Time to Train for Cyclocross? The conflict between road and cross seasons

Cyclocross, which started as a way for road racers to have fun, add some variety to their training programs and avoid racing withdrawal in fall and winter has recently become a major sport in its own right. Where wrecking road bikes with knobby tires by racing them across fields, through rivers or over hills in the mud and snow used to be a winter pastime for a few deeply disturbed individuals, it has become a year-round passion for many thousands of deeply disturbed individuals. It used to be a playful winter activity that riders did when conditions made road riding unpleasant. Now people train for it year round and make it their cycling focus.

Riders used to take their most beat up road bike, mount knobby tires and maybe weld on some cantilever brakes to create a “cross bike”. Even 15 years ago most serious cross riders had one if not several parts that they had Gerry-rigged in their own shop because there was no commercial source: chain guards made by breaking all the teeth off an old chain ring and chain retainers made by mounting a front derailleur with no cable or shifter were common. Now you can buy ready-to-ride ‘cross bikes with ‘cross-specific geometry, brakes and drive trains. Even though these bikes will be covered with mud much of the time when actually in use, the old scratch-and-rust finishes have been replaced by drop-dead gorgeous paint jobs. Most cyclocross racers nowadays drop good money on shiny new, purpose-built machines that require no special tweaks to make them ‘cross-ready.

While ‘cross used to be a sport for riders from places with nasty winter weather like the UK, Belgium and the snow-bound North-Eastern United States, it has become so popular that riders all over the U.S. are showing up in large numbers, even in places like Arizona and Southern California that are warm and dry in winter. In some places promoters even flood parts of dry courses to create mud for an authentic cyclocross experience. By now, perhaps the majority of road racers have at least pondered racing ‘cross.

What, other than a pretty serious mental imbalance, could make someone want to drop a thousand dollars or more on a bike, and then ride it in conditions guaranteed to make it need new parts almost immediately? What could make someone think of mud and sleet as perfect conditions for a race? Of shin-barking barriers as parts of a great course? There are two types of cross racers. There are road and MTB racers who are in denial that their seasons have ended, and there are the true cyclocross racers who live for the grit between their teeth, the rhythm of the dismount and remount and the clang of cowbells.

Why Roadies should Race ‘Cross

If you are really a dyed in the wool cyclocross racer, you are going to race ‘cross no matter what anyone says about your priorities or your sanity. For racers who are mainly roadies, there are some good reasons to enter cyclocross races, and also some good reasons not to. On the plus side, cyclocross is a crash-course (pun intended) in bike handling. Riders who have learned to cruise through off camber turns on hard packed, bumpy dirt with a dusting of loose sand or tree roots with a slick coating of mud are not going to brake for dry-pavement crit corners. When confronted by a clot of riders road-shoulder to road-shoulder in a large-field road race with no other way to the front at a key moment, the ‘cross racer will be comfortable passing on the dirt shoulder. Bunny hopping skill can save wheels, and I’ve seen the ability to hop a curb save several riders from crashing. Dismounting, running and remounting might even let one avoid getting dropped when stuck behind a pile up. Mastered, these elements of bike handling can pay off in reduced bike expenses and injuries, and in increased podium spots.

If you are strong on a bike and tired of being pipped at the line by wheel suckers, ‘cross might be for you. Cyclocross racing is hard enough that the field sorts by fitness and skills with no chance of a win by a rider who hasn’t worked.

Cyclocross raced well is like a time-trial videogame with stationary and moving obstacles, some of which are other riders. There are even temporary “power ups” in the form of drafting opportunities. Winning cyclocross in one’s appropriate category requires an excellent sensitivity to effort, self-control, and knowledge of one’s own capacity. There is intense temptation to go too hard when trying to stay with faster riders. The ability to overcome that temptation transfers well to crits and road races where not chasing all the breaks is a key lesson riders need to learn if they hope to get  on the podium.

Why Road Racers Should not Race ‘Cross

The principle downside of ‘cross for road riders is the temptation to train specifically to be competitive. Most riders can peak for two periods of a few weeks to a few months in one year. That can be one peak for road or MTB season and one for ‘cross, but the timing is not perfect.

The more time one puts into base training before each peak, the higher the peak will be and the longer the peak will last. A few weeks of base riding before transitioning to racing might generate a peak of only a week or two, while after several months of base you should expect a peak of 8-10 weeks.

In parts of the world where road or MTB racing starts early in the year, the ‘cross season falls exactly when a serious road or MTB racer should be maximizing base miles. The ideal time to build base for ‘cross is in early summer, in the heart of the road-racing season. In areas that don’t have severe or long winters, really training for ‘cross unavoidably shortens the road racing season, and really training for road pretty much obliterates the cyclocross season.

In areas with longer winters and road and MTB seasons that start in late spring, there is time to build base between the end of ‘cross season in mid-Winter and the start of spring racing. Building base for ‘cross in mid-summer still requires curtailing the road or MTB season.

Then and Now

In the old days, the best cyclocross fields were small and the best cyclocross racers, at least for local races, were among the best road racers as well. Their bikes were modified summer road bikes. They took their summer racing more seriously than their winter racing, so decent road racers could try cyclocross and not be too badly schooled.

In recent years at the same time that ‘cross-specific bikes have become first available and then necessary, more and more riders have begun to focus on ‘cross. Skills and speeds have improved. The best road riders don’t necessarily shine in ‘cross any longer. The bar has been raised.

