Every style of athletic performance has a different set of skills involved, but today we are here to talk about cyclocross (CX) and not CX at the professional level, but at the aspiring athlete level.  To be successful at any level of CX you need to be able to pedal a bike really hard, but also temper that pure speed with some skill.  Those skills, i.e. corners, starts, barriers, logs, run-ups, descents, take time to master, and race day isn’t the time.

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Why Are CX Skills Important?

I raced this weekend and watched the course change throughout the entire day due to weather.  I did a first inspection lap before it started raining.  I did a second inspection lap just before the heaviest of the rain.  I then raced two races immediately after the rain and one after it started drying out, so I saw a lot of changing conditions from dry and fast to wet and greasy and then back to a whole mix of conditions.  Every lap was different, but the time during inspection really pointed to some critical points on the course. There were several features that invited riders to “test” their skills, but two really stood out to me; a log hop up and over a sand pile and a 3 log “run up”.  Each lap I watched riders stumble, trip, or crash as they tried in the middle of a race to master these features by trying to ride them.  They were rideable; however, as conditions changed, the skill it took to ride them also changed and risk/benefit also changed.  For the time gained “practicing” during the race, if they made it, maybe it was 1-2 seconds faster than running them, but if they missed, it was 5-10 seconds each time or worse; injury and DNF.

Now let’s look at the number of turns on the course, some were super slippery, others were still tacky and fast.  Conservatively, let’s say there were 20 turns around a single lap of the course. If I were to lose 0.5 to 1.0 second per turn, that’s 10-20 seconds per lap, which is a tough gap to make up if you consider the longest straight section of the course was only 10-15 seconds long, making it very difficult for a pure power rider to recover lost ground from cornering.  If you are losing ground to the rider in front of you in a corner, time to practice turning!

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Learning New Skills

So now, if you consider that combination of questionable decision making about features and not understanding how to corner, it’s possible that an athlete could lose 30 seconds a lap, in sections where you aren’t even pedaling at your maximum effort!   That’s a lot of “free time” left on the course that could be recovered with some skills training!  A few recommendations I always give people when it comes to learning skills:

  1. Practice with a group.  Practicing solo invites you to work on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
  2. Laps.  And laps.  And laps…  Get to a race with time to do at least one lap slowly and one lap where you can test features at race pace and if you screw up a section, try it again!  if you screw it up during a race, try it again after the race during other warm-up times.
  3. Watch everything!!!!  Become a sponge, watch and learn from every rider on the course, both good and bad.  Watch the pros, watch the beginners, watch the kids…  You can learn from everyone.
  4. Ask questions!  CX is still one of the most welcoming disciplines to new people.  If you ask a better rider than you to give you an idea of a better way through a corner or the trick to getting over an obstacle, I am almost certain that they would oblige and probably give you more info than you ever thought you could learn about a “simple” corner.
  5. Have your coach give you specific cornering drills or get them to take you out on a course and talk you through it!

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If you have a coach, chances are, they have you doing “drills” to improve everything from your bike handling to your pedaling efficiency, but beyond that take a few minutes to learn about how course degradation, changing weather conditions, course make-up, tire pressure, wind, etc, will all have an effect on your day.  Sometimes the fastest rider is the one that is the most adaptable to changing conditions.

Finally, if you take nothing else away from this post, remember the following:

  1. If you haven’t tried it during practice, don’t try it on race day.
  2. The fastest way through a feature may not be on the bike… always remember that running is a safe option!  Better to be on foot than laying on the ground!
  3. Be adaptable and plan ahead on race day.
  4. Be a sponge, absorb everything… There is a wealth of knowledge out there when it comes to CX, but knowing when to apply it is the key to success.

See you at the races!

Kurt Maw

About the Author Kurt Maw

Kurt is a Biomedical engineer with a concentration in biomechanics that works in the design industry. In his spare time, he has run Comprehensive Racing for the last 16 years, a race director for the Witches Cup, coached and been a certified personal trainer for beginner athletes to Ironman veterans. He’s a Cat 2 mountain bike racer and a Cat 3 CX racer. He’ll never be the fastest guy out there so he’s a student of the game and loves to share all that knowledge…

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