To our way of thinking, cyclocross is one of the most accessible forms of cycle racing to get into. A simple race entry system without the need for accreditation, licence or training, a short lap where you finish on the same lap as the winner after a pre-determined time, even if you are few laps behind and no getting dropped in the middle of nowhere or riding on your own if you’re not quite up to the pace. You don’t even need to own a cyclocross bike to try it – a hybrid or mountainbike will allow you to give it a go.
However, though trying it is easy, mastering cyclocross racing is a little more tricky. In this section, we’ve put together the essentials in terms of kit, race routine, and warm up with a whole host of tips to make your racing experience not only more successful, but more enjoyable too.
In the run up to your race
Whilst ‘cross is a very relaxed scene and racing is accessible for all ages and abilites, a little preparation can really pay dividends when it comes to race day. If you want a hassle-free and ultimately more successful cyclocross race experience, your preparation for a Sunday race (for example) ideally starts on Friday. This may seem a little excessive, but get the ‘cross bike(s) out, make sure they are clean, lubed and with the right tyres/wheels/pedals etc on them. We advise doing this on a Friday because, unless you have a Pro-Team Service Course type facility in your garage to facilitate every repair known to mankind, that cable that needs replacing, puncture that needs repairing, bearing that needs re-greasing etc can all be spotted and dealt with by your friendly Local Bike Shop on Saturday, when they are open. Something you won’t have time for or opportunity for on Sunday morning……
Getting a good nights sleep is also important 2 days before your race – you may not sleep as well the night before as you are too excited/nervous about riding ‘cross the following day, but this matters less if you are well rested from the night before.
We recommend some sort of light training or riding on the day before your race – nothing too long but with a few short but widely interspersed, harder efforts to get your metabolism and body ‘woken up’ for the bigger effort in the race the following day.
Eat well the day before too, to give your body maximum fuel for what will be a frenzy of calorie burning come race time. Nothing fancy, just good whole foods with a good balance of complex carbohydrates and protein, and plenty of water. Given the weekend nature of ‘cross races there is of course the ‘alcohol’ question. ‘Cross without beer is certainly not something we want to encourage but a copious selection of your favourite Belgian brews the night before may make you feel like Sven Nys at the time, but possibly lacks an accompanying performance enhancement the following day… Best wait till after the race in which case the considerable calorie deficit you will have entered into post-race can be tackled then, with an appropriate rehydration strategy.
Getting kitted out
If you want to race ‘cross you are going to need lots of kit. And by that we mean changes of clothing, not necessarily the lastest expensive technical jackets. Outside of warm, dry summer conditions and into the depths of winter, you are going to need kit to recce in, warm up in, race in and then something to change into afterwards. Unless of course you like sitting around in sodden, wet and muddy clothes for most of your day…..
Organise your kit into pre-event, recce, warm up, race and post-event bags. Many ‘cross venues are high on the mud factor and low on facilities so warm and comfortable outdoor clothing is usually best for before and after your event. A separate set of clothes for recce is essential if it’s lashing down and you are going to get really mucky just riding a few laps. Change out of this into your race kit and layer up with dry clothes over it to keep warm and dry. Things like zip-off leg warmers are excellent for taking 0ff last minute at the start line and along with embrocation can keep your warm up efforts effective for some time. Make friends with a handy helper who can take your leg warmers and jacket at the start line and at the last minute so you don’t hang around getting cold before your start.
Have a towel, wipes and other similar things handy after you finish to get yourself warm and dry and out of that wet/muddy kit. Tempting though it is to stand around dissecting your race afterwards, in minute detail and with fellow competitors, it is surprising how quickly you can get cold and in a state so get back to the car, get changed and then catch up with that great face-plant that so-and-so did mid-race.
We’ve put together a downloadable kit list below for winter conditions to give you an idea of how to prepare and pack for maximum race day comfort. Adjust accordingly for increased temps and reduced precipitation…..
Time for a recce
Cyclocross courses nowadays are, by historical standards, fairly tame affairs. Gone are the full-on river crossings, bomb-hole descents, rock gardens and exposed paths with drop-offs of yesteryear. Unless you ride the 3 Peaks Cyclocross, in which you get all of that and more. Instead, the modern cyclocross course is mostly rideable, pretty safe, and designed to cater for those with less confidence and experience. So it might seem that a recce lap or two is not strictly required, at least to keep body and soul together during the race, and serves no purpose other than to muddy up bike and rider before the race has even started.
Except ‘cross is a highly technical discipline of cycling and one where the subtleties of tyre pressure and line choice combine with rider fitness and skill in a complex mix that either hinders or enhances forward progress. So it is that surveying the lap of your race course serves a number of purposes, and is for us, one of the most important ways in which to improve your racing performance.
Here’s our guide to preparing and recceing efficiently for your race.
1. Ride a slow lap, looking all round you as you progress through the lap for hidden roots, rocks and obstacles.
2. Look for alternative lines that you might use if blocked by other riders, or with which you wish to get an advantage on those racing around you later in the race. Keep them secret if you can though, or share only with trusted team mates (not the ones you are trying to beat….). If you have the element of surprise, you may be able to eke out an advantage over your opponents later in the race.
3. Ride a faster lap if you have time – a particular corner or technical section ridden at a slow pace will often feel very different at your race pace. Ride the straight sections slower to conserve energy for the race, but make sure you ride the tricky bits at full race pace. Don’t blindly follow the line that other riders warming up or racing have ‘burnt’ on the course. A youth race that has just gone through may be riding at a slower pace than you (though kids these days can be pretty fast). If you are riding faster into and out of corners then your line may be different to theirs due to the extra speed. Work out what feels best for you, and not what is obvious.
4. Play with your tyre pressure – start at 30psi if you are riding tubulars, 35psi if riding clinchers and if there are no obvious puncture hazards like rocks, sharp kerbs or harsh roots, let a little air out to improve grip. Experienced riders on tubulars will reduce pressure (where safe) to close to 20psi or even lower if they are light (and skilfull).
5. If you ride your recce laps with others, don’t be tempted to ride round chatting with the others. You may well not have seen them for a while, but you need to concentrate on the job in hand and you won’t notice the subtleties of the course if you are gabbing.
The warm up
The final element to your race day preparation is getting a good warm up. And don’t be embarrassed into thinking that a warm up is only for hot-shot elite riders and athletes – ‘cross is very intense for the body and particularly so in the first minutes after the start so getting yourself to the start line warm and ready for a hard effort from the get-go is important in staying injury free, as well getting the most from your race, whatever level you are racing at.
The easiest way to perform a controlled warm up, especially if space is tight or the weather inclement, is on a a stationary/turbo trainer or rollers. You can do this on the road too, if safe and conditions mean you can ride without cold and wet from rain or spray. Essentially you are looking to increase your muscle and core temperature, blood flow and improve the uptake, transport and utilisation of oxygen, as well as providing a comfortable way to lead into the hard effort of your race.
It need not take more than 20 mins max and should be a progressive process of getting warmed up through increasing efforts. We find that the well-publicised warm up used by Team Sky for their time trial efforts in stage races is also very suitable for application to ‘cross racing. It prepares the body perfectly for what is about to ensue…
5 min light
8 min progressive to Zone 5
2 min easy
2 min to include – 3 x 6s accelerations
3 min easy
Progressive = build up power over the 8 mins. Only in last 1 min do you get z5
6 second accelerations are sprints and for a whole 6 secs!
After your warm up, dress to keep warm and make your way to the start in good time to enjoy your race.