The Benefits of Cyclo-Cross|
Sunday, November 04, 2001
The rumors are true: Cyclo-Cross is hard, technical and fast; requires special equipment, plus a strong cyclist who also is a good runner; and it's fun. Best of all, no matter how much running a course may offer, 'cross races are still bike races, and only good racers with solid skills have a change to win. What athlete wouldn't want to be part of that combination.
Benefits of Cyclo-Cross
Cyclo-Cross takes place during fall and winter, a time of year when most cyclists have decided to hang up the bike for a while. But the "off-season" is actually a time for cyclists to add and improve skills, power, bike handling and technical awareness, while maintaining cardiovascular fitness - and cyclo-cross is a great way to do all these things. cyclo-cross requires you to ride hard on skinny tires in less-than-ideal conditions, making split-second decisions on which gear to push and whether to ride or run; every little mistake costs you energy. Imagine how much more efficient an athlete you'll be on mud-free roads or comfy fat tires once you've mastered the intricacies of cyclo-cross.
Here are a few of the benefits cyclo-cross can provide:
Cardiovascular fitness. A cyclo-cross race takes anywhere from a half your to one hour, depending on your category. You'll probably hit your anaerobic threshold within 10 minutes after you start; you'll also go anaerobic many times, requiring you to back off and recover. Just think of the fitness you'll carry over into your road or mountain-bike season.
Strength. When you're trying to ride across a soggy meadow, you are fighting more rolling resistance than you could ever dreamed was possible. When you ride or run that short, steep hill that seems to get longer every lap, you are exerting repeated efforts of strength. Think how easy that next criterium with the slight sprinter's hill will be.
Bike handling. Drop bars, 700c wheels and skinny tires are not everyone's idea of off-road equipment. After a few hair-raising two-wheel drifts into a corner at 30kph, you'll learn the fastest way to take a corner; when to use (or not use) the brakes; and how to position you body to give you optimum control. Next road race, when a jumpy peleton is strung out in the gutter and you get bumped into the dirt, chances are you'll just ride right back into the paceline without incident. As for mountain bikers, once you've learned how to keep skinny tires on the ground, you'll be flying once you get back on those fat boys.
The true cyclo-cross bike is essentially a road bike adapted for off-road use. When shopping for a frame, weight should be a primary consideration. Aluminum has carried more riders to rainbow jerseys than any other frame material. But it is less durable than steel, so don't count on using the same frame for more than a couple of seasons. If you decide on a steel frame, get the lightest you can afford.
Get the same size frame you use for road racing, but with extra clearance in the seat stays, chain stays and fork crown. This helps to prevent the build-up of mud and other debris that can add unwanted friction to your wheel. You also need a higher-than-normal bottom bracket to prevent toe clips from rubbing against the ground, should you choose to use them. Additionally, have all the cable stops brazed on. Water-bottle braze-ons are unnecessary - cyclo-cross races are too short to pack a bottle on your bike, and the bottle would get in the way when you shoulder your bike.
When fitting your 'cross bike, your saddle height should be 1 cm lower and your stem length 1 cm shorter. This position allows for more body movement when maneuvering your bike on technical sections.
If you decide to use two bikes - and a spare is a very good idea, since cyclo-cross can be as hard on your equipment as it is on you - strive for consistency in equipment you use. When you have to jump off one bike and onto another, it's important that your shift levers, saddle and other components be in the same places. This allows you to concentrate on the race.
Cyclo-Cross wheels should be tubulars, which are light, strong and very dependable - which means your tires are less likely to get pinch-flats on rough terrain. Thirty-two spokes or fewer will work on almost all courses.
Brands to look for are Clement, Barum, Vittoria and Wolber. Major brands such as Ritchey, Continental and Michelin have tires available.
A 13-26 cog set should be sufficient (if you need more than a 26-tooth cog, it may be time to start running). And use a good-quality road derailleur. Up front you may choose to use a single chain ring, probably no more than a 46-tooth. If you decide to use two chainrings, a 48/42-tooth combo is the standard.
Handlebars and Shifters
Use road-style dropped bars with bar-end shifters. Cut off the tips of your bars - maybe 3 to 5 cm, depending on the size of your hand - which brings your shift and brake levers closer and makes for less space to shuffle between the two. Shift/brake-lever combinations are a very good alternative, although they are a little exposed, a lot heavier and can be damaged beyond repair in a crash.
