Improving Your Cyclocross Start
By Anne Linton MD
A cyclocross start requires an all out sprint to establish a good position that can impact the remainder of your race. You may have a great start and end up in the lead pack for the race, or have a poor start and spend most of the race playing catch-up. The possible danger to a bullet start is ending up with a group of racers faster than you are capable of keeping up with, blowing up and then fading to the finish. Training specifically for your race start and having a start plan in mind before each race are as important as any other aspect of your cyclocross race.
The CX Race Start Plan
The cross start plan takes into account the course layout, conditions, starting area surface and grade. Position in the group as well as your individual strengths/weaknesses, fitness level, gear selection, position on your bike, foot position, and hand position all need to be considered as part of your start plan.
First, study the course. Pay attention to the surface of the start; what is the course like after the start section? Is it uphill, downhill, narrow, wide, right or left turn onto single track/gravel/mud/snow? If your are unable to pre-ride, watch the races before yours, paying close attention to the start. For example if the start is a gradual uphill straightaway on cement followed by a tight left turn onto gravel, you know you don’t want to be stuck on the inside when the front group makes the left turn or you may get pinched off at the turn and loose precious time. If you are in the front row and can get to the corner first you probably won’t have to worry, but if you are farther back think about what may happen as the group takes the turn and plan accordingly. Determine the best tire pressure for the current conditions.
Warming up is crucial to cyclocross racing since the start entails a 20-30 second all out sprint followed by many more hard efforts with short recovery periods. If at all possible, use the individualized Super Warm Up that comes with your Wenzel Coaching training plan. (Contact your coach if you need a copy of the Super Warm Up). A warm up should take at least 45 minutes for a CX race. Start slowly to get your heart rate up then follow up with a few short periods of harder effort with recovery in between and then a nice easy spin for at least 10-15 minutes; put on dry clothes, drink and get to the start line. Be sure to drink an electrolyte/carbohydrate drink while doing your warm up. Warm ups may be best done on the trainer after you have had an opportunity to preride the course.
Decide where you want to be in the group- right, left or middle? The middle is usually best if you are lined near the front row. If you aren’t in the first row it is good to know some of your competition and know who is a good starter and who is not. You want to try to get behind those who you know are good starters. Whether you are lined up to the right or left will depend mostly on the direction of the first turn. If it’s a left you’ll likely want to be near the right side, an vice versa. The farther back you are lined up, usually the less the side you are lined up on matters and it matters more who you are behind.
Before you line up you need to decide what gear you want to be in for the start. Try to choose an easier gear initially and shift into a harder gear once you get going. You don’t want to start in too hard of a gear that keeps you from getting moving when the gun goes off. If you have two chainrings, it will likely be best to start in your big chainring but in a gear that still allows a quick start followed by quick shifts into bigger gears. Be careful once you are in your chosen gear not to backpedal and risk knocking the chain off the desired gear.
Position on the Bike
Do you sit on your seat with one foot clipped in or do you lean on your top tube? This is a personal preference but whatever you choose you should practice. You want to have one foot clipped in at roughly a 2 o’clock position that will allow an initial push off the line to give you momentum enough to clip in your other foot. The foot clipped in the ready position will usually be your dominant leg (likely the one you would use to kick a soccer ball). Do you start with your hands in the drops or on the hoods? Be sure to know and practice this. Sometimes being on the hoods can allow you to see over the tops of the other riders a bit better to avoid trouble spots ahead.
And the …Start
Take a few deep breaths; listen for the starter gun or whistle and go! Try to get clipped in as fast as possible and sprint until you can get in position for that first corner. Don’t panic if your foot doesn’t clip in right away, you can still push the pedal without being totally clipped in. Look at this just like any sprint, start in an easier gear and shift into harder gears as you get going. Regardless of your fitness, if you are near the front of a big group, stay in the front through the first part of the course since being behind often results in bottlenecks and loss of valuable time. Don’t sprint long enough or hard enough to blow up and avoid being in the very front unless the course is extremely technical and without wind. Many riders overlook the benefit of drafting in cyclocross because they don’t want to deal with spatter from the tire in front, but drafting can still save valuable time on straightaways and sweeping turns.
Training for a CX Start
The physiology of cyclocross racing, and in particular starts, will require you to sprint well and produce variable power throughout the race. In addition you need to work on your lactate threshold so you can last the entire race. You should not work any of these energy systems until you have a good base and then begin intervals you can do to do improve your lactate threshold. Essentially you would do the same sprint practice as you would for road racing, with short maximal efforts of a minute or less followed by a recovery period. In particular, you’ll want to work on quick starts with all out sprints that lead into threshold intervals. If you have been following a Wenzel Coaching cyclocross plan, you are well prepared.
Practicing a CX Start
One of the ways we have our clients practice cyclocross starts is to actually find a mini course that has both a straightaway to start on and then a turn onto gravel or dirt within a few hundred meters. Find some friends to practice with and simulate race starts. Get in your position standing with your bike, one foot out, one foot in your pedal, hands in the appropriate position and use a stopwatch and count down to a predetermined time to start. Ideally, you would have someone off the bike do the starting count and then film the start for you to review. The filming doesn’t have to be hi-tech; the video can even be done with a smart-phone. You want to give a good 20-30 sec sprint to get started. Practice getting clipped in right away, use different gear selections for different starting scenarios (uphill, downhill, gravel, mud) and practice switching gears as you accelerate. Practice taking the corner and then do about 5 minutes of a simulated cyclocross course so you can see what it is like to start and then to settle into a rhythm/effort level you would be able to hold in a race. Do 4 or 5 of these simulated starts lasting 5 minutes with a good amount of recovery in between. Try to figure out your own effort level that can get you a good start without blowing you up for the remainder of the race. Race pace for cross is near your LT on the average, so this is a hard workout. Schedule it for a time when you are well recovered, and when you have plenty of time to recover before your next race. Talk to your coach about this.
Practice your Le Mans start, where you lay your bike on the ground, start away from your bike and have to start running towards your bike. On the gun, you run to your bike, get on and go! This will also help you work on your mounts in cyclocross. Also you can just practice getting clipped in over and over so as to master this aspect of the start.
If you are new to cyclocross racing, riding in a tight pack can be intimidating. Practice some bumping drills on grass with your friends so you feel what it is like to get bumped in a race and stay upright. Also get used to riding on dirt, gravel, grass, off camber. All these things will help you when you go out for your first cyclocross race.
Now all you have to do is practice. So get a group of your cyclocross buddies, find a park and go out and practice your starts. You will definitely notice improvement after a few sessions. Good luck and have fun out there!