Cyclo-cross appeals to many because of the various elements involved: the training, the variety of course terrain, the skills involved to tackle this terrain. What’s not discussed as much, yet is no less interesting, is the homework you do the hours before your race. This all-important pre-race investigation can make the difference between an average, a good, a great, and a winning ride.
You have a pre-race ritual. The ritual should begin something like this: get to the race at least two hours ahead of time. Meal-wise, eat a light breakfast at least three-and-half hours ahead of your start time. At the venue, before you do anything, put on your shoes and ride the course once it’s open – this is the prefatory matter.
Many times racing is still going on, so roll along the outside, looking for the key or slower sections. Watch the riders, look for the leaders, understand their lines. Look at the course and understand how they’re going so much faster through the more technical parts. Then watch the riders who are mid-pack and see the difference between the two: maybe it’s how they set up for the turns or off-cambers, or the line they take, but there definitely will be a difference between the leaders and the riders behind. Discern that difference, your ride will be better.
As you watch, and as you pre-ride, take in every detail—you’ll be surprised how differently the course will appear. Make mental notes where people are bobbling, where terrain looks tricky—where there’s a root or slippery dirt section, where the gnarly off-camber sections are. See how different riders approach and take the run-up, how they time their dismounts, how they’re shouldering the bike. You can learn so much from watching these riders blow by, even riders who are slower than you. By watching others, you understand the dynamic of the course.
These keen observations are important, because when you race, many times you are caught just following the wheel in front. As you watch and as you pre-ride, you freely digest the entire course, seeing alternative lines. Sometimes there’s “the line,” that the 85% take, and sometimes there’s a faster line that you won’t see until you ride the section solo.
If you can do multiple laps in the pre-ride, prefer to go alone at first. Get in the zone and burn all the course’s nooks and crannies to memory. When you get to a turn that you must brake through, ride the same section three or four times to find the best line. Is it faster to stay wide all the way through a turn instead of hitting the apex? Find what works on a section of the course and maximize it. Success in cyclo-cross is about doing these million tiny things correctly and minimizing mistakes.
It often doesn’t matter how others ride the fastest through tricky sections—what matters most is how you can get through these sections as quickly as possible. Absorb how others take these lines as you spectate early on, then try these lines yourself. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t—but figure all of this out two hours before you even start racing. Maybe some guys are really good at off-cambers, can stay loose and just let the bike go through the turn, but maybe you’re faster putting a foot out and tripoding here—even if no one else is doing it. So keep tripoding and maybe, with enough confidence, in later laps you’ll start railing the turn with both feet clipped in.
The more you analyze the top riders and see how they approach and tackle technical spots on the course, the more you will start to emulate what they do. If you can’t do it now, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to in two months. During these pre-rides, you really do start to develop that ’cross brain. Some of the best riders take lines that aren’t typically “the line.” By observing them as you walk, you gain an understanding of what they see that the other 90 percent didn’t. You’ll start to pick up on these small details—and in the end, all these small details add up to big improvements in your race.
Take the first lap very slowly: no stops, just absorbing everything the course has to offer. See how what you observed translates to the ride. At slower speeds, you can really see what’s going on.
After this first lap, ride the course again, can up the pace, doing redos on the most challenging sections. Try two or three different lines. Figure out what seems best, pick up speed, try these lines out again.
This process, breaking the course down into its parts, gets you in tune with the terrain, producing a more effective ride. Before the race starts, you already know the course better than your competition. In the race, you might be forced to take three different lines through a section—by pre-riding, you’ve already done them. Instead of questioning, braking, backing off, you bomb through and pass riders and make up time that could lead to a much better result in the end—all because of diligent recon.
With each lap, go to the pump and change tire pressure, seeing what seems to hook up best. Or, start with more air before you ride, then use your SKS Air Checker and let out subtle PSI every few minutes on-course. After two or three laps, you see what pressure works best.
KNOW YOUR CORNERS
Cornering technique, race lines, carrying your speed – improving your ability to corner is something you must focus on heavily.
The technical sections are important, but all sections are also important – even the straightaways are important, because you take great speed into the turn at the end, and you need to find the speed that’s just right. Many times, it’s better to go slower than you’d initially think into these turns, then smoothly accelerate or carve out.
Establish your pacing goals during your pre-ride. The easy sections of the course can be misleading. Just because you can pedal at 25 mph up to a corner doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the fastest way through it. Your recon laps are where you can find out which sections you can really rip and which ones require you to slow down.
