As a professional cycling coach, I’ve ridden all types of bikes—road, TT, track, MTB, cyclocross. Of them all, I find ’cross the most challenging. And of all the challenges in ’cross, I find riding off-camber terrain the toughest. Off-camber really means “side-hill.” Why is it so difficult? Well, gravity is trying to pull you down the side-hill, but the course keeps going forward. Traction is limited. With off-cambers and tricky turns, the forces are similar—gravity in off-cambers, inertia in turns, both pulling you away from the direction you want to go. Riders get nervous and tense up on off-cambers because it’s a challenge, they’re on the limit of traction.
In an effort to improve, I recently interviewed ex-pro Team Gary Fisher mountain biker and 2009-2010 Masters 40+ cyclocross national champion Pete Webber for some world-class advice. Here are several tips you can do to ensure off-cambers don’t ruin your race or hold you back.
Kenneth Lundgren: How do you adjust your speed when approaching an off-camber section? When do you make the adjustment?
Peter Webber: You don’t want to brake or accelerate when you have limited traction. If you hit the brakes in a spot like this, your tires are going to break free, and you’re going to slide. So, this means you need to set that speed before you hit the off-camber section. If you’re on the edge of traction, you’re going to want to slow down—it’s natural. The instinct is to touch the brakes. But if you touch those brakes, you can completely lose control and flow. And then you either need to put a foot down, or you can’t turn. It’s hard to turn and maneuver when you’re braking. Slow to a speed you can control beforehand, and do your best to stick with it.
Lundgren: Is there anything that you recommend that riders do with their upper bodies to maintain control?
Webber: Stiff arms and legs can cause the tires to bounce and lose grip. You need to be relaxed and let the arms and legs act like shock-absorbers. Let the bike move and float under your body. If your body is stiff and tense, you will risk the bike losing traction as it bounces across any bumps in the terrain. You want it to roll and float. Let yourself be light in the saddle. You’re not standing up out of the saddle, but you’re also not seated with all your weight. You are seated but seated lightly on the saddle. Butt is on the seat—the saddle is there, and then it’s not there. There are undulations in the terrain, and your arms and legs should be working softly to keep the tires on the ground.
Lundgren: When coming into a tricky section, how are you deciding where to ride?
Webber: Look for any areas of good traction. Aim for any areas of good traction that will help you stay on the slope. So it could be edges, ruts, areas where there is no mud, snow or ice, good grass, whatever it might be. Put your tires on those edges. At the same time, while you’re scanning the terrain, you also want to look where you want the bike to go, rather than the obstacles you’re trying to avoid. So don’t stare down in front of your wheel—look where you want to go, and look ahead. Head up. When you look down, you’re overreacting to things right in front of you. You need to be looking ahead, so you can go fast and think about the big terrain, not the small picture right in front of you.
Lundgren: I’m sure this is a tough thing to describe in the abstract, but how do you pick a line through off-camber terrain?
Webber: You want to stay as high as you can on an off-camber section, because you’ll often lose height as you drift across a slope. Losing height down the slope is far easier than trying to climb back up if you’re too low. So choose a line that keeps you as high as you can rather than starting low. However, all of that is very much situational primarily based upon areas of good traction. You wouldn’t want to start high if it’s a slippery part of the slope. And if there’s a groove on the bottom that works all the way across a section, you should use that. But if it’s uniform from top to bottom, then start high. If you start high, and you don’t set a good line and basically wuss out and just start heading down, eventually you’re gonna hit the edge of the course, and you’re going to have to make a big correction. And you’re probably going to crash. A frequent way people crash in ’cross is on big off-cambers—they’re gonna start high, and they go, “Whoa, this is sketchy!” And they bail and turn down and then there’s the course tape and then: Bam! You have to hold your line. Don’t wuss out and turn downhill, and don’t make abrupt steering corrections when you’re on an off-camber.
Lundgren: What about more subtle corrections? And what if your wheels slip?
Webber: If your wheels slip, and it’s going to happen, don’t panic. Any tension will only increase the likelihood of a crash. So you have to let your wheels drift and slip without locking up your hands and arms on the bars because this tension is going to cause the tires to further lose grip. Let the wheels drift. Get comfortable with letting the tires slide a little bit. Head to a local park and find a local turn and keep railing it faster and faster until you feel that two-wheel drift. You need to get comfortable experiencing this sensation.
Lundgren: I see a lot of riders unclipping their inside (in a corner) or higher up (on a straight off-camber section) foot. When is that appropriate?
Webber: If it’s extremely slippery, it can be helpful to take your uphill foot out of the pedal as an outrigger to help your balance and to catch a slip or a fall. But only do this when it is extremely slippery. If traction is fair to good, keep both feet in the pedals. “Tripodding” is not a hard and fast rule, it can be helpful, but it’s not always necessarily the way to go, because you can’t float and absorb bumps if you’re unclipped. When you’re unclipped, it’s almost like you need to unclip that foot because you’re going down and you need to catch yourself. So you want to avoid it most times. It also can be hard to clip back in, especially if conditions are super-gnarly.
