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How to get better at cyclocross

Been bitten by the cyclocross bug? Dave Smith offers advice to improve life in the dirt

You’ve done it haven’t you? A couple of cyclocross races and you’re both hooked and demoralised. It’s like that is cyclocross.

So, how can you improve? Before looking at what will make you fast, let’s tackle what is most likely making you slow.

Off and on

You could quite easily lose 10 seconds every time you get off your bike, and get back on your bike. Ten seconds doesn’t seem like much, but it is when you stop and watch someone ride off 10 seconds before you do. So treat dismounts and remounts as the skills that they are and practise them, then practise them some more. Then do it again.

And another thing – before you jump off the bike, consider what gear you’d like to be in when you’re jumping back on it. If you jump off on flat pavement you might be over-geared when you jump back onto it on a muddy incline, and you’ll grind to a halt and probably swear in front of a small child.

Run for it

The next aspect of a cyclocross race that causes pain and time loss is the run sections. Many riders assume that before cyclocross season they need to become pretty much international level fell runners. The good news is that you don’t. The bad news is that a summer of cycling will not help when it comes to the generally short running sections in cyclocross.

Tight calves, hip-flexors and hamstrings are the key issues to address – daily stretching and mobility exercises are key. Think of the angle your ankle is at when cycling, then when running up a steep grassy bank. Quite a difference, and the source of many a pulled Achilles tendon.

Just a couple of short running sessions each week will help, but gear them towards short, sharp shocks – 20-metre hill reps, preferably including dismounts and so on. Combine trail walks with short run sections on rough terrain. Or intervals up and down flights of steps. Again, you don’t need to be a runner, just a cyclist who can move quickly on two feet over short distances.

Root causes

Technical ineptitude will also make you slow – tackling barriers, diagonal wet roots and off-camber corners. Practise the stuff you don’t like as that will make for disproportionate improvements. Most technical aspects are down to where your centre of gravity is and the use of momentum. Timing is key. If that doesn’t scare you off, get out there and ride a section over and over again, try different hand and foot positions, speeds, tyre pressures and so on.

Go faster

So, dismounts, running and technical ineptitude are making you slow. What could make you fast? Cyclocross is a killer for sustained high power efforts with little recovery. When power drops it’s simply an indication that it’s about to go up again. So the ability to ride at sustained power and also move from low to high power is key.

An excellent session is 6 x 4mins hard effort round a football field, with the need to accelerate after slowing for each corner. This also develops cornering skill as you won’t want to lose too much speed. Between efforts, just cruise at an easy pace for 2 mins. The efforts should be very hard, no conversations possible other than an internal dialogue about hating cyclocross.

Lower cadences with high power is another key attribute to develop – think mud and sand pits. And a good way to develop it is by hitting the bottom of a long drag in a big gear. You don’t need to go to the top, just 10-15 seconds of effort, then come back down and do it again, keeping the gear high and the cadence around 60rpm, slide back in the saddle and give it welly – muddy welly, that is.

Finally, let’s get you good at short, steep climbs, little buggery banks that only take 5 seconds or so to get up. Squat jumps will be a great off-bike exercise, just 3 sets of 15 jumps a few times a week can boost climbing power. Then find some short climbs and try them both at a fast entry and slow turn in. Mix it up, no need for dozens of repeats, 6-8 would be fine combined with the other training you’re doing.

And don’t forget how much fun cyclocross is, and how much you hate it.

Dave Smith has been involved in coaching cyclists in all disciplines for more than 25 years. A former GB national and Olympic road coach, Dave has trained Tour stage winners and Olympic medallists, world champions and numerous national champions. In addition he has applied his quirky and counter intuitive thinking to help dozens of regular cyclists, polo players and F1 drivers. He rides 250 miles a week on and off-road in all weathers.

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