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4 ways to get better at cyclocross - try these simple tricks

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

You’ve done it haven’t you? You've done a couple of cyclocross races and you’re both hooked and demoralised. Cyclocross does that to you.

So, how can you improve? Besides getting generally fitter for the specific effort of a cyclocross race, there are some technical skills that you can work on. Let's take a look at those technical skills that can slow most of us down. 

Off and on

Cyclocross Riding 1

Cyclocross is a unique for of bike racing as a typical race can feature a fair amount of getting off your bike and then getting back on it. That isn't just for fun, there are just some things that you won't be able to ride over.

You could quite easily lose 10 seconds every time you get off your bike, and get back on your bike. This might not seem like much, but it can become significant when you multiply it by several dismounts per lap and multiple laps. So treat dismounts and remounts as the skills that they are and practise them, then practise them some more. Find some level, grassy ground and as it can be a scary skill to learn, follow these coaching points:

  1. Prepare your speed - just above walking pace to begin with

  2. Unclip right foot and swing it round to the left side, hanging behind left foot

  3. Place right hand onto the top tube, towards the seat post

  4. Saddle presses into right hip for stability

  5. Put weight on your right hand

  6. Unclip left foot

  7. Start running

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 be crunching your gears to correct your error or simply grinding to a halt.

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Here's how to hop back on:

  1. Start with the bike on your right side

  2. Hands on either tops or hoods

  3. Walk with bike 

  4. Swing right leg over the back of the saddle like you would when climbing over a gate. The right knee leads this action. Aim to slide right inner thigh onto saddle

  5. Push off with left foot to slide yourself forwards and across

  6. Kick pedals with right foot

  7. Clip in left

  8. Practise getting faster. Jog into the action. Run into action

Run for it

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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

Tom Pidcock GP Sven Nys (CorVos:SWpix)

Your confidence over technical terrain will also dictate how fast you can go. Tackling barriers, diagonal wet roots and off-camber corners can be daunting at first, but practising the stuff that you find tricky will help you to get through a technical section much faster. 

Most technical aspects are down to where your centre of gravity is and the use of momentum. Approach a section such as an off-camber descent with slightly bent elbows, your weight back on the saddle and your eyes looking at where you want to exit the section. Then, as you go through the section, keep things loose and don't be afraid to shift your weight around.

You can also try different hand and foot positions, speeds and tyre pressures to really get that pesky section dialled.

The physical bit

Matthieu van der Poel Canyon Inflite Worlds 6-2

So, dismounts, running and technical sections can make you slow. But with our guidance you've just mastered all of that. Now it's onto the actual physical training and we're sorry to say, but this bit involves intervals. 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 around a football field or small course that you've made. Really, you just need somewhere that forces you to accelerate after slowing for each corner.

Doing this session on cyclocross terrain also develops cornering skills as you won’t want to lose too much speed. Between efforts, just cruise at an easy pace for a few minutes. The efforts should be very hard to mimic the intensity of racing.

Lower cadences with high power is another key attribute to develop to help you deal with thick mud and sandpits. Hill repeats can really help here so find a long drag and roll into it in a big gear. Ride for 15-45 seconds at a cadence of around 60rpm. Do this seated, with your weight back in the saddle to replicate a race effort. Roll back down the hill and repeat as many times as you can.

Finally, let’s get you good at short, steep climbs that only take 5 seconds or so to get up. Off the bike, squat jumps will be a great exercise, just 3 sets of 15 jumps a few times a week can boost climbing power. You're aiming to squat down slowly to the point where your thighs are parallel to the ground and then explode up, jumping as high as possible.

Then when you're out on the bike, 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.

Put all of this together and you'll soon be flying around the cyclocross courses. 

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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