Wherein the prospect of riding one’s bicycle successfully in freezing rain and muddy swamps is examined and discussed, with reference to the astute guidance of one Jeremy Powers, a professional competitor in the sport of cyclocross.
AS MY ROAD-RACING SEASON comes to a close with a few last crits in August and the odd Tuesday night training race, I look to the coming cyclocross season, which begins in earnest September 11, with Nittany Lion Cross.
OK, truth be told, I’ve been thinking about cyclocross for some time. It’ll be my second year racing in the dirt, jumping barriers, and running with a bike on my shoulder. Last year I was lured into CX after a double weekend of racing up near Beacon, New York, and I was downright smitten.
But the learning curve was pretty steep and I sucked in lots of races, especially early on. Then, later, I just sucked a bit less. I had a super-wide variety of results, too: I sometimes was last, then nearly last, later placed in the middle of the pack somewhere, then near the top 15, and eventually cracked into the top 10 a couple of times. But no podiums, and definitely no wins. All as a Cat. 4, a cyclocross newbie. So it was a long season on my poor psyche, nearly a dozen races when all was said and done.
Still, the rush you get racing your bike off-road was special. I didn’t have to try to keep at it either; I just did out of enjoyment. And, as is well agreed among those who partake in the discipline, racing cyclocross is a relief after a long season of often tense, stressful, and even uptight road racing, which always seems to be fraught with crashes, broken bikes, shattered bones, bruises of all kinds, and wounded egos. Road is my true love and always will be, but cyclocross is lovable in its own right, and it’ll always be the next best thing after road racing.
As far as training for CX goes, I never did any last year, at least not specifically. Sure, racing on the road is a good way to prep for the CX season, but there is a lot more to it than just having a well-tuned engine and leg speed, things you get from racing on the road all year. For example, it’s critical to know how to ride, um, off-road; snake down a twisty downhill at speed; maneuver over wet tree roots; get through a knee-deep body of sand, mud, and water; jump barriers; bump off other riders and keep upright; fight for position; go full gas for 45 minutes without popping; and, seemingly, a million other skills.
Though I was able to move up in the results last year and get better at CX, I always feel I need to learn so much more and get a lot better. With a fairly successful road season behind me, the next part of the puzzle was critical: getting better at actually racing a CX bike on a CX course.
Enter the cross clinic. It’s a few hours’ worth of bike learnin’ wherein you get schooled by a pro or expert rider on the finer points of racing. The one I did last week was led by Jeremy Powers, aka J-Pow. When he’s not road racing in the spring and summer with the domestic road team Jelly-Belly, this popular cycling personality can be found in the fall tearing it up on the cyclocross circuit with team Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com and teammates Tim Johnson and Jamie Driscoll.
Thanks to Twitter, I got word that one of J-Pow’s CX clinics was taking place in Chicago in mid-August, and since I was going to be back in my hometown on vacation anyway, why not check it out. Maybe doing a clinic could help me suck less, I thought. At only $50 and three hours’ long—with Chipotle burritos included—it seemed like the perfect way to start off my second season racing in the dirt. I’ve upgraded to Cat. 3 in CX, so I need all the help I can get, too.
The gathering of like-minded CXers took place on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, near downtown Chicago. It was un-cyclocross-like weather: sunny and hot and humid. The other dozen or so riders and I were on our CX bikes for the first time this year, so the weather would help make things relatively easy when it came to getting re-used to hopping on and off our bikes, jumping barriers at speed, and riding the tight, off-camber grassy sections of our makeshift course. To boot, we were able to use an outdoor volleyball pit to practice racing full speed into and through sand. Joy.
The following, in no particular order, is a short review of what I thought were most critical topics covered in the clinic. While I don’t want to give away all the neat tips and tricks we learned from J-Pow, I hope the following is helpful to beginners and more advanced riders alike.
Chi Cross Clinic
J-Pow started off with a little round robin that allowed us to introduce ourselves. We were a good mix of pretty hardcore CXers and relatively intermediate riders in the discipline. J-Pow set the tone right away, being very helpful, listening to our questions, and giving us his pro take on all things CX. He’s laid-back guy with a great sense of humor. But once the chit chat was done with, we got down to business with the hands-on how-to stuff. J-Pow said anyone who is out doing a little practice now on the CX bike is going to reap big dividends when the first races start. Let’s hope so! The CX season was starting to feel very real and near.
Unlike many types of road racing, the start of a cyclocross race is effectively an all-out sprint to the first corner of the course, aka the “holeshot.” If you’ve never done a CX race, imagine going from your resting heart rate to near your max—in about 30 seconds or less. Anyone with his or her head in the race is going to go nearly au bloc to be first—or at least top 10—off the start line. Not unlike a blistering, technical criterium, it’s really difficult to pass many riders once the single-file business begins, which often happens right after the holeshot. In short, getting a great start is important if you have any intention of getting a good result and being a factor in the race. If the race has call-ups, as some do, then pre-registering early is key. If there are no call-ups, be sure to hover around the start line early and be ready to push and shove to be on the front row or as close to it as possible.