If you can get your braking set ahead of time, you can just flow through the corner, as opposed to going, “Oh shit, I gotta hit my brakes now!” You always want to get your braking completed before you get to a corner. Ideally, you accelerate through or out of the corner, and you lose that dynamic when you brake. When you brake, when you try to re-adjust your line, when the bike changes speeds, the treads potentially skid, you lose traction.
A friend of mine crashed at a USGP during the practice laps because he didn’t walk the course or ride it slowly first. He started doing hot laps immediately and approached a straightaway that was fast and pan flat, but unbeknownst to him was very greasy. At speed his wheels slipped out from under him and he fell and broke his rib—season over, and during the warm-up! And he’s a Cat-1 and former winner of the MAC series, a very good rider.
When racing, try to never follow wheels. Just look ahead, know your race lines, and race your own race. In road racing, you always track your eyes ahead, no matter if it’s a hilly road race or a twisty crit. Where your eyes go, you go. In ’cross, it’s the same principle. You never want to stare down at the wheel in front of you and follow it—because who the hell is this guy in front of you? He might be taking a crappy line and screw you up—and if you’ve pre-ridden the course, you’ll immediately see this guy maybe isn’t on the best line, and you’ll confidently know that you’re doing the right thing by following your own path. Be confident – you didn’t do all this work to not succeed.
After easy laps, do one or two “hotter” laps, opening the legs. This routine makes for an ideal warm-up for the body. Mind and body are in a great place before the race begins.
Talk with your teammates and experienced racers, know exactly how the riders are called to the line, how far in advance – you want to be ready for this. Get to the start early and do a few mock starts, sip your sports drink, roll around and stay loose – you are ready, you cannot wait to race. A great start sets the tone for a great race.
If you’re thinking about trying new tires, new whatever, don’t do it – nothing new on race day. Everything has been used in training and you know your bike like an extension of your body. Make sure the drivetrain is butter and the tires are dialed – punctures, burped tires, rolled tubulars, gashed sidewalls – these setbacks happen in racing and many times can be avoided with proper preparation.
As you roll around before the start, keep focusing on the race effort. You know every millimeter of the course, visualize the race lines, the forced alternate lines in traffic, fighting through a group, block-passing a rival, see everything. You cannot get lazy out there for one single second – course tape into the derailleur, one crash, bouncing off a competitor and dropping a chain – you cannot afford to have any setbacks, so see yourself avoiding all of this chaos.
WHEN YOU’RE PREPARED, YOU’RE RELAXED
The pre-ride has an important benefit: as you get a feel for the course, you loosen up. Staying relaxed and not tightening up often gives ’crossers the ability to tackle treacherous terrain. When you get tight, nervous, and stiff, the bike won’t do what you want it to do. When you tense up, you usually hit the brakes, bouncing, slipping, losing traction, and you lose the ability to shock-absorb with your body. That’s when you make mistakes, don’t see the line properly, and crash. But when you’re loose and confident, you will let the bike roll smoothly, and you’ll be amazed at how much traction is possible.
The best riders are using the corners and the technical sections to go faster than everyone else. Many times, they can bomb through these sections, recovering where the less-technically-savvy rider will have to hammer. And they’ll still go 15 seconds faster than them per lap as the race progresses.
Professionals are efficient because they know where they can back it off a peg or two. On these straights, where more “roadie-ish” riders have to hammer, the better ’cross riders can back off, knowing they’re going to open gaps on all the turns in the course. And they can confidently race this way because they’ve pre-ridden the course and have analyzed it thoroughly and appropriately.
Your Race Day Ritual is just as important as your intervals, just as important as your diet, just as important as your recovery. The best riders do this type of homework. If you want to beat your competition, you need to do what they won’t, going the extra step and really trying to understand every detail of the course and knowing why you’re hitting these sections the way you do.
Your method might be slightly different, but as long as you are out there looking, analyzing, trying different lines—in short, being “pro” by doing your homework— your performances will improve incredibly.
Kenneth Lundgren is a regular contributor for Cyclocross Magazine. His latest article, in this month’s latest issue, addresses how to train year-round for cyclocross, the best approaches for road racers, MTBers, and trackies. His next article is about how to drive your bike through mud, sand, and loose gravel – check out CX Magazine, one of the best cycling publication on the market and available at all major retailers.