Modern cyclocross is a serious sport. Many riders train specifically, so those who don’t can no longer routinely show up and finish well. Northern Hemisphere cyclocross training starts in May or June in preparation for a season that runs from late September to mid-December or into January. ‘Cross racers who want to race MTB or road can train up in time to do a few races in April and early May, but then it’s time to get serious about ‘cross again.

A rider who trains specifically for the ‘cross season is not participating in the road season, and a rider who does not train specifically for ‘cross but races anyway and rides hard enough to keep up is going to be tired afterwards, compromising training for a few days. Racing ‘cross week after week means recovering just in time to race again, eliminating any chance of doing high-quality base training until ‘cross season ends. Racing CX week after week with or without specific preparation is detrimental to one’s road-season potential.

Are You Serious About Spring and Summer Racing?

There are two approaches to cyclocross then. You can ride to win, including both race day tactics and preparation, or you can do a few ‘cross races for fun, admitting in advance that you are not preparing specifically for ‘cross, not planning to try to win, and not going to ride all that hard. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean placing badly if you are super-strong.

At this point I have to share a funny story of a former pro road racer whom I was coaching for road racing. In the fall he told me he’d been doing some weekly, local ‘cross races for fun and wanted to continue. I was against his thrashing himself at a time of year when he should have been building base for road so we compromised, agreeing that he could enter the races, so long as he stayed at least 10 beats below LT (zone 3). The funny thing was that with that constraint, he consistently took the same podium place in these races that he had been taking earlier, riding as hard as he could for the first few laps, but he was finishing much less tired. As a result, he was able to maintain his training even while participating in the local ‘cross races.

If you are truly serious about road or MTB racing, want to race a full season, and can’t stand holding back in races, it would be better to forgo ‘cross entirely. If you are most serious about road or MTB racing but really want to race ‘cross anyway, do one race every three weeks or less frequently. Do some technique training at low intensity so you won’t injure yourself on a barrier or run up. By racing once every three weeks you allow enough time to recover from racing and get in a couple of weeks of base training before racing again. By racing once every three weeks or less often, you can have some fun in the fall but still keep developing your base for road or MTB.

All Else Being Equal, Pacing Wins Cyclocross Races

If you are serious enough about ‘cross to skip or shorten your road season, you can train specifically. Whether or not do that, if you are going to compete, you should figure out your pacing strategy since that can make more difference than a few dozen watts of functional threshold power.

After training and bike handling, the most important determinant of success in ‘cross is your ability to identify and stick to your ideal pace. Starting too hard or maintaining the starting pace too long can easily cost several minutes before the end of the race. The problem is that the speed or power one can maintain after riding much above threshold for more than a few minutes is well below what one can do normally. If you look at a power graph or check the lap times of most beginners and even some elite CX racers, you’ll see that they make the error of going very hard early on, then needing to recover for a few laps before they can summon up another big effort near the end. They lose more time in the slow middle laps than they gained on the fast early lap.

Going hard to keep up with the leaders might seem like a good idea. After all, how can you win if you don’t keep up with the leaders? On the other hand, if you blow up after a few laps and fly backward through the field, not only don’t you win, you don’t even place as well as you would have had you started a little easier and maintained a steadier effort. If you are not strong enough to stay with the leaders, you do better by not trying to. After all, if you go hard and blow only to be caught by a rider you passed earlier, you could have gotten to the same place by not going as hard, and you’d have more in the tank for the rest of the race.

Perfect Pace

I referred earlier to ‘cross races being a lot like time trials. In road time trials of durations similar to ‘cross races, the ideal strategy is to maintain close to a steady effort near lactate threshold throughout, going a few watts harder on climbs and headwind sections, and catching a little recovery on descents or with strong tailwinds. Generally you want to stick close to a target average power or heart rate.

From a physiological perspective, it would be great to maintain a steady power output in cross races too, just like in flat time trials, but it’s not possible. Its not that you have to make higher power to get through tricky sections, though that is tempting. The reason it is impossible to do a CX race at steady power is that you’ll need to ease off in some corners, when rolling up on other riders, and in other tricky bits where it would be impossible to stay on the bike at full effort. Easing off for a technical bit creates a physiological opportunity for a short burst of above threshold without exceeding your sustainable average pace.

Ideal pacing for cyclocross involves a hard effort until the first obstacle that forces the pack to single file. That early effort gets you in front of slower riders so you wont be stuck behind them later, but is wasted if you blow up and get passed by the folks you just got in front of. Once you get to the first chokepoint, settle in at your sustainable pace near threshold, backing off for obstacles and then sprinting just long enough and hard enough to use the energy saved coasting into the obstacle and to get back to sustainable speed. On the final lap or two, just go hard.

Riding your perfect pace will get you the highest placing you are physically capable of getting. If you are not a strong as the winners, perfect pacing will see you placing much better than staying with the leaders until you blow. If you are racing ‘cross but not winning, execute a perfect pacing strategy in your next race.

Ready to Try Cyclocross?

Cyclocross racing really is fun and really does offer some benefits for road and MTB racers. If the opportunity arises this fall or winter, give it a try. ‘Cross is also addictive so be careful not to be sucked in if you are serious about road or MTB racing.


Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching routinely help their clients to establish priorities and to make and stick to plans to achieve them, whether that is balancing road with ‘cross racing or training with family life. To inquire about working with Scott or on of the other Wenzel Coaches, please call 503-233-4346 or visit us on the web at www.WenzelCoaching.com. You can find an archive of Scott’s articles at www.WenzelCoaching.com/blog.