So, with everyone lined up side by side to mimic the start of a CX race, J-Pow waxed eloquent about the importance of getting yourself into the right gear ahead of time and getting rolling right away once the whistle blows. If you could get clipped in right away, great, but if not, it’s best to start pedaling and clip in a little later, thereby not getting regulated to a poor position far from the front of the pack.
Powers emphasized the need to get a super-fast jump off the line, in a low gear that you could pounce on right away to surge ahead of the field, or at least be in the top 10 so you could avoid the bottleneck traffic and typical mayhem you get at CX races. Also, it is helpful to have the pedal you’re going to clip into parallel to the ground so it’s easier to get into.
With my left foot clipped in and my pedal in ready position just a tad after the top of the pedal stroke, I chose to sit on my saddle instead of standing—it’s a preference thing, J-Pow explained—I was able to get a pretty good start two of the three practice starts we did. Powers encouraged us to beat him to the holeshot, and I think I was second to him one time—lucky break! But there was no beating the pro, that was clear.
Dismounts and remounts
Perhaps one of the trickier skills to master on the CX bike, the ability to dismount and remount your bike smoothly and quickly is critical to doing a good race. In most CX races, you have to hop on and off your bike many, many times. There’s really no such thing as always staying on your bike or riding everything—not in your typical race anyway. Having said that, though, I did notice J-Pow’s amazing bike-handling skills throughout the day as he hopped his bike up on benches and bunny-hopped barriers—amazing abilities most can only watch in awe. But for most us, we’re going to get passed by lots of riders and lose position if we can’t hop on and off our rigs fast. It’s a skill that has to be made second nature.
The bottom line is, have a plan for how you’re going to approach a barrier or sand pit or whatever it is you’re going to hop off and jump over. If you’re not sure what you’re going to do and leave it to the last second, you’re probably going to botch things. This is where preriding the course is really important. If you make it early to your race, and you really should, then you can cruise the course and do a few laps easy, all the while noting the key places to pass riders, make up ground, where to rest and catch your breath, and where you’ll have to dismount your bike.
Powers talked about the importance of knowing just how fast you could go into barriers without losing control and crashing. Sounds obvious, sure, but I’m certain many of us have hit barriers way too fast before and botched matters. J-Pow explained how at a race in Canada he himself hit some barriers with just one mile per hour more than he could handle and ended up crashing head-first. So, once you get a handle on your speed approaching barriers, then it’s a matter of swinging your leg over your bike to the left side, grabbing the top tube, clipping out your left foot, and hopping the barriers, all the while keeping the bike a good distance extended from your body with your arm more or less straight out to the side—not carrying the bike under your arm.
Finally, once over the second barrier, it’s best to run a bit more than you think you should, make certain you put the bike down so that both wheels are rolling, then and only then hop on and clip back in. Too many of us made the mistake of trying to get right back on the bike immediately after the second barrier and remounting before the bike’s two wheels where back rolling on the ground.
The upshot: Be sure to have a plan ahead of time for how to handle your approach to obstacles; know how much speed you can actually handle going into barriers or whatever it is you have to hop over; hold the bike about middle of the top tube and away from your body; then, don’t be afraid to run a little bit and deliberately put your bike down on the ground before remounting, as opposed to letting it just fall from your grip, which can cause the bike to bounce around and make you lose control—and waste time.
Everybody loves sand at the beach but hates it in CX races, right? That’s me! It’s really hard riding in the stuff, and your legs burn up super quick racing in it. So, how to race a course that features a sand pit?
J-Pow really nailed this one, explaining that, again, it’s key to know how you’re going to approach the sand in the first place. This is where preriding the course is again crucial. You gotta have a plan because it’s just too tricky to hit sand at speed not know what you’re going to do on the fly.
Here’s the skinny on racing sand: You can’t be afraid of it. Embrace it! You can’t make the mistake of reducing your speed hitting the sand, as some of us tended to do. Just go fully into it and capitalize on your momentum. Try to keep going straight. Most riders will be riding the brake hoods, and that’s a good way to guide your bike. If the sand section is short enough to ride, try riding it all the way through. But if it’s too long to ride and you start to slow, figure out where you start to slow down and dismount and run BEFORE that point. The idea is, you don’t want to already be slowing or stopped when you have to start running. It’s all about keeping your speed high and momentum going.
So, when you think of sand, think about having a plan, knowing how long you can ride it, where you’ll start to slow, getting off the bike BEFORE you are going to slow, then running the rest. Also, if you think you can run the sand faster than ride it, run it then. When you carry the bike, usually you want to shoulder it and grab the bars with your right hand and go.
There was a lot more taught and learned at this clinic, too much to cover here. We went over technical matters, tires and tire pressure, off-camber skills, turning, braking, and much more. For me, though, the above were some of the most important topics covered.
All the other tips and tricks we learned? You’ll have to check out a clinic for yourself, but it’s so worth it.