With the end of the road season upon us, cyclocross offers a great offseason training program for the serious cyclist and multisport athlete. It's a great way to increase your strength, power and bike-handling abilities.
A precursor to mountain biking, cyclocross differs from its more popular offspring in a number of ways. A true 'cross bike employs the cantilever brakes and knobby tires of a mountain bike, but on a road-style frame with drop bars, reversed brake levers and 700c wheels. And about a third of the typical 'cross course is designed to be covered on foot at a dead run, carrying the bike over obstacles, up hills and through muddy, open fields.
The best thing about a cyclocross workout is that it's rarely dull. The wide variations in terrain and weather conditions will keep your brain occupied with searching out the best line and send your heart rate peaking and plummeting like a roller coaster. You'll go anaerobic for short stretches while powering over short, muddy rises or running uphill with the bike; get some lactate-threshold work on the flats; and recover on descents.
If you're not running already, begin with short runs at a moderate pace. On level ground, preferably in woods or pastures, or in a city park. Gradually introduce interval-style efforts, including jumping rocks or logs and uphill sprints. Cyclocross runs are short, sharp efforts, not long, steady jogs.
Keep the sprints down to about 10 to 15 seconds at first, then build up to 30 to 60 seconds. Once you've got your running legs under you, try running with a bike on your shoulder.
You should practice your riding on a course that has all the ingredients of a cyclocross circuit: uphills, descents, hurdles and mud. You must train to handle a wide variety of conditions and situations with minimum effort and maximum fluidity. Sections that you can bull through on a fat-tired mountain bike will require more finesse on a cyclocross bike.
Here are two tips for getting you through the rough patches:
Keep up your momentum. You must always be searching out the best line down the trail, when there is traction to be had, and then applying lots of pressure to the pedals, in a gear that's neither too high nor too low. You don't want to get bogged down in too big a gear or let your rear wheel spin because you are in too low a gear.
Keep your body and pedaling motion smooth. This also applies to mounting, dismounting, cornering, dodging obstacles and braking. Keep them all smooth and you will waste less energy, saving it for those spurts needed in extra-rough spots. You'll also stay in better balance, so you're ready for the unexpected.
If you're already using various forms of cross-training and riding during the offseason, consider adding a 60- to 90-minute cyclocross session on Wednesdays. Spend the first half-hour honing your technique on your practice circuit, then do a hard half-hour, building up over a few sessions to an hour.
Once you're comfortable with your fitness and ability, enter some races on the weekends. It's more fun than riding alone and it definitely beats the hell out of exercising indoors.
Dr. Edmund R. Burke was among the pioneers in applying scientific principles to endurance sports training, especially cycling. As an exercise physiologist, he was responsible for several advances in sports drink formulation and almost single-handedly developed the subcategory of performance recovery drinks. A former director of the Center for Science, Medicine and Technology at the U.S. Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs, he worked with the U.S. Olympic cycling team during the 1980 and '84 Games. Dr. Burke is the author of 17 books on fitness, training and physiology, including the best-selling Optimal Muscle Recovery.