Lundgren: And while you’re going across an off-camber, where is your weight?
Webber: Most of your weight is on the downhill foot. There are counterbalancing techniques, but generally what works best is when body and bike are together, aligned. The difference comes with what speed you’re going. On a very slow hairpin, you’re going to have separation of bike and body. You’ll lean the bike and keep the body upright, because if you lean the body you’re just going to fall over. There’s not enough speed. As speed increases, the bike and body come into alignment. And most off-cambers you take at speed. The inclination can be to lean towards the hill. You don’t want to lean uphill. If you lean uphill, the tires will slip out. You have to stay vertical. Imagine a plumb bob. Even though the earth under you is tilted, you’re not 90 degrees to the ground beneath you—you’re upright, you’re plumb. Sometimes you are going to lean in towards hill a bit to get more traction, to get those side-knobs to bite, but that’s a very nuanced thing as you’re going across a section. You won’t enter a section leaning in.
Lundgren: How are you preparing for these areas pre-race?
Webber: During your pre-ride, try different lines. Ride the line everyone is using, the well-established one, and then try one or two variations, totally different lines that are not being used—because they may be better, and there may be more traction because it’s fresh grass or ground. During recon, you try to foresee sections like this, where you can perhaps make up time during the race. Ninety percent of the course might be the common burned-in line, but 10 percent might have opportunity for improvement by exploring new lines. Look for fresh ground that isn’t as slippery. Also think about which lines will be available during the race.
During the pre-ride, try to have two choices for tires: the aggressive tread and the less-aggressive tread. Start on the one that you most likely will use. Carry a hand-held tire pressure gauge in your jersey, the biggest thing people don’t use—the SKS Air Checker is the best. The gauge is key as your floor pump isn’t accurate enough. Certainly 3 to 4 psi can make all the difference in the world. Ride a half-lap, then lower the pressure, then note which is better. If necessary, continue to lower, see if you can find what’s too low. And this way you can find the magic number. Always write down what pressure you end up using, because with experience it’s easier to dial in the pressure. It would be a mistake to continue to lower the pressure and not have a chance to test it. It would be best to go with the last pressure tested. If conditions are changing, you might be tempted to make pressure adjustment right before the start or ask people what they do, and your friend is telling you pressures that are different than what you had selected. You’re going to second-guess your selection and you might instead adopt their recommendation, and usually that’s a mistake. Everyone weighs a different amount, has different styles and skills, and typically another’s recommendation is flat wrong.
Lundgren: Any tire suggestions?
Webber: Train on clinchers, race on tubulars—just to save the tubulars. You don’t wanna wear out the tread or get a flat. Tubulars are more supple, they flex, they provide traction on an off-camber slope much better than clinchers. And you can run much lower tire pressures because there’s less risk of a pinch-flat—the rims don’t come up as high and hook into the bead. Tubeless tires can be problematic because they burp air at lower tire pressures.
The best of both worlds is the tubeless tubular. Clement now makes a superior one. A normal tubular is a casing with an inner tube, and then it’s sewn together. But a tubeless tubular is a round piece of rubber that’s air-tight, with no inner-tube inside. [They have] a supple sidewall, good tread and superior rubber compound. You can still get a flat—puncture with an object or cut a sidewall, but it’s far less likely because it’s more durable, it’s thicker, and you can put sealant preventively. Sealant works exponentially better in a tubeless set-up than with an inner tube.
Lundgren: What’s the best way to improve?
Webber: Practice riding side-hills during training sessions and work on improving your skills. Identify off-cambers in your training and races and make a concerted effort to improve on each consecutive lap. You have to make a concerted effort towards improvement, otherwise you’ll just continue to ride in the same way you have been. Riding relaxed, loose and balanced will help you all the time, so try to keep that in mind. If you ride like this always, riding off-cambers won’t seem so difficult or be such a big shock.
Have a variety of locations where you can do your cyclocross training and create many courses that include the types of terrain that you’ll see in upcoming races. At the local Wednesday Worlds morning ’cross group ride, we use a variety of courses, use ones that mirror the upcoming events. And the courses include difficult sections of terrain, so you can hone your skills at race speed. Specifically do race simulation on real cyclocross terrain. You can’t go ride your mountain bike if you want to become a good cyclocross racer—it’s not the same at all. You have to ride your ’cross bike, and you have to do it on a simulated race course. Race simulation at race speeds on real ’cross race course terrain is key.
Success in ’cross is about preparation and not making mistakes. Besides pure fitness, usually he who makes the fewest mistakes wins. And there’s a lot of opportunities for mistakes, especially on the treacherous off-cambers. If you want to become an expert at a skill, you need 10,000 tries. It takes practice. You can’t just read this article with these tips and immediately become a master at it. So, get out there!