Keep your engine fine-tuned: Race Cyclocross

CyclocrossLooking for a fun way to keep your fitness through this fall and winter? If you spent the spring and summer logging miles on the bike and run, you already have the base conditioning for Cyclo-Cross (‘Cross).

Cyclo-cross (‘cross) is a continuous, high intensity bike race with events from autumn through winter, with the world championships typically scheduled in January. The pure enjoyment of the sport revolves around the environmental conditions that exist during the fall and winter; cooler temperatures, rain and mud, snow and ice.

The course is usually less than one mile in length, and the number of laps is determined by how fast the first person completes the first lap. For example, if the lead cyclist in a professional men’s race completes the first lap of the course in ten minutes, everyone in that particular race would be told that they have five more laps to complete since their race lasts 60 minutes.

Once the lead cyclist passes you, you have to remove yourself from the race as you cross the start/finish line. For some competitors this could mean they are only able to complete four laps of the race. So, don’t depend upon the race for a long workout.If you are new to the sport, your race as a beginner could only last 30 – 40 minutes.

You can get some extra time in by pre-riding the course. Pre-riding the course is absolutely necessary to know where the obstacles are, and in practicing your skills at getting over them. You should also look for areas that might funnel into space for only one bike so you know you will want to make a move around a slower competitor before this point. Most importantly, pre-riding the course helps mentally, so you aren’t surprised when you have to run through puddles, or up steep, slippery mud slopes.

When assessing your own abilities against specific sports, there are five things to consider: your cardiovascular conditioning, energy supply, muscle recruitment, biomechanical efficiency, and motivation.

Here is how each of these possible limiters can affect cyclo-cross performance.

  • Cardiovascular performance: Successful cyclo-cross racers are able to ride the entire race at a sub-maximal oxygen threshold, allowing lactate to be used for energy instead of accumulating in the blood. If you spent the year racing sprint and Olympic triathlon distances, you have top end speed needed to race ‘Cross. If you have been doing half and full – length ironman distance races, you have the endurance and speed, but might need to incorporate some power drills into your weekly workouts. Most people race themselves into shape by racing each weekend, or every other weekend. It’s not mandatory, just recommended if your goal is to be competitive.
  • Energy supply: Since all of your energy systems are being used in ‘Cross, muscle glycogen, ATP, Creatine Phosphate and lactic acid are all providing different amounts of fuel during the race. However, muscle glycogen will be utilized most.  Since the races last at most an hour, glycogen stores will never be depleted. Fuel shouldn’t be a big limiter for the race as long as an athlete eats well-balanced meals throughout the week, a pre-race meal two hours before the start, and a recovery meal immediately after the race. Competitors don’t carry any form of hydration on their person or bike  because it gets in the way when you are trying to carry your bike over your shoulder. Instead, it is important to be properly fueled and hydrated before and after the race.
  • Muscle recruitment and power: Developing power on the bike to pull through thick mud patches, and sand traps is what will keep a racer in the lead during ‘Cross. The force necessary to push and pull the pedals through mud and snow requires a high amount of motor units being utilized. Sprint and Olympic distance triathletes are used to using their fast twitch muscles during racing, but don’t discount long–distance triathletes. Those who train with power won’t have to worry about saving their legs for half or full marathon, and will be able to hang on the wheels of other riders, easily pushing by when others fatigue.
  • Biomechanical efficiency: This is all about skills!  Not knowing how to get on and off your bike and lift it onto your shoulder can be intimidating. Don’t let it be!  Find a grassy, open area and start each drill slowly. Don’t try these at race pace until you have mastered them. To be as efficient as possible, you want to do these drills as perfect as possible. The majority of your workouts during the week should focus on mastering skills at race pace.
  • Motivation: The person that wants it the most, will win. This is a very important factor is ’Cross since the environmental conditions are always less than ideal. For example, the 2001 National Championships were held at the Domaine Chandon winery in Yountville, California. The days leading up to the race, it rained 21 inches. To say the course was flooded would be an understatement. As a competitor you could look at this two different ways: You could think, “there is an insane amount of mud on the course, but I am determined to push through all the mud and frustration, doing whatever is necessary to win the race,” or you could think, “when is it going to stop raining? I race my best on dry courses. This wasn’t supposed to happen!” If these two individuals have the same amount of fitness and skill, they could be in a head-to-head battle to win the race. However, the competitor who doesn’t let the difficulties of the race affect him/her, the one who is more determined and motivated, will win the race.

By the end of a long triathlon season, no one wants to feel obligated to continue training. With your base conditioning established, you can get by with four-five days per week of training.  Two days should focus on drills, one day focus on running hills, one day of recovery, and a short endurance ride. The most important thing, is that you have to approach ‘Cross with lower expectations. Be prepared to get muddy, feel the burn, and laugh at yourself.Here are some links with additional cyclo-cross information:Race schedule:

General information:

Want to learn how to get fit and race Cyclocross? Contact to work with Regina Hammond, a veteran of the New England ‘Cross scene.

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