Competing in a cyclocross race feels like self-induced spontaneous combustion on two wheels. Within seconds of leaving the starting line, you feel like molten iron is exploding from your lungs to the tips of your phalanges. Then you hold that effort for 40 minutes to an hour while you plow through sinuous, technically demanding courses with varied surfaces and obstacles that force you to dismount and run while you carry your bike.
You must have a finely tuned engine to do all of this well, but highly polished techniques can save you huge amounts of time over the course of a race. UCI cyclocross World Cup overall champion Lars van der Haar put on a clinic for us in Los Angeles, where he recommended polishing these five skills to boost overall ‘cross performance. Pick two days a week to practice each of these skills, five times each, before your other training. To accelerate your skill acquisition, roll with a posse of friends, bang elbows and push each other toward supreme technique — because in cyclocross, smooth is fast.
1 Win the Holeshot. In most sports, you sprint at the end of the race. In cyclocross, the sprint happens off the starting line in the race for position into the first turn, when the course goes from a wide path to narrow single track, where passing riders becomes exponentially more difficult. To prepare, line up on a wide dirt or paved road and pick a spot a hundred yards ahead to make a sharp turn left or right. Take turns calling out “10 seconds to go” and “start” — common commands you’ll hear at a race. Stand with your dominant foot clipped in and your other foot on the ground, with your pedals and crankarms positioned parallel to the ground to facilitate easier clip-in when you start. Practice clipping into your pedals and sprinting off the line as hard as you can without blowing up. “My style is to rest on my seat and crouch down with my brakes off and listen for the starting gun”, says van der Haar. If you miss clