Velo October 2012. Photo: Wil Matthews |...

From the pages of Velo: The Art of Cyclocross

Practice riding lightly on your 'cross bike, developing a routine, and mastering the start to become faster and smoother

Editor’s note: This cyclocross skills article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Velo magazine.

Every sport has its fundamentals; cyclocross is no different. You need a certain level of fitness, handling skills, technique, and equipment to ride and race. And once you start racing, you’re certain to want to go faster. Many people seem to over-think the crucial elements of this thriving niche of cycling, overwhelming themselves with the details rather than focusing on the simplicity that is cyclocross.

But keeping it simple helps keep things smooth, and smooth riding — fluid interactions with the bike, course, and riders around you — is what will propel you most quickly to that next level.

Once you have the basics of mounting and remounting down and you’re up to speed on shouldering and portaging, once you’ve pieced together or purchased your ride, you’re ready to get fluid — and get faster.

Find your float

Often ignored or neglected by those people just getting started (or those focusing on their interval training or power meter data), bike skills and handling are some of the most important elements in cyclocross racing. Imagine if you could put time into your opponents in every corner of a race, or at every crux element, barrier, or sand pit; even if the gain was small, over the course of a race it would all add up to big gaps.

Go for long rides on your ’cross bike, tackling ever harder terrain as you gain the confidence to take on even the roughest of singletrack. The objective is to learn to “float” by finding the smoothest way over the bumps by riding light, picking the best line, shifting your weight effortlessly as you nimbly find your way through the obstacles. If you can get to the point where you aren’t pinch flatting on every ride, then you’ve gained skills, consciously or not, that you can put to good use on the ’cross course. The race terrain will likely be a bit tamer, but the obstacles will come at you much faster.

Another way to work on your fluidity is to set up or find a course with a mixture of mellow and technical aspects. Do repeated laps on the course, hitting the technical areas at race pace; relax during the mellow sections. Then, continue to up your pace through the difficult sections until you’re hitting them as fast as you can, faster than you would deal with them while in a race; again, take it mellow in the easy sections. Your objective, of course, is to dial in the difficult parts at extreme speed so that when you get to such a section in a race, cross-eyed and chest heaving, your rhythm won’t be thrown.

Make it routine

A successful season comes from having steady performances over the span of many months. Dependability in your results comes from consistent preparation and practice, which will help turn the tension of race day into a calming routine. You may have to experiment and take notes on your first few races if you’re new to the sport, but once you find a routine that works, use that method to bring good results from race routine. The things that can be controlled, should be: when to eat prior to your race (usually two to three hours), when to register, how long you need to dial in the course and look for the best lines, how long you need to warm up and make last minute bike tweaks. The routine doesn’t end once the race commences. If you’ve inspected the course well, you’ve dialed in your preferred line throughout the course, and also found those alternate lines you may need to work when first lap traffic — or lapped riders — change your rhythm.

Under pressure

When you first open your car door at a local cyclocross race, you’re bound to hear two things: the clank of cowbells and the question of what tire pressure you think you’ll be running. Yes, tire pressure is important to cyclocross. In fact, it may be more important than tire choice in many cases. But, because every rider and bike combination is a different weight, because every tire has different characteristics at different pressures (not to mention that tubulars can be safely run at much lower tire pressures than clinchers without risking a pinch flat), and because every rider has a different level of “float” in his skills repertoire, the question of what tire pressure someone else is running has little to no bearing on what you need to run. A better way to find the right pressure is to find out for yourself. Start high and ride the course, dropping your pressure until you’ve found that right combination of supple tire feel with enough pressure so as not to bottom out on every
ripple in the earth.

Red light, green light

Once you’ve dialed in your bike and the course, it’s time for the ever-crucial start. A cyclocross race is no Leadville 100; you don’t have eight hours to pass the sea of riders in front of you. But you do have time enough to manage your initial effort so that an hour feels like an hour, rather than a five-minute torture session followed by a 55-minute heart attack. As much as you should practice your start — everything from the initial pedal stroke, clipping in fast, and ramping up smoothly through the gears — you should practice your recovery, to find where you can take yourself physiologically so that you can recuperate and remain ready for repeated violent accelerations later in the race, while still remaining upright. Take yourself to the red zone, but don’t fall into it. Practice your start and then keep going relatively hard, like you would want to do in a race; you’ll be more familiar with that red zone threshold, and be able to recognize where green ends and red begins.

Managing editor Chris Case earned silver medals at both the 2012 U.S. cyclocross national championships and world championships in the master’s 35-39 division.