A Beginner’s Guide to Cyclocross

Coach Julie Young breaks down the art and training of cyclocross—from training to skills, racing to drills.

Cyclocross World Championships, Louisville, Kentucky
Sven Nys leads the 2013 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Chris Case.

Curious about ’cross?

Maybe you’ve heard about the potential for nasty weather during ’cross season and that has, thus far, scared you away? Perhaps you think you’re likely to crash and hurt yourself—or your precious bike—so you’ve stuck to racing on paved surfaces. Or maybe you just don’t think you’d enjoy the pain and intensity of ’cross.

Whatever you’re thinking, set that aside. In my humble opinion, cyclocross is the most fun you can have on a bike—and that’s coming from someone who has spent decades racing all kinds of bikes.

First, it is a great entry point to cycling. The atmosphere is fun, sometimes even silly, and never intimidating. Another accessible aspect of ’cross racing is that the distance is doable, and the training is not nearly as time intensive as some of the other cycling disciplines. Races typically last 30 minutes for the beginner categories. And, often, the race venues are like playgrounds for bikes.

Since cyclocross season starts in the fall when the days begin to get shorter and the weather gets crisper, it helps to have something fun and challenging to pursue to keep the motivation high—that provides plenty of reasons to keep moving and stay fit.

Cyclocross also provides countless opportunities to improve many technical aspects of your cycling. Due to the various challenges thrown at you in a ’cross race, your handling skills improve exponentially and you become more “at-one” with your bike.

The courses are primarily set on grass, dirt, or mud, with some sand thrown in here and there. These soft landings provide low consequences when you’re trying to improve your skills through trial and error. The short duration, high-intensity nature of cyclocross—a lot of time at threshold with bouts of VO2max and anaerobic capacity—sharpens the pointy end of your fitness.

Hopefully these attributes of cyclocross have whet your appetite. Now let’s get into some of the specific training and racing practices that will help you flourish.

The terrain

As with any cycling race, it helps to evaluate the specifics of that event to understand its demands—and then tailor your training to mentally and physically prepare for the effort. Cyclocross courses and their demands car vary drastically depending on where you live, .

For example, where I live and race in Northern California, the courses are typically drier, with lots of grass, off-camber sections (where the arc of the corner runs counter to the slope of the hill, making it challenging to balance and corner), hairpin corners, and sand pits.

In other parts of the country and world, you should expect to contend with muddier, slicker, root-strewn courses and wetter, sloppier conditions.

Barriers are commonplace in cyclocross—these wooden planks necessitate that most people dismount their bike as quickly as possible, leap over the obstacle, then remount the bike. (Some people are able to bunny hop the barriers without dismounting.)

Some courses will also include run-ups where “shouldering” the bike—carrying the bike on your shoulder—or “suit-casing” the bike—lifting the bike off the ground by grabbing the top tube—is required.

Off-the-bike training

Consistent, off-the-bike stability and mobility work is important for success in every cycling discipline, but even more so when it comes to ’cross.

Cyclocross is highly unpredictable: There are ever-changing surfaces and a variety of obstacles to maneuver over or around, so proper posture is essential to avoid crashes and injuries.

A stable, neutral posture serves as an anchor and balance point so you can quickly react and respond to the ever-changing conditions and technical aspects of a course. An engaged core allows you to control and coordinate your limbs and be nimble and agile in your movements.

Hip activation and stability, while important on the bike, become even more critical when you interact with the ground, such as when running or jumping and landing. Glute medius activation improves the brain’s ability to find this key muscle involved in proper lower limb mechanics. Ensuring you are loading the knee joint appropriately with good glute medius activation will boost performance and help ensure injury prevention as you run or hurdle barriers.

On-the-bike skills workouts

Summer riding sets you up perfectly for cyclocross season. Typically, in summer you are doing a variety of workouts of varying intensities, depending on your cycling goals. The long endurance rides and sub-threshold to threshold workouts create a foundation of fitness which acts as the perfect platform to support the higher intensity ’cross workouts.

As you prepare for ’cross season, on-the-bike work should simulate the specific demands (skills and intensity levels) of cyclocross racing. It’s valuable, if possible, to attend an early season skills clinic. As much as it may sometimes look like it’s a wing and prayer when it comes to cyclocross maneuvers in racing, there are sequences to the skills.

It is valuable to learn these progressions from experts; this will help you establish a solid foundation on which to continue to build, thus avoiding the pitfalls of engraining bad habits and movement patterns.

I like to start each training session as part of a warm-up with dedicated skill progressions, like dismounting and remounting, cornering, shouldering the bike, and navigating barriers.

Practicing starts

Due to the short, high-intensity nature of ’cross racing, the race start is a critical component to success. It’s valuable to include workouts that hone your ability to get your foot clipped into the pedal quickly and efficiently, and blast off the start line. These workouts should simulate a start, with one foot in the pedal and the other on the ground, and a start countdown of 3-2-1. Try to quickly clip your shoe into the pedal.

