‘Cross Musings Vol. 3: Technique

It’s August, which means that cyclocross season is just around the corner!  For the true diehards, the first local race is August 24th in Springfield.  For traditionalists like myself, the season doesn’t really start until mid-September.  Either way, August is a good time to start practicing your cyclocross technique.  I’ll try to give a few tips in this email, and we’ll run some clinics once school starts.  If there’s anything in particular you’d like to improve on, please drop me a line and we’ll tailor the clinics accordingly.


We’re currently in Week 2 of the Base 3 phase.  Assuming you’ve diligently built your aerobic base and completed several tempo workouts, now’s the time to start easing yourself into intervals approaching race pace.  One day per week, do two to three 12 to 20 minute intervals at 90-95% of your threshold or time trial heart rate.  Start with three 12 minute intervals and build gradually each week, to four 12 minute intervals, to three 15 minute intervals, to two 20 minute intervals, etc.  In addition, continue doing one tempo (85-90% threshold heart rate) workout per week, two aerobic rides (1.5 – 3 hours each), and a short, easier day of technique work – either spinning/efficiency drills or ‘cross techniques or form sprints.  Be sure to get adequate recovery time, taking one or two days off per week and one light week every month.


These are hard to describe in words, so I’ll try to illustrate them using streaming media.

1. The Hole Shot

Like a cross-country mountain bike race, cyclocross races are fast from the very start.  Typically the first 200 meters are on a wide road or field, but then the course will narrow down to about 3 meters wide.  Everyone wants to get to the bottleneck first, so it’s definitely worth practicing your start.  By rule, you’ll start with one foot clipped in and the other on the ground.  Some folks stand, others sit on the saddle with tippie-toe on the ground.  When the start is announced, you’ll want to clip in and go as quickly as you can.  Practice finding your pedal quickly, and experiment with different gears to find which works well for you.  Go out for an urban ride and, rather than cursing the frequent stoplights, use them to work on your clip-in technique.

Of course, you can simplify your life by lining up towards the front of the pack!  Some races stage the start by order of registration, while others are first come first served.  I’ll try to email out a heads-up for races in the former category.  For the latter, complete your warm-up early and stretch near the start line until the end of the race prior to yours, then stake your claim at the line.

The beginning of this clip captures the start well:

Here’s another good video – see if you can spot the two MIT kits!  Note how riders in the back get slowed by the bottleneck.

2. Cornering

According to Simon Burney, “cornering in ‘cross is very similar to cornering on roads, but as you may be encountering slippery surfaces, it is important not to turn the bars excessively or lean too much.  You must eliminate as much of the corner as possible by approaching along the correct line so as to cross the apex of the bend with a line that is as nearly straight as possible.  You must be prepared to feel the bike moving under you, especially in mud or snow, but only experience will tell you how much movement is safe, or when you will slide off.  Use your front brake or a combination of both brakes when approaching a corner, but take the corner itself without brakes to keep the bike under control. . . .  Your outside leg should be straight with a lot of weight going through it, and your inside leg bent with the knee pointing slightly outwards.”
Former Canadian national champion Lyne Bessette (first rider, red and white kit) demonstrates good form:

3. The Flying Dismount

From time to time you’ll need to get off your bike to run unrideable sand or mud, to climb hills or stairs, or to hop over obstacles or fallen competitors.  Masters 35-39 National Champ Brandon Dwight explains how to do it: http://www.velonews.tv/?articleID=1503

4. Carrying the Bike

If you’re off the bike, it’s generally more efficient to carry it rather than pushing it along the ground.  Again, Brandon Dwight explains: http://www.velonews.tv/?articleID=1501

And former world champ Daniele Pontoni makes it look easy: http://www.cyclocrossvideos.com/cx/misc/1999_Pontoni-dismount.html

5. The Flying Remount

This one scares people the most, but it’s not as hard as it seems: http://www.velonews.tv/?articleID=1502

