The annual changing of the seasons for road cyclists is often looked at as the down season, a time to relax and recuperate before the training for next year begins. But nothing will serve your road cycling more in the year ahead than a stint of cross racing this winter.
Cyclocross (CX) has become all the rage over the past few years. The fun and camaraderie of the sport attracts cyclists from all disciplines, encouraging participants to challenge themselves on courses filled with mud, crud and barriers. And within all of this fun and mayhem, cyclocross can help you to become a faster, more-skilled cyclist.
As the season begins in earnest, let's consider what it is that makes CX a nearly perfect winter sport.
Short on Duration, Long on Intensity
"Sixty minutes of suffering" is a term you'll often hear to describe a cyclocross race. But at most race sites, only the elite men and women are doing a full 60 minutes of racing. For the rest, it'll range between 30 and 45 minutes—a reasonable duration for head-to-toe suffering. Most courses are set so that participants complete laps. Once the winner finishes, everyone else is done too.
More: Cyclocross 101
But because the distance is short, the race starts hard and fast. For first timers and those questioning their fitness, start at the back and see how many people you can pass. A similar strategy is to take the first lap at a reasonable pace and push yourself harder in the laps that follow.
This strategy is a good way to start because it's easy to start too fast and spend the rest of the race suffering. If you aren't carrying some decent road fitness, or haven't trained specifically for the CX season, you should avoid those nine and 10 level efforts in the beginning of the race. It's too difficult to dig a huge aerobic hole in the first lap and expect to recover and get back into a rhythm, because you'll be riding at the frayed edge of composure. Just try to negotiate the obstacles and retain some semblance of your pacing during the first lap. You can always increase your pace in the laps that follow.
Embrace the Technical
A season of cyclocross will improve bike-handling skills dramatically. You'll learn how to maneuver your bike out of problems, how to anticipate obstacles and how to navigate varied terrain surfaces, ranging from pavement to grass, gravel to mud, and everywhere in between.