The Do’s and Don’ts of Cyclocross

By Sean Ahmadi – December 4, 2013
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

If you’re reading this, you’ve have either painfully experienced several cyclocross races or are wondering how to jump into this wonderful, addictive, and, more importantly, crazy discipline of cycling.

The basics go something like this (and, as many of you may know, even the basics don’t sound like a bike race or a particularly sane undertaking, for that matter). A cyclocross race is a circuit typically contested on local parks and sometimes on private lands. The course is mostly grass mixed with a variety of dirt road, pavement and trails. Beginner races last about 30 minutes, while professional events can go on for up to an hour.

Within that circuit, riders encounter wooden barriers so high that they must dismount the bike, hills so steep as to be almost unrideable, and sands pits that completely suck the momentum from tires.

Some courses also have natural obstacles such as fallen trees, rocks, or creeks where participants must again jump off the bike, carry it to the other side, and then jump back on without damaging the bike or themselves.

I know I don’t paint a very pretty picture, but it’s really not all bad because by the time you realize how horrible it is, you only have two laps to go and your competitive instincts won’t let you quit. And, the change of pace and the high adrenaline associated with almost crashing every few minutes are very attractive.

Now that you’re aware of what you’ll be getting into, let’s talk about the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to help you avoid all the painful mistakes I went through.

Don’ts

Let’s take a look at what doesn’t work in cyclocross.
  • Don't wait until the last second to jump off your bike like the pros do when approaching the barrier. Trust me on this: You don't want to face plant in front of cheering fans.
  • Don't jump back on your bike like you are Superman with your body about two feet higher than the saddle. Please think about what part of your body will come into contact with the bike first, how small that bike part is, and how important that body part is.
  • Although you can race some cyclocross races on a road bike, don’t use road tires to race. If you do, you’ll spend more time picking yourself off the ground than my 5-year-old son can count.
  • And no matter how much you may want to, don’t lean forward when you transition from grass to the sand pit—unless you want to demonstrate to the crowd what a human catapult looks like.

If you are still reading, then you were meant for this sport and I salute you.

Do’s

Here’s what you should be doing before your upcoming cyclocross race.

The most important thing is to practice getting on and off the bike, so much so that you don't have to think about it.

  • Go to your local soccer field and ride very slowly. While holding onto the handlebar with both hands, swing your right leg around and behind the back wheel, bringing it behind your left leg. From here on you are coasting towards your obstacle and can control the speed of the bike with brakes.
  • When you are ready, unclip your left foot and bring your right foot to the ground behind the rest of your body and, immediately afterwards, follow with your left foot. You are now running next to the bike and grasping the handlebar with both hands.

At this point, if you have to carry your bike over a barrier or obstacle, you will grab the top tube with your right hand, lift the bike over the barrier, and gently put it back on the ground. If you drop the bike to the ground, a hard landing will typically cause the chain to fall off the front gears.

  • Take several steps as you get ready to remount. Swing your right leg behind the bike and put your thigh on the saddle, sliding your hip over it to avoid major pain and drama. This is the most difficult part of remounting and it will take a lot of practice to master, so be patient and practice it slowly. I always get asked, “How slow should I practice this or any other skill?” My answer is always the same: “Slow enough so that you are able to execute the skill correctly and deliberately.”

Now, let’s talk about sand pits. Sand pits are strange in the sense that speed can be your friend if your body is in the right position and your worst enemy if you’re leaning forward and putting weight on the front wheel.

  • As your front wheel comes in contact with the soft sand, it will lose speed and momentum very quickly. It’s like grabbing a handful of the front brake, and we all know what that does (can you say “endo”?).
  • Shift your weight to the back of the bike and put more of your body weight on the back wheel. Realize that your bike will typically have a mind of its own when it’s going through the sand pit, and it’s best to “let go” to some degree, which means loosening up your gorilla grip on the bar and let your bike find the best place to ride. If you are able to find a good line through the sand, then, as you approach the sand pit, line your front wheel up and your bike should follow that rut and you won’t lose as much speed.

Ultimately, a cyclocross race is a series of sprints that are interrupted by barriers, steep hills, and sand pits. Once you have honed your skills and feel ready for battle, sign up and enjoy the rush and camaraderie as you discover why more people are signing up for cyclocross races every year. Please feel free to email me about your experience, and you are always welcome to email me with questions about training and racing anytime.

 

 
 

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