Cyclocross, or ‘cross if you are initiated, is the fastest growing aspect of cycling.  Cross races usually take place in the Autumn and Winter with the racecourse featuring mixed terrain and surfaces (pavement, grass, sand, dirt, mud), technical challenges that vary in difficulty from course to course and are weather dependent (slippery tree roots versus dry tree roots), barriers that require the rider to either bunny-hop or carry their bike over, and the most intense race start you will ever see!  Cross is gaining in popularity, I think, due to spectator access to all course areas and race view-ability which fosters a welcoming atmosphere for everyone, the potential to see and cheer for the best professional/elite racers in the world as well as see and compare them to the amateur racers (which is always awesome!), potentially heckle (in a nice way, please!) your friends and favorite racers, and the number 1 reason is increased safety and decreased injury risk compared to other cycling disciplines.  So, how the heck can you beat your friends to the line next time?  I am glad you asked…

Cross = Bike Handling

If road racing and mountain bike racing went on a date and had a few glasses of wine over dinner, got a little too intoxicated and perhaps went home together, 9 months later cyclocross racing would be born!  Strange analogy, I know, but you get the idea that cyclocross takes some aspects of road racing as well as mountain bike racing and puts them together.  Since cross racing is held on varying surfaces that can change over the course of the race itself, it is crucial to possess good technical skills and bike handling abilities.  If you can get around a corner 1 second quicker than someone else, and there are >60 corners in a cross race, guess what?  You just gained >1 minute per lap, essentially for free!

Improve your bike-handling skills:

Cornering Drill

  • After you are thoroughly warmed-up…
  • Ride to a safe place where you can practice taking a corner (hitting the apex) and accelerating out of it.
  • Enter the corner at a high speed (but a speed that you feel safe at!), practice hitting the apex (inside) and accelerate out of it HARD!  Repeat this going both left and right picking up the entry speed as you feel more confident in your ability.
  • Pick varying surfaces and be sure to practice when it is both wet and dry.

Bike Driving Drill

  • Ride around a mock cyclocross course 1-handed taking both right and left turns and switching hands each lap.
    • Doing this will train you to guide and drive the bike with your hips versus actually turning the handlebars.  This will result in faster cornering and greater traction.

Cross = Finding Your Pedals

Some of the more distinctive aspects of cyclocross is the mass start, “run-up” (1st image), and “barriers” (2nd image) feature…

boulder-cross-cup-1
Credit: Steve-z.com
Powers opted to always stay on his bike, while Trebon ran the barriers and stairs. © Amy Dykema
Credit: cxmagazine.com

Obviously, every time you unclip from the pedals you need to clip back into them again.  This is a huge area that most new to the sport miss out on which costs them A TON of time and is also responsible for poor starts.  Just like anything else though, if you practice, practice, practice, you will improve upon it and be beating your friends off the start line and over the barriers!

Improve Your Clipping-in:

Race Start Drill

  • Ride to a grassy area that gives you at least 500 feet of distance to safely ride.
  • Start in your “sprint gear” and have your dominant foot on the ground with both pedals being horizontal to the ground.
  • Imagine being surrounded by people to your side and behind you (i.e. sprint in a straight line!).
  • When you are ready, EXPLODE off the line and quickly clip your opposite foot back in again.  Ride ALL OUT until the end of your imaginary start tunnel and then easy spin back again.

Barrier Drill

  • Start with imaginary barriers at first and just practice rolling up to the barrier, unclipping, lifting the bike up by the top tube and over both barriers, then clipping in again.
  • Once you get that down, then place some planks in front of you and practice the same as above, but this time jumping over the barriers.
  • Do this again and again working on unclipping and lifting the bike as close to the barriers as possible, taking as few steps between the barriers, and remounting/clipping in again as quick as possible.

Shouldering Drill

  • Sometimes the run-up is very long or there is a portion of the course that is just un-rideable.  This means you are pushing forward on foot!
  • Follow the same steps as the barrier drills, but this time you are going to grab the bike by the down tube, shoulder the top tube, then reach through and around to grab the opposite handlebar.  This will give you the most stability as well as allow you to run unimpeded.
  • Confused?  Check out the below image of Rider 1…
early-lead-group-on-the-steep-run-up-from-the-riverfront
Credit: Velonews.com

Cross = Accelerating (ALOT!)

Similar to criterium racing, cross racing features many accelerations, but this time over various and usually slippery/loose terrain.  So, when you do these drills, be sure to STAY SEATED and perhaps drop the cadence a bit to maintain traction.  Be prepared to really feel your glutes and hamstrings work too.

Improve your acceleration ability: Microbursts

  • After you are thoroughly warmed-up…
  • Perform 4-10 minutes (depending on fitness level) of 15 seconds FULL GAS, 15 seconds recovery.
  • When I say FULL GAS, I mean it.  You should be grabbing the bars, and exploding up to speed!  Be sure to STAY SEATED.
  • Rest for 5-10 minutes between and perform 2-4 sets.

Cross = Having Fun!

Cross can be very competitive for some, but the majority of athletes are there just to enjoy themselves, ring some cowbells, yell and heckle at their friends, and perhaps eat some bad food and imbibe.  So, no matter how many times you miss the barriers, can’t find your pedals, even fall over, don’t fret and just enjoy the experience!  Unfortunately cross season is super short (besides for the pros) and taking it too seriously just ain’t cool man.

GIRAFFE ON WHEELS
Credit: bppa.net

I mean, in what other sport can you ride a bike dressed as a giraffe?!

Enjoy the mud.

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in biology, is a USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a Category 3 road and cyclocross racer. He is the owner of GC Coaching and the creator and director of P2 Cycling. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

4 comments

  1. I have completed my 5th triathlon this year. But cross makes me nervous. I can belt out the watts on a TRI because it is sustained watts. But the cross with its constant acceleration, start and stops, micro burst acceleration, I think that it will be tougher than 100 mile race. With that said, I don’t shy away from a challenge. I am seriously considering cross next season, especially with two local race series in my area.

    1. ‘Cross should not make you nervous at all! It is by far the safest discipline of mass-start cycling and the only hairy part of the entire race is the start. After that, everyone becomes single file. Granted, I have raced with people who have made stupid mistakes and maneuvers, but even if you do hit the ground, your only going to be going ~10-15 mph and will be landing on grass or dirt instead of 25+ on pavement. I say give it a try!!!

  2. This is a great article. I’m currently licking my wounds from a second collarbone fracture and a second surgery which rendered my left clavicle quite compromised for road cycling/racing for a good while and cross seems like a good alternative. So, I wonder if you could comment on the safety aspect of cross a bit more. Thanks so much !

    1. Thank you for reading! I am sorry to hear about your clavicle fracture, especially with it being your second one! I suffered one myself last year and it took me a good while to get myself back into fighting shape again.

      I think cyclocross is much safer if compared to other mass start cycling events. The only really hairy part is the start, but after the first turn most everyone reduces to single file and if there is a crash, you would only be going ~15 mph and will be landing on a soft surface versus 25+ onto tarmac. Another nice thing about ‘cross is that you are staged based off of experience and prior race results/points. So, if this is your first ever race, you start at the very back and gradually improve your start position as you garner better results. This also makes it easier to get into it since all of the pressure is taken off the beginner racers for their first few races. Finally, if you do end up crashing and become hurt, you are only seconds away from an ambulance since all the courses are closed and in one area versus a road race where you may be 30 miles away from the finish line.

      Can I comment on anything else safety-wise for you?

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