Cantilevers offer superior stopping power, light weight and clearance to help prevent debris buildup. There are a few new side-pull designs out there specifically for cyclo-cross.
Look for something along the lines of the old Lyotard 460D, which for years has been the standard for cyclo-cross. These aluminum pedals are symmetrical, serrated on both sides, wide, light and inexpensive. Symmetry is important because any pedal becomes unbalanced when you add a toe clip, making it very difficult to flip over and slip your foot in; unbalanced pedals only increase the problem. Double-sided serration is important in case you need to ride on the back side of the pedal; it gives you a good surface with which to make contact.
Double-sided clipless pedals, which are common on mountain bikes, are very good and getting better all the time. Consider the TIME A.T.A.C. models for their superior mud clearing abilities.
It should fit skin-tight, especially your shorts - you don't want any loose clothing to snag on your saddle when you're jumping on and off your bike. But remember, it's wintertime, which generally means bad weather. Your race-day bag should include clothes that mix together well when layering for temperature changes.
Shoes should be made with a soft toe and good traction for running, similar to mountain-bike shoes. If you are using toe clips, look for shoes that accept the old-style slotted cleat, which will help you pedal with 360 degrees of power.
Finally, consider a shoulder pad like those common in women's clothing to sew inside the right shoulder of your jersey or skinsuit. It'll minimize the bruising you can expect from dumping a bike on and off your shoulder.
Using a Mountain Bike
Strip it of all non-essential gear - spare tire, pump, fenders, water-bottle cages, and shocks. Remember, you'll be carrying this bike a lot, and it shouldn't be any heavier than is absolutely necessary. As for suspension, it may be great for the long, steady efforts of mountain biking, but in cyclo-cross, you have to accelerate repeatedly on each lap - which is much easier on a lighter bike with a stiff fork.
The wheels should have as small a tire profile as the rims will accept (1.5 to 1.0). And you should consider adding road-style drop bars with bar-end shifters - this will help you carry your mountain bike more comfortably and allow more hand positions for maneuverability.
One other note: cyclo-cross is a mass-start race, and according to US Cycling Federation rules, bikes used in mass-start events may not have objects that protrude forward. This means no bar ends in USCF sanctioned cyclo-cross races. Remove them before race day and save yourself an unpleasant surprise at the start line.
Using a road bike: As with a mountain bike, consider having a frame-building friend add cantilever bosses to your fork and seat stays - cantilevers are a lot better than your road calipers for stopping in all conditions. While you're at it, have him move your brake and chain-stay bridges up a bit to allow more tire clearance. And don't forget to swap your road pedals for something more suitable for the rigors of off-road riding.
Training: Fundamentals for First-timers
Polish Your Technique
There's nothing more frustrating than making the same mistake, over and over again. Dismounts and mounts are where cyclo-crossers make their most energy-sapping errors, so drill yourself in these key techniques until they become second nature (you may even find yourself mounting your road and mountain bikes in cyclo-cross style, as former national champ Laurence Malone does).
Run Early and Often
You may be able to ride for days, but don't think that fitness and muscular strength will carry over into running, which makes an entirely different set of demands on your body. Do some easy running on hills, walking or jogging the descents, beginning about a month before your first cyclo-cross race. Road and mountain bike racers alike will experience some muscle soreness when making the transition from riding to running; it should go away within three weeks or so.
Use Good Off-Road Shoes
don't settle for running shoes; your road cycling shoes won't do either. The first has a sole that's too soft for efficient pedaling, and the second has a sole that's too inflexible for comfortable running.
A mountain-bike shoe with a flexible toe section and stiff heel can handle both.
Ride a Bike You Like
Use the same kind of bike you use in your regular season - mountain bikes for mountain-bikers 'cross bikes or road bikes modified for off-road use for roadies. This will address the specifics of your sport.
Train Hard and Short
Do high-intensity workouts - anaerobic-threshold work and anaerobic intervals are very important. Be sure to include adequate recovery for your races. Remember: A cyclo-cross race is no longer than an hour or so, so those three- to six-hour training rides aren't necessary.
Look for the follow-up article on racing! Coming soon.
The the latest cyclo-cross race news, visit USA Cycling