You will have some flawless starts, and some not-so-precise starts. Either way, learn to keep pedaling while you finagle the cleat into the pedal. Once the foot is into the pedal, sprint for 30 seconds off the line. Once you have this simpler scenario dialed, add some complexity at the end of the sprint: For example, create a mock barrier to practice a dismount and remount; ride through a sand pit; make a hairpin turn (practice left and right) around a tree.

Race starts will take place on a variety of surfaces (grass, dirt, pavement), so practice starts on all different surfaces and figure out approximately what gearing works best for you and which allows you to pop off the line with power and speed. Experiment with sprinting in and out of the saddle to determine what is more efficient for you.

Depending on the surface the race starts on, it can be tricky to maintain good rear wheel traction. There is a big difference, for example, between a start on pavement and one on grass. Practice sprinting out of the saddle, on the unpredictable surfaces, and work on honing the body position that allows you to keep traction on and transfer force through the rear tire.

High intensity training

It helps to train for the high intensity, sporadic nature of cyclocross racing. A typical ’cross race includes plenty of time spent at high threshold with bouts of VO2max and anaerobic capacity. This comes both on and off the bike, while sprinting out of corners, hurdling barriers, and sprinting up run-ups. Create workouts that simulate these intensity demands with sub-threshold (advancing to threshold) efforts and doses of VO2max and anaerobic capacity. Remember, use your training sessions not only for your physical preparation but to work on your mindset and mental strategies to contend with the uncomfortable sensations of these high-intensity efforts.

Cyclocross course surfaces—thick grass, mud, and sand—can produce high rolling resistance. (You’ll often hear people refer to these conditions as “heavy.”) To prepare for these demands, try slow frequency repetitions (SFRs). These foundational workouts are best performed on a consistent 4-5 percent grade, on a paved or smooth dirt road, pedaling at 40-60 rpm. Make this gearing relative to you and what is appropriate for your joint tolerance; if these efforts start to irritate your knees or back, stop the workout.

Begin this workout at a medium endurance intensity to create a good foundation and refine muscle recruitment. Focus on smoothly applying force during the power-producing segments of the pedal stroke. Once you have a foundation at medium endurance, gradually increase to sub-threshold/threshold intensity. Also, focus on engaging your trunk as an anchor point and platform for your hips to drive power efficiently and effectively into the pedals.

This neutral-stable posture also places your back in a strong position to protect against injury. Once you feel solid on more predictable surfaces like roads and smooth dirt roads, you can transition this workout to grassy parks, and use the grass as your resistance.

Running workouts

The running you do in cyclocross races is typically short, intense, and demanding—and can play a pivotal role in your results. Most cyclists I know do not consistently run during the summer cycling season, so it is important to start gradually and progressively to develop a good foundation of running mechanics and to avoid injuries.

One of the best ways to build a solid running base is to start with a run/walk format; for example, run for four minutes at endurance pace and then walk for one minute. When you run, focus on running with purpose and control. Be especially diligent to include hip activation in your pre-run warm-up.

Once you have a consistent base of 30-45 minutes of constant running, add in some intensity. Remember that speed and intensity should never come at the expense of technique, but rather should help develop run-specific technique, power, and strength. A couple of good run workouts that will specifically apply to cyclo-cross racing include:

  1. 150-meter hill sprints, driving powerfully with the arms and knees up the hill
  2. 200-meter efforts on the track, followed by 200-meter rest periods

Sample training week

Now that you have a greater understanding of the unique demands of cyclocross, it’s time to bring together the skills, drills, off-the-bike, and on-the-bike workouts into a weekly plan.

Below if just one example of how you can fit all these pieces together. Experiment with the rhythm of the week to find what works best for you, and expect to modify it once racing begins. Then, particularly if you’re racing twice per weekend, you’ll need to shift more toward recovery and maintenance than form building.

Monday

  • Active recovery day dedicated to trunk stability and yoga for global mobility

Tuesday

  • Hip activation + speed and power workout.
  • For example, these 10- 30-second max efforts could include:
    • Starts
    • Hill sprints
    • 30 sec. on/30 sec. off

Wednesday

  • Trunk stability + longer sub-threshold (transitioning to threshold) intervals with bouts of VO2max and/or anaerobic capacity
  • Example (performed on a grassy field):
    • 5 x 6 minutes at sub-threshold (eventually transitioning to threshold) every 1:45, including 15 seconds at VO2max intensity, then ease back and train to recover at sub-threshold; recover for 3 minutes at long endurance

Thursday

  • Hip activation + endurance day
    • Option 1: Longer dirt ride
    • Option 2: Run 20-30min; ride 1+ hour

Friday

  • Complete rest day or restorative/yin yoga

Saturday

  • Trunk stability + mock/training cyclocross race or fast paced group ride

Sunday

  • Hip activation + long endurance day on mixed terrain on your ’cross/gravel bike

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