The smooth transition from riding to running while carrying a bike is like ballet in motion, and the most difficult trick to master in cyclocross. No one does the maneuver better than Dale Knapp, who spent two months in Europe racing, and watching. Knapp's observations led him to a 23rd-place finish at the 1999 world championships, the best-ever finish by an elite American.
"I certainly ride differently now. There are things that were tough—slippery corners or ice—and I watched the way people who were kicking my butt handled them and learned," Knapp says. "Over there we tried to ride courses for two months that were so crazy and so heinous that anyone back here would just walk away and never race again."
The intangible ingredient, the elusive mental aspect that makes a great cyclocross racer, is something that can't be taught, according to coach Craig Undem.
"A 'cross racer is a guy who is willing to keep riding until he's slobbering and he doesn't even take the energy to wipe his chin. It is the ability to completely focus your energy on cycling," Undem says. "It takes a special character. Someone who's scrappy."
Make sure to spend a few minutes before a race mentally focusing on the task at hand. Starts are critical in cyclocross, so focus on going all-out from the gun to get a good position. Call it the "scrappy focus plan."
After you've pulled a bike together, the little intangibles can make cyclocross more comfortable (an oxymoron, but true). Shave! It's much easier to wash mud off hairless legs. On those shaved legs, rub on heat rub and Vaseline to keep the legs supple and warm.
Use toe spikes if your mountain bike shoes are compatible (visit the soccer section of a sporting goods store for a cheap supply of toe spikes). Lube your clipless pedals and cleats with aerosol cooking spray for smoother release in mud. Don't worry about carrying water bottles or food; in a one-hour race you won't need to refuel.
Walk With a Strut
You've earned it. People might question the sanity of running around in the mud with a bike on your shoulder, but the incredible feeling of satisfaction from finishing a cyclocross race is worth all the pain.