As I stare out of my window into the New England woods, I become all too familiar with the impending autumn. The days are growing shorter and the evening air much crisper. Despite all the beauty of the changing leaves, I can only think of one thing: cyclocross season is almost here!
When the road racing season draws to a close many riders simply hang up their bikes for a few months, resigning themselves to indoor gym classes and the occasional weekend group ride, if the weather is nice. But for a growing group of racers, the fall season brings out the cyclocross bikes: machines akin to standard road bikes but with no water bottles, nobby tires and cantilever brakes.
The sport started about a century ago in Europe when road racers looking to continue their racing and training during the winter were forced across fields and over fences to avoid the snow covered roads. This new cycling discipline steadily grew into the very popular sport we now have today. When people ask me for a description, I tell them to imagine Steeplechase events, but on bicycles. The sport is a mass start bike race on a course loop that takes about seven or eight minutes to complete, with less than half on pavement and low hurdles and other obstacles like sand pits or dirt hills that often force a rider off of his bike to carry it and run. The races are held over a time length of 45 or 60 minutes, rather than a number of laps or a preset distance. The sport is a fantastic spectator event, as they are often held in parks or fields where one can watch most of the race lap from one location.
What makes this sport both fun and demanding is how it requires the athlete to not only be a strong cyclist, but also to be good at bike handing skills, a solid runner and have upper body strength to lift or carry the bicycle when needed. As such, the training for this sport is very different from normal cycling and sometimes can even favors triathletes.
The training for this sport often starts well before the season begins (usually in mid September), which can be tricky. Although the running distances can be short in cyclocross, their intensity and ability to change a race require that the racers be good at it. However, your average cyclist does not run much during the season. Often in August they will try to get out once a week for a short run, and then step it up much more once Labor Day arrives. The type of running required in a race usually means some track workouts for short intense speed, a few trail runs to help with the balance and high step exercises like stadium stairs and grass drills.
The intense pace and power required to go as fast as possible for under an hour also requires very strong core muscle strength. Cycling specific workouts including abdominal and lower back building exercises like crunches and planks are good and should be worked into the weekly routine as soon as possible, and then throughout the cyclocross season to prevent injury and muscle exhaustion.
Upper body workouts are also needed to help condition the arms, hands and shoulders for the lifting and carrying of the bike. Monkey lifts, wrist curls and box or ball pushups are a great way to help with this part.
And on the bike itself, most workouts are shorter and more explosive; taking advantage of the yearlong fitness level that most cyclists and multisport athletes have built. The need to be able to push the bike at high levels through the grass and mud requires that the racers can handle high intensity levels almost all the time.
Of course, the most important thing is to practice the sport itself when you train. Although you might look a little silly running around your local town park carrying your bicycle, getting use to doing all the different things associated with cyclocross is absolutely crucial.
Cyclocross is great for all levels of athletes as the bicycles are comparatively inexpensive and an entry level ride will get you through a whole season of beginner races. It is also a great way to continue your season a bit longer and stay fit in the process. The next year is always a lot easier to start when you come off of a three month racing season of fitness and power. Cyclocross racing also helps prevent burnout as you are doing a whole new sport that continues to benefit your summertime goals.