And the examples – note how delicately Mark McCormack (4th rider, Saturn kit) places the bike down before remounting: http://www.cyclocrossvideos.com/cx/misc/2001_Gloucester_CX_runup_and_remount.html

6. Barriers

Basically a dismount, suitcase carry, and remount all in a row.  Timing is key, and the easiest way to coordinate it is to count steps.  The best riders take two before the first barrier, two to four in between (depending on stature), and three to four after.  It’s very rhythmic, like a dance.  I wouldn’t recommend doing the two-step when you’re beginning, but do try to count your steps and get a feel for what you’re doing.  Try to be consistent.  As you get more experienced and confident you’ll be able to reduce from, say, four steps to three to two.

Approach the barrier at jogging speed.  Shift into a slightly easier gear to be ready for the remount.  Start your dismount early and coast into the barrier, left foot in pedal, right foot out and on the left side of the bike.  Don’t try to do the entire dismount at the last second!  Your left hand will be on the left hood, and the right hand on the right hood or, ideally, the top tube.  The top tube placement makes steering a little trickier but enables you to lift the bike more quickly.  Dismount however close to the barrier you’re comfortable, lift the bike, hop the barrier, two to four steps in between, hop the second, gently place the bike down, move right hand to right hood, and remount.  Easy, right?  We’ll practice this a lot at the clinics.

Examples:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ubdi3WSzyso (note Ben Jacques-Maynes dismounting on the right side of the bike . . . if you’re really good you can do either side to avoid congestion)

7. Short, Steep Climbs

A lot of courses will send you up a short, steep embankment or hill.  The key to these is simply to hit them with a lot of speed and let your kinetic energy carry you up.  mgh=0.5mv^2  Muscling up generally won’t work, unless you’re super strong.  If the hill gains more than about 3 meters of elevation, you’ll probably be better off dismounting and running it.

8. Descents

Similar to road or mountain biking: keep your weight back, hands in the drops, don’t brake too aggressively, use your arms and legs to absorb shocks.

9. Riding Through Sand

Many local courses will include a short beach section or sand pit.  Simon Burney notes that sand is “awkward stuff to race in.  On the bike, it slows you down very quickly indeed, and is impossible to steer a course through.  On foot, you feel like you are going nowhere fast, particularly uphil.  On the bike, you should hold the bars firmly on the tops with an upright style, and attempt to hit the sand fast in a big gear and churn your way through it.  The bike will make its own mind up which way to go, so you must just hold on and keep pedaling, because as soon as you start to freewheel you will simply stop.  If the section is short and faster to run, then do it.”

How it looks riding it.  Note how the guy in yellow loses his momentum and struggles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXJWhx8KOOo

If the sand section is particularly twisty, you’re definitely better off running it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wG05D18Q4ZA

10. Riding Through Mud or Snow

Similar to sand in that you want to sit upright, steer with the hips rather than the hands, and just kind of let the bike go where it will.  A bit of an acquired skill.  As Han Solo would say, “I don’t know, fly casual.”
Note how comfortable they are with the bike moving underneath them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PmxNICiJJ8

11. Bicycle Exchange in the Pit

I don’t think any of us have two bikes, but to whet your appetite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11XpjerIhAc (look at 0:16, 0:35, 2:18, 2:36)

12. Bunny-Hopping the Barriers

If you figure out how to do this you have to teach me!


As I mentioned before, we’ll be running clinics in September and October.  Let me know which of the above you’d like to practice.  Also, there’s a weekly training race in Wrentham on Wedneday nights starting September 3.  Finally, if you’ve got $575 burning a hole in your pocket, some of the local Masters run a great training camp on Cape Cod September 12-14.  Details here: http://www.bikereg.com/events/register.asp?eventid=6924


NE-BRA maintains a calendar, but it’s a bit shifty: http://www.ne-bra.org/events?m=9&types%5B%5D=7&y=2008.

I don’t tend to put stock in a race until it shows up on http://www.bikereg.com/events/?et=2&rg=8

That’s all for now.  Email with questions!