Cyclocross for the Road Racer

‘Cross for the Road Rider

By Richard McClung 2013

Cyclocross can make you a better road racer. It gives the road rider a chance to improve handling skills, but more importantly breaks the routine while providing some needed intensity in the post road season. The best part is, you don’t even need to train if you don’t want to.

First, what is Cyclocross? They are races of about 30 minutes to an hour (depending on category) raced on set courses of about 2-3 miles/lap on a mixture of grass, pavement, and dirt, but mostly grass. There are some portions where competitors are forced to dismount and run carrying the bike.

‘Cross is not a “mix between road and mountain bike racing”. This as a definition is impossible, since ‘cross predates mountain bikes by a good 70 years. Cyclocross is its own kind of racing, distinctly different in form and favoring a specific type rider. It is, then, ridiculous to argue whether road or mountain bike racers make better ‘cross racers because ‘cross racers are the best ‘cross racers. The qualities needed for ‘cross are distinct from road racing and mountain bike racing.

So, how can ‘cross help you become a better road rider?

I’ve mentioned before that our local road racing season is too short. It typically runs from March to August. What most people then do around here to prepare for the next season, I think is generally a mistake.

Riders revert to base miles and ride the miles before taking a break when the weather turns bad, then resume in December or January when the weather is still bad. If the rider rides faithfully through this period, he is usually so sick of riding base miles that one of two things happen: Quality work begins much too early and the rider burns out after just a few months, or, the rider takes too long of a complete break from the bike when the weather turns bad and never really regains his ‘footing’. Now, there are indeed some people who can negotiate the time between seasons just fine, and go on to perfectly fine road seasons, but these people are relatively rare.

 The problem with this approach is that the rest period is much too long: 6 months with no racing, the same amount of months you’ll participate in racing. It’s difficult to build on form from year to year if the lay-off is too long. It’s even worse if the rider takes a very long complete break. For younger riders 3-4 weeks completely off the bike is ok, but more than that can be a setback in terms of building cumulative form. Riders who are older or have been at the sport longer (5+years) need to take shorter complete breaks to avoid losing ground in multi-year form building. Failing to build on cumulative form is probably the biggest thing keeping most racers from reaching their full potential.

So how do you keep the form building? One option is to do some traveling and extend the road season a month or two. This isn’t practical for most of us.

The easy and most practical option around here is to race ‘cross, and there are many advantages to this approach here in the Northwest.

The primary advantage is that it introduces some intensity to your post road season routine in a fun and competitive atmosphere without placing a great deal of stress on yourself. Other advantages include breaking up the monotony of riding base miles, improving your handling skills, and the opportunity to learn if you actually are better at ‘cross than road racing: who knows, maybe the style of racing suits your natural abilities better.

The approach:

As a road racer, you are not racing ‘cross to win, but rather to keep an edge on your form through the fall months. You don’t really need to train as such, just do normal base miles for an hour or two every day, with one day dedicated to practicing ‘cross techniques. It is a good idea to work on the technique as it will help you to avoid injury and help you avoid getting worn out in races dismounting and remounting. The Wednesday night ‘cross workouts at Marymoor are perfect for this. Lots of guys get together at Woodland Park on Wednesday late afternoons to run drills as well.

Don’t worry in the least about results: if you’re getting lapped, or riding mid bunch, it doesn’t matter. Just have fun and go as hard as you are able. All you are out to accomplish is to put some intensity in your week. One of the great things about ‘cross is that no matter where you are in ability and fitness, there is always someone around you to make a race of it. Unlike road racing, there isn’t a main field to define a minimum level of success. Even if you’re getting lapped, you can take advantage of the situation to learn by watching.

You also needn’t worry about the running aspect. In 99% of the ‘cross races out there, it is rare that you will run any more than 200-300 meters through the course of an entire race. Even guys taking ‘cross seriously don’t need to go out and run 10km or anything like it. Doing a little running with your bike up hills or across barriers is plenty. Cyclocross is still a bike race and being fast on the bike is what wins them. If running made any real difference, we’d have 10k runners out there giving it a go…and we don’t.  The other ‘1%’ are extreme conditions. Sometimes, but rarely, courses get so muddy it’s faster to run than ride big sections of the course, and other cases might include courses with multiple long run-ups/lap (like the old South Sea-Tac course, which in my opinion isn’t even a ‘cross race), but these are getting rarer and rarer…fortunately.

