If you’re looking for a fun way to take your cycling to the next level and get a regular competitive fix this winter, look no further than the muddy world of cyclocross. We also include three key workouts to get you ready…
As well as the anaerobic threshold-, power- and strength-boosting fitness benefits that these frenetic 45–60min off-road blasts deliver, they also help hugely when it comes to improving your bike-handling skills.
Poor bike handling is a criticism that’s often levelled at triathletes – with some justification – and, with non-drafting age-group racing emphasising fitness over technique, it’s an area that tends to be neglected in training.
Picture the challenges you might encounter at any race though – that tight 180° turn in the wet, a competitor that cuts you up or an unexpected pot-hole. If you haven’t got the skills to deal with them, your race could be over – even the strongest biker is going nowhere if they’re lying on the tarmac.
Cyclocross is a guaranteed shortcut to those ‘get out of jail free’ handling skills, and being able to nail a fluid flying mount or dismount at transition always saves you a few crucial seconds (and draws admiring glances).
Cyclocross (CX) is probably the most accessible form of bike racing there is. There are races in parks all over the country every weekend during the winter, the majority of which you can enter on the day.
You don’t even need a dedicated CX bike to take part, as most local races allow mountain bikes. But be warned: CX is highly addictive and you may find yourself wanting a knobbly-tyred racer after only a few outings.
If you ride through the winter anyway, you won’t need additional clothing and, even on the coldest days, you’ll be warm after a couple of laps.
Mountain bike shoes with treaded soles and recessed cleats, along with multi-sided pedals, are the only real requirements for easy mounts and dismounts (although traditional flat pedals and sturdy running shoes will do if you don’t want to invest straight away).
Races are run over a number of short laps, so you’ll almost always find yourself battling a rider of similar ability, trying to beat your best split time or just trying to ride a tricky section cleanly. So, what are you waiting for?
Three key workouts
Follow these three sessions to build your skills and fitness for maximum off-road impact:
SESSION 1 – SKILLS
KIT REQUIRED: CX bike/MTB, cones, bamboo canes and ideally some mates
TERRAIN: Your local park, playing fields or waste ground
BENEFITS: Builds the skills, handling techniques and stop-go fitness necessary for racing DURATION: 70–80mins
WARM-UP: 10mins gentle riding on road or flat trails, gradually building intensity. Then jog for 5mins doing a 25sec stride effort every minute. Complete your warm-up with 5mins of mobility drills such as high knees, heel flicks and walking lunges with jogging recoveries.
MAIN SESSION: Lay out a short loop in the area you’re riding on. It needn’t be big, but include plenty of tight corners, 180° turns and forced dismounts (use the bamboo canes and cones to create hurdles). If you can get some climbs and descents into your route (rideable or not), so much the better.
Perform 3-4 x 10min race efforts around the loop, trying to complete each lap as fast and as smoothly as possible. Work on picking the right lines, balance, gear selection and maximising traction as well as your mounts and dismounts. This is a lot more exciting if you do it with a few friends. Do 5mins light spinning or easy jogging between efforts to recover.
COOL-DOWN: 5-10mins of easy spinning.For video tutorials on correct mount/dismount techniques go to www.britishcycling.org.uk.
SESSION 2 – ROAD TEMPO FARTLEK
KIT REQUIRED: Road bike
TERRAIN: Safe road route, with climbs and corners but no long descents
BENEFITS: Develops your ability to recover while riding at threshold level with multiple high-end efforts
WARM-UP: 10mins easy spinning, gradually building intensity from 60% to 75% of your HRmax. Follow that with 5mins riding at 75-85% HRmax and finish the warm-up with 5mins alternating between 20sec sprints and 40secs of easy spinning to recover.
MAIN SESSION: 2 x 20mins with 5mins recovery. Ride most of the 20mins at approx. 85% HRmax (tempo/threshold intensity), but exit the corners and ride the climbs hard, with almost-max effort surges. Keep these fairly short (5-10secs) and include 15-20 surges in each 20min effort, but try to hold tempo/threshold pace as you recover.
Vary the surges to include out-of-the-saddle sprints, high-gear seated climbing and fast-spinning bursts. If you’re training with friends, take turns on the front with the lead rider initiating the surges and everyone else reacting to them.
COOL-DOWN: 10mins of easy riding.
SESSION 3 – OFF-ROAD LONG RIDE
KIT REQUIRED: CX bike/MTB
TERRAIN: As varied as possible
BENEFITS: A long day on the trails is akin to an extended interval session as you tackle the numerous climbs, technical sections and obstacles that force you to increase your effort. You’ll have ample opportunities to test the limits of your bike handling, and it gets you off winter roads when the snow and ice sets in.
WARM-UP: Ride the first 10-20mins at a steady pace on easy trails or roads.
MAIN SESSION: Ride for at least 2hrs, predominantly at 65-75% of your HRmax but putting in higher-intensity efforts as the terrain dictates. Use lanes to link up sections of trail and don’t be afraid to explore the by-ways you’d never dare head down on a road bike.
Don’t underestimate what a CX bike can tackle – most red routes at trail centres are fair game. Use any unrideable sections to practise your dismounts and mounts, as well as getting used to what it feels like to shoulder your bike and run. Don’t forget to keep yourself fuelled up and carry spares, extra clothing and maps – and always let someone know your plans.
COOL-DOWN: 10mins of easy riding followed by a long soak in the bath.
Top image: Henry Iddon