Cyclocross, or ‘cross if you are initiated, is the fastest growing aspect of cycling.  Cross races usually take place in the Autumn and Winter with the racecourse featuring mixed terrain and surfaces (pavement, grass, sand, dirt, mud), technical challenges that vary in difficulty from course to course and are weather dependent (slippery tree roots versus dry tree roots), barriers that require the rider to either bunny-hop or carry their bike over, and the most intense race start you will ever see!  Cross is gaining in popularity, I think, due to spectator access to all course areas and race view-ability which fosters a welcoming atmosphere for everyone, the potential to see and cheer for the best professional/elite racers in the world as well as see and compare them to the amateur racers (which is always awesome!), potentially heckle (in a nice way, please!) your friends and favorite racers, and the number 1 reason is increased safety and decreased injury risk compared to other cycling disciplines.  So, how the heck can you beat your friends to the line next time?  I am glad you asked…

Cross = Bike Handling

If road racing and mountain bike racing went on a date and had a few glasses of wine over dinner, got a little too intoxicated and perhaps went home together, 9 months later cyclocross racing would be born!  Strange analogy, I know, but you get the idea that cyclocross takes some aspects of road racing as well as mountain bike racing and puts them together.  Since cross racing is held on varying surfaces that can change over the course of the race itself, it is crucial to possess good technical skills and bike handling abilities.  If you can get around a corner 1 second quicker than someone else, and there are >60 corners in a cross race, guess what?  You just gained >1 minute per lap, essentially for free!

Improve your bike-handling skills:

Cornering Drill

  • After you are thoroughly warmed-up…
  • Ride to a safe place where you can practice taking a corner (hitting the apex) and accelerating out of it.
  • Enter the corner at a high speed (but a speed that you feel safe at!), practice hitting the apex (inside) and accelerate out of it HARD!  Repeat this going both left and right picking up the entry speed as you feel more confident in your ability.
  • Pick varying surfaces and be sure to practice when it is both wet and dry.

Bike Driving Drill

  • Ride around a mock cyclocross course 1-handed taking both right and left turns and switching hands each lap.
    • Doing this will train you to guide and drive the bike with your hips versus actually turning the handlebars.  This will result in faster cornering and greater traction.

Cross = Finding Your Pedals

Some of the more distinctive aspects of cyclocross is the mass start, “run-up” (1st image), and “barriers” (2nd image) feature…

Powers opted to always stay on his bike, while Trebon ran the barriers and stairs. © Amy Dykema

Obviously, every time you unclip from the pedals you need to clip back into them again.  This is a huge area that most new to the sport miss out on which costs them A TON of time and is also responsible for poor starts.  Just like anything else though, if you practice, practice, practice, you will improve upon it and be beating your friends off the start line and over the barriers!

Improve Your Clipping-in:

Race Start Drill

  • Ride to a grassy area that gives you at least 500 feet of distance to safely ride.
  • Start in your “sprint gear” and have your dominant foot on the ground with both pedals being horizontal to the ground.
  • Imagine being surrounded by people to your side and behind you (i.e. sprint in a straight line!).
  • When you are ready, EXPLODE off the line and quickly clip your opposite foot back in again.  Ride ALL OUT until the end of your imaginary start tunnel and then easy spin back again.

Barrier Drill

  • Start with imaginary barriers at first and just practice rolling up to the barrier, unclipping, lifting the bike up by the top tube and over both barriers, then clipping in again.
  • Once you get that down, then place some planks in front of you and practice the same as above, but this time jumping over the barriers.
  • Do this again and again working on unclipping and lifting the bike as close to the barriers as possible, taking as few steps between the barriers, and remounting/clipping in again as quick as possible.

Shouldering Drill

  • Sometimes the run-up is very long or there is a portion of the course that is just un-rideable.  This means you are pushing forward on foot!
  • Follow the same steps as the barrier drills, but this time you are going to grab the bike by the down tube, shoulder the top tube, then reach through and around to grab the opposite handlebar.  This will give you the most stability as well as allow you to run unimpeded.
  • Confused?  Check out the below image of Rider 1…

Cross = Accelerating (ALOT!)

Similar to criterium racing, cross racing features many accelerations, but this time over various and usually slippery/loose terrain.  So, when you do these drills, be sure to STAY SEATED and perhaps drop the cadence a bit to maintain traction.  Be prepared to really feel your glutes and hamstrings work too.

Improve your acceleration ability: Microbursts

  • After you are thoroughly warmed-up…
  • Perform 4-10 minutes (depending on fitness level) of 15 seconds FULL GAS, 15 seconds recovery.
  • When I say FULL GAS, I mean it.  You should be grabbing the bars, and exploding up to speed!  Be sure to STAY SEATED.
  • Rest for 5-10 minutes between and perform 2-4 sets.

Cross = Having Fun!

Cross can be very competitive for some, but the majority of athletes are there just to enjoy themselves, ring some cowbells, yell and heckle at their friends, and perhaps eat some bad food and imbibe.  So, no matter how many times you miss the barriers, can’t find your pedals, even fall over, don’t fret and just enjoy the experience!  Unfortunately cross season is super short (besides for the pros) and taking it too seriously just ain’t cool man.


I mean, in what other sport can you ride a bike dressed as a giraffe?!

Enjoy the mud.

Looking for a ‘cross training plan?

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