To Cross or Not To Cross?


By Gus Grissom
For many cyclists, fall is a time of year devoted to long, leisurely “coffee shop rides,” an extended period of endurance-building for next summer’s racing.
Casual rides with friends help strengthen team bonds and allow racers to relax a bit from the stress of constant competition built up over the summer months. But the topic of conversation on many of these rides eventually shifts to a discussion of “those others” on the team who are wrapped up in cyclocross racing.
The others, as the conversation usually goes, seem to be more than a little crazy. But they also seem to be more than a little excited about whatever this cross racing thing really is. Inevitably, this leads their fellow riders to at least entertain a passing thought of “maybe I should give cross a try too.” But the concern for the pure roadie who is considering checking out the local cross race is “what do I need to know? What do I need to be prepared to do well – or at least not to embarrass myself?”
Well, according to Rusty Williford (Cat 2 Cyclocross racer and member of the Fulcrum Coaching Group), the answers to those questions are fairly simple. Williford says “the nice thing about cyclocross is that it is one of the most accessible disciplines in the bike racing community. The barriers to entry are practically non-existent.” All of the groups out there on race day, whether they are based on experience, age or club affiliation, are “so welcoming” that Williford believes anyone would fit right in from their first race on, regardless of his cycling background or race day results.  
“But won’t I need a lot of new expensive bike gear?” a potential racer might ask. The answer, fortunately is “no, you won’t need much new gear.” Williford says that the only requirement is to have a bike, something as simple as a used mountain bike or a commuter bike with enough clearance on the frame to allow for wider, knobby off-road tires. For your first race, he advises, “just borrow a bike from a teammate on race day.” This can easily work for any racer because the races are so short; beginner races are usually only about thirty minutes long. Having a perfect bike fit is simply not as important for your first ‘cross race as it is for longer training rides and road races. Additionally, of course, every racer needs a helmet; safety is just as much a concern when racing through the mud as when racing across the pavement!
The rest of the equipment, in Williford’s view, is just detail. While certainly mountain bike shoes and clipless pedals are more efficient and will help in the long run, “even running shoes and flat pedals from a commuter bike” will allow you to get a feel for the excitement of this discipline. So there really is no need to run out and get a lot of fancy equipment. Williford adds that, while most experienced racers will compete in skinsuits to eliminate any “flappy material that might get snagged on the bike during dismounts and around obstacles,” you can just as easily race in the same kit used during road, mountain bike, or track season. Just because you are experimenting with cross for the first time, there’s no need to hide your racing team pride or forget to fly the flag for your team’s sponsors!
But once you’ve made the commitment to give cross a try at least once this season, there are some training-related concepts to consider. While Williford contends that cross can help roadies inject some valuable intensity into an otherwise endurance-focused phase of the training calendar, he understands that there are some physiological issues which folks should consider before their first race. For one, he notes, the impact of getting on and off the bike, and running through some obstacles or up some hills can be jarring to a racer’s legs and joints. Thus it is important for newbies to prepare themselves with a few jogging sessions in the weeks prior to their first race. Williford explains that racers don’t need to do long endurance runs. “Just start with a few ten to fifteen minute jogs around your neighborhood,” he explains. If that works out well, he adds that a racer could benefit from doing some more intense workouts, perhaps some short bursts up the stairs at a local football stadium or some sprints up a short hill in a local park. Anything beyond that, he adds, is probably overkill for the first-time racer. “It’s not like any racer is going to be out there running around the course for forty-five minutes.” This is, after all, still a bike race.
There are also some logistical items to consider as race day approaches. Packing the race bag, for example, is a bit different for cross events. “These races are in the fall and winter,” Williford explains, “which means racers have to be prepared for sudden and dramatic shifts in the weather.” It’s unlike a July afternoon criterium race in which every racer knows the conditions will be hot and and they can pack lightly. Williford says that the smart cross racer packs as much as possible to prepare for a day of cross racing. “Get your biggest bag and just put in all that spare gear you’ve accumulated over your years of riding. You don’t want to be that guy who gets to the course and then decides ‘it sure would be great to have those long-fingered waterproof gloves that are in my storage box in the garage.” When the weather changes, every racer should be able to adapt quickly in order to maximize the day’s potential for fun and fitness.
Once at the venue, preparing for the race is also slightly different. Pre-riding the course, for example, is essential for a cross race. It is important to have an understanding of the layout of the course, the positioning and types of obstacles which may or may not require racers to dismount, and the variety of racing surfaces that will be encountered. Once the pre-ride is finished, Williford believes it is important to do a solid warm-up, ideally on a portable trainer. A cross race, he explains, is the opposite of a road race in the sense that the sprint comes first, right from the starting whistle. Racers will surge to secure their position at the front of the field in hopes of successfully navigating the technical portions of the course where passing other racers is tricky. Williford says “it’s important to engage all your energy systems, aerobic and anaerobic, during the warm-up in order to be prepared for the sudden intensity.” To that end, he suggests a rider spin on the trainer long enough to warm up the legs. Then increase intensity for a lactate threshold interval around five minutes long. This effort should leave the racer breathing hard, but able to quickly recover. Following some recovery spinning, the racer should incorporate one or two “VO2 max” efforts at a level tough to sustain for more than three to five minutes. The final phase is then to stress the body with a few maximum intensity sprints of no more than ten to fifteen seconds each.  Following this, the rider should be able to recover, drink some water, but then still get to the starting line with, in Williford’s words, “a good sweat going on under the layers that can be quickly shed at the line moments before the actual start.”
By following these simple tips, even the most diehard road racer is sure to enjoy his or her first (but probably not last!) cyclocross experience. With the probability that this will add valuable intensity to the otherwise long, slow endurance phase of an annual training plan, adding a cross race or two to the fall training schedule is one way to prepare for next summer’s campaign. And, as Williford contends, the discipline has such low barriers to entry that it’s easily the most accessible discipline for cyclists. “No matter what happens in the race or what place you get,” Williford explains, “five minutes after the race ends there will be hugs and high-fives all around. The guys on the podium will be swapping war stories about the course with the guys who battled it out just as hard for 50th place. It’s just a sport where everyone has fun, regardless of their finishing position or experience level.”
With that in mind, isn’t it time to give in to your buddy’s constant argument that “if you just try it, you’ll love it! You’ll see!” So borrow a bike, get some warm clothes together and get yourself out to a ‘cross race. You’ll be glad you did.

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New and returning USA Cycling members can get a 2017 membership AND a 2018 membership for the discounted price of $115.  Not only does this give you the abliity to race TWO SEASONS of cross, but also all the USA Cycling-permitted road, track, and mountain bike events you have in mind for next year. Additionally, the same offer is available to juniors (18 and younger) for $55. Click here to take advantage of this offer now.


This Article Updated September 26, 2017 @ 06:41 PM For more information contact: