) and flexiailibty are integral to good mount/dismount form, and injury prevention. If you never stretch or target strengthening your core, start now! I’m not a fan of Tom Danielson, but the Core Advantage book he cameos in is very good, and I recommend taking a look at the linked PDF and at least incorporating some basic routines found within, or from another source. When remounting, a strong core can allow you to actually float a bit over your bike as you jump on, and position it under you, aligning saddle appropriately. This  is much better than ‘jump and make a prayer.’

Run-ups (and downs!) 

Whenever you either can’t ride up a pitch, or can run up it faster than you can ride, you need to run. For most cyclists, the thought of doing this is about as appealing as a 200k ride in 2C rain. Regardless of whether a rider is also a good runner, the change in rhythm and muscle activation that occurs when we jump off the bike and run up hills is pretty shocking to the mind and body. However, some focused training can put us in a position where we have more confidence in our ability to do run-ups, which will mean we can run them faster; being positive about what you’re doing matters!

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Run-downs are less common than run-ups, but quite punishing on the guads. Whenever running down a hill is faster than riding, you gotta do it! This will certainly be the case when a section drops down, then up again, with loose or muddly surface at the bottom that makes steering succesfully around the turn likely and/or above minimum speed.

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What to do:

Select a steep hill that wouldn’t make sense to ride in a race. Approach at a comfortable dismount speed, dismount, grab the top-tube with your right hand, left hand on the hood. Push the bike as you run up the hill as fast as you can. Atop the hill, remount, accellerate on the pedals for a few seconds. Repeat, 10 times would be a good set.

Progressing from here, carry more speed into the dismounts.

The most expert skill to work on is dismounting as you actually roll up the hill, jumping off just before speed drops, carrying all your momentum on your feet. These can be really fun to do well, and can come in really handly when there’s an obstacle of some kind on the actual hill. Try this at a mellow pace first, then speed up. You’ll need to coast a bit while holding the top-tube. Choose your dismount point, drop off, carry your speed.

It’s also wise to tune up for run-downs before facing the first one in a race. Seek out a steep slope close to home, and approach it at a mellow pace. Dismount, grab your top-tube with your right hand, run down the slope, rolling your bike. Remount once you are on level ground.

Progress to steeper grades, then loose surfaces. Experiment with stride length, finding what works best for you. Conditions will often dictate how choppy your steps should be. If really loose or muddy, you’ll probably need quite short steps.

Bring both skills together on a slope you can run down, turn 180, then sprint back up again. Don’t go for a long one, work with about 6 steps down, 8 steps up. Sprint on the flat, remount, pedal away. 10 reps would be a good set.

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Complimentary Actions

Make sure your shoes are fastended very snugly for these sessions. You don’t want your foot shifting in your shoes as you run down, across, and up hills, trust me!

Toe studs will help you find grip when it’s slippery. Make sure you have some at the ready, use them appropriately. Note that they are slippery on hard surfaces, and it’s best to leave them off the shoes until the days they are required.

There are probably hundreds of complimentary actions you can take from a muscular training angle to improve your run-downs and ups. The simplest is probably box jumps, which you can do just about anywhere. These provide the opportunity to recruit more muscle than you normally use – especially glutes, you need those doing work! – and combine (as in plyometrics) both an explosive eccentric contraction (going up) and an concentric muscle activation upon impact (landing). As a compliment, you can incorporate some stair sets into your daily routine, focusing on activating glutes as you go up.

An additional, simple exercise for activating your glutes, is bridges. There are different variations you can do, all simple. This is probably more about activating glutes, getting them working, than building any new muscle. Check out a good how-to here.

Stretch. Hips are certainly an area that will take a beating here, so incorporate some stretching into your daily routine. Pigeon pose is the one I do every night. This source shows you how, plus a couple others that you might also try. Obviously, if you have tight quads, you’ll want to stretch those. There are many you can do, the more the better, but I am pretty happy with the one I do every night seems to be a good start: hero.

Bike Handling

As discussed above, there is so much free speed to be had through improvements to bike handling. This is a subject that could comprise a whole book, of course, but I’ll keep things fairly high-level here. The main take-home I’d like to impart is that all of us benefit from pushing our personal limits regularly. I’ve written about this expressly elsewhere, and some will think of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours’ nugget from his book, Outliers.  What Gladwell writes about is practising skills in a very deliberate and intentional way, analyzing success and failure along the way, making adjustments, experimenting, testing, revising. This is how expertise and mastery are developed, not a mere repetition ad nauseum, for 10,000 hours. For cyclocross, the way to do this is to ‘session’ features, mimicing course elements in a piecemeal way. In practice, this means going out for a ‘cyclocross ride’ can be much more than riding a cx bike over a variety of terrain, jumping off your bike a few times. Sessioning would mean you arrive at a feature, ride it as well as you can, assess your result, and repeat, either the same way if you think you’re dialed, or differently. If you’re already dialed, you’re training your muscle memory to execute skills while tired – make yourself tired as you repeat the skill, and try to hold your form the whole time. This is something like yoga practice: it’s not all about amplitude, but form.

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Even if you’re kinda tired, and you don’t think hill repeats are going to get you anywhere, you can head out on your cx bike and session some cool stuff around home. If you focus on the small details of technique and form – here’s the key now, pay attention – you’re doing something you’ve not done before, stressing your mind/body in ways that build stronger neuralmuscular connections. It’s not all about intervals, it’s also about teaching your mind/body to hold form even when tired, and you continuously notch your personal bar a little higher each week through sessioning, your peak ability goes up – what you can achieve when fresh. Bonus: a higher peak means your compromised (tired) ability is also higher than before! So now, when you race, you’re gassed, you don’t fall apart on that infernal run-up you used to hate so bad, because you are holding form better. This isn’t because you’ve done more hill-repeats; it’s because you’re used to doing this hard thing you’re doing because you’ve spent time doing it!

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What to do:

Set up two pilons or whatever, 15 feet apart, do figure 8s around them. Pedal the whole time. Go faster and faster. Make them closer, repeat. Learn to pedal while turning and braking, this helps maintain traction.

Ride down a grass hill, turn 180 degrees, ride up. Tighten the turn progressively, push the limit of front tire traction.

Work your tire pressure down until you get to the lower limit, where the tire folds over too much, add a pound or so. Test again. Learn your tire pressure limit, this is vital for cx.

If you set a wide swath to descend, turn and climb up – and time yourself – you’ll find that sometimes going slower on the descent will allow you to select a  better line for the turn and ascent, yielding a faster overall time with a less harsh spike in power required. This is what makes down-up 180s one of the most dynamic features in cyclocross, puzzles to be analyzed and solved.

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This is the Strava data from the session on the short practice loop above. Many, many laps, done in a variety of ways. This is about as specific as cyclocross intervals get, and it’s fun the whole time!

Complimentary Actions:

From an equipment perspective, make sure your bike is in good working order, and your braking is reliable and consistent. If you have a juddering front brake, this will drastically impact your ability to descent in control!

Upper body strength is pretty darned helpful when trying to muscle your bike over tough terrain. At the same time, you need to be supple on your bike to avoid bleeding energy as you race. If your arms tend to waste away over summers of road riding, some off-roading on your cx or mountain bike will help get things going again a bit, but more focused training will help.

Push-ups are hard for most cyclists, and technique seems to be heavily implicated. Try doing push-ups against your kitchen counter or something similar, with your body at 45 degrees. This allows for a deep dip down, which can be adapted with different hand positions. Do as many as you can, every day!

A step up from the basic push-up against the counter is a plyometric variation. Dip down, and push hard enough away from the counter to bring your planked body almost completely upright. Let gravity drop you down toward the counter, catch yourself, dip all the way down, chest to counter, explode away again. Don’t smash yourself! These are going to make your sore, excellent!

Dips can easily be done against a chair or whatever, engaging shoulders. Between these two, you’ll be doing some good work you can build on over time.

Building Power

CX is often about pushing bigger gears for traction. Grass is power-sucking, and rough surfaces interrupt the body’s ability to deliver power as smoothly as on the road. This is equally true on gravel roads. Riders who are well adapted to pedaling over rough surfaces are activating more muscle than those who are not, and rising slightly out of the saddle to unweight for holes on the ground unconsciously, over and over again. So there is something of a ‘hovering’ going on a lot of the time, and putting down power in a larger gear than on the road allows for this unweighting. The demand is different, then, versus the road, and needs to be developed. This is one aspect of power.

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Another aspect of power required for cx is climbing. While most courses won’t have long climbs, they will require short punches of high/peak power, while maintaining a posture that affords traction. Hill repeats on pavement help develop the body’s energy systems required to do these efforts, and it is easy to find interval workouts to do online. It’s the off-road sessions that will help the body adapt to the postures and muscle recruitment regimes required for actual cyclocross.

The third important power factor is accellerations. While we’re doing micro-bursts of power often even on flat ground, getting back to speed out of turns, run-ups, and barriers is vital. These surges of power are not totally unlike those we might do in certain criteriums, which is one of the reasons I like crit racing as cx prep. Another way we can get these efforts is in hard group rides, trading off pulls at the front. When the pace is high enough, the group the right mix, each pull can be an over-threshold effort, followed by recovery just under threshold power: ‘over-unders.’ That’s essentially characteristic of a lot of cyclocross racing efforts, and thus, beneficial.

What to do:

For smooth, lowish cadence sustained power, riding grass is a simple approach. Find a fringe along a road you can ride for an extended period, and keep your speed up. In our region, the Gatineau Parkway is ideal. You’re likely to feel your glutes working; cool, eh?!

I like the term ‘power climb’ for the short efforts that require a great deal of muscle recruitment to pull off. These are steep, short, and require something like 6-8 pedal strokes to mount. Start from stopped, perhaps 15m from the base, push off, clip in, go for it.

You want to recruit as much muscle as you can: back, glutes, arms. Do the climb in the saddle, slightly raise out of as needed, keeping weight back at the top.

Practise this standing too, weight over the back wheel. It’s awkward, and handy. You will likely feel really weird at first.

For accellerations, you can train with friends and do really hard over-unders as discussed above if you’d prefer to do that over intervals alone. Solo intervals might be the most consistent, but some find that they can find greater motivation to work hard when trainging with friends. Harness that!

As we transition to the period of the year where the trainer becomes ingeral to a weekly routine, you can do some pretty simple accellerations while seated within a sweet spot effort. Pick a power target that you’ll have to focus hard to hit, accellerate until you hit it, settle back to sweet spot. Yes, there are fancier workouts you can do, but if you’ve never really done much like this, 2-3 sets of 10 of these surges will yield improbements.

Alternatively, try surging out of the saddle while on the trainer. Rise ouf of the saddle quickly, produce a burst of power, spinning up near your max cadence, sit back down. As your cadence reached your ‘normal,’ rise up again, do another surge, same as before. Again, 2-3 sets of these will show in the races. This gets your whole body used to these quick transitions, again, engaging more muscle, and improving economy.

Finally, starts become increasingly important as one progresses in cyclocross, so make sure you fit in some start intervals over the season. Line up as you would in a race, one foot on the ground. Push off, step on the pedal and give’r as hard as you can, clipping in as quickly as you can. Try to fit in one or two shifts as you reach top speed. Coast it out, recover for a couple minutes, repeat. You want to develop a controlled, explosive start that doesn’t involve panic.

Complimentary Actions:

All the stretching and strengthening suggestions above are supportive of increasing power.

The most important complimentary action underpinning becoming a stronger rider is probably your psycological game. Foremost, understand that cyclocross, being a fairly short race, is hard. It’s painful. Knowing that each race is going to feel like a 10/10 in terms of effort will help you deal with the struggle as it unfolds. Tell yourself: ‘this is going to hurt. That’s fine, I’m good with that.’ This will help.

Without good pacing, all the power in the world is not going to see you win a cx race. The vital thing to focus on at first is not blowing up on the first lap. Do what you can to be calm at the start, and avoid panic and adrenalin when things get going. It’ll be fast and furious; know that. Start fast, but not at your limit. You want to get through traffic, but not overcook yourself to the point that your wheels fall off on the second or third lap. This will take trial and error to figure out, and that’s ok. Analyze your lap times to see how your pacing is going. You want to see quite consistent laps, and even faster laps late in the race. Slower laps as time passes indicates you’re overdoing the start, and need to slow down so you can speed up later in the race.

Positive self-talk during the race is really helpful. Tell yourself you’re doing well, replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Did you just do something well? Remark on that in your mind. Nagative thoughts are your enemy, and they will drain your power. An adrenaline spike in the early stage of the race will bring negative thoughts into your mind, tipping you off that you went too hard. Pay attention, make adjustments.

Huge power on poorly chosen and tuned tires will see you race well below your potential, and perhaps lead to crashes. Choose your tires for the conditions, test different treads in practice. Start out with a little more pressure than you think you need, reduce it until you find the best balance of stability in fast turns and puncture resistance. You can read more on this in an earlier post here.

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Take-home message

You don’t need to achieve everything as soon as possible. Cyclocross is a sport we can participate in well into our senior years, and a strong foundation of skills and conditioning is vital to longevity. Iterative improvement is the name of the game, not massive leaps. By incorporating skills training into your routine, little by little, you’ll find yourself steadily improving, no longer thinking about when you should dismount for the barriers coming up, but perhaps whether you’re in the right gear to get back up to speed, for example. Rather than focus on figuring out the perfect training routine, simply start by incorporating things you’ve not been doing, and build from there. Remember, just about anything you introduce that stresses your body in a new way is probably going to help you improve! Whether that means doing dimounts and mounts a few times a week all year when you commute to work, or running up and down the stairs once in a while, the little things add up. It’s not about having a perfect training regime; it’s about doing beneficial things you never used to do, and building your foundation, brick by brick.

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