Bike set-up and equipment:

A real ‘cross bike is best, but mountain bikes are allowed. If you have an old style road frame with a little more tire room, it’s even possible to run skinnier ‘cross tires in them.

Generally though, set up your ‘cross bike the same as your road bike in bar height, and saddle height. The frame size should be roughly the same as your road bike. The only difference is your top-tube/stem length. You should run anywhere from 1 to 4 cm shorter up top than you do on your road bike. How much shorter in this range to fall depends on how stretched out you are on your road bike. The reason you shorten up the top is to put more weight on the front wheel for greater traction and control. Aerodynamics rarely plays a part in ‘cross, so sitting a bit more upright is to no disadvantage.

Normal road wheels work just fine for ‘cross. There is no need to buy beefed up wheels. I’ve been running 28 spoke fronts and 32 spoke rears with 350 gram rims for several years now. My two primary front racing wheels were built in 1991. I mention that because it shows that ‘cross doesn’t really beat up your wheels any more than road riding.

Tire pressure is also typically much lower than on the road. On some courses, pressures as low as 25 are a real advantage. I think this is one of the hardest realizations for the road rider to overcome, that lower pressure is faster. Tubular tires of course can accommodate lower pressures than clinchers, but plenty of people have had success on clinchers.

While there are many different tread styles offered, only top pros can really justify picking out different treads for different courses. Pick a middle ground tread (like you find on a Challenge Griffo or typical TUFO) and it will work just fine for everything you will encounter. In fact, “middle ground” treads are better than aggressive treads in mud as they shed the mud off better.

You don’t need two bikes; sure it’s nice to have two, but you don’t need it.

The brakes are of course different. Cantilevers or disc. Cantilevers are still the norm, but discs are gaining steam quickly (I think discs are overkill). Cantilevers can be tricky to keep working sharp, but there are tricks you learn by the by to keep them consistently working well. With the ‘cross boom, there are more models available than ever with simplified adjustment options (less is better, contrary to what one might think). Some people like top mount brake levers on the tops of the bars, I think they’re unnecessary.

What to do if you decide ‘cross is for you, and you want to really give it a go:

If you really end up enjoying ‘cross and feel the urge and have the steam to actually train for it, you don’t need to do things much differently than you would on the road. Really, the only differences are that you don’t need to go out for big distance, and instead of training for sprints, you train for starts. The big difference between starts and sprints, though pretty similar, is that with a start you of course have to continue at a high level of effort after a big effort. This is probably the most difficult aspect of ‘cross racing for the road rider to adapt. While there is some draft to help you recover, it isn’t terribly strong like in a road bunch. It simply takes practice.

One thing I generally advise is not to do your quality work off road. There’s a reason most top mountain bikers do most of their training on the road: Off road there are too many detractors from applying your maximum amount of effort towards the work. If you’re using muscle to keep yourself on the saddle from bumps, or you lose concentration anticipating changes in terrain, it takes away from your effort. If you do your quality work on the road, or on a trainer, you can apply you full attention to your effort. Don’t be fooled into believing that you need to learn to go fast on the surface you will be racing on.  Fast is fast, it doesn’t matter what the surface is. If you train doing intervals on bumpy ground that prevents from applying a full effort, you will be slower. Training where you can apply full force means you will be fast whether it’s smooth or bumpy.  Note though that its not that you can’t get fast doing quality work off road, it’s just that you’ll be faster if you do it on road.

In terms of timing and peaking, you have to remember where you focus is. If your main goal is road racing, ‘cross has to take a backseat. If the road season ends in late August, ease off for two or three weeks, then begin training again for ‘cross, first lightly and mainly with starts, then progress into intervals. If you begin to lose steam or motivation, pull the plug and back off. You can keep racing, just stop the training and place no importance on your results. Generally, it seems to me that younger rider (and those who haven’t been racing too many years) will have more trouble maintaining a training regime for ‘cross after a road season than will older riders (or those who have been racing many years). This is just a matter of experience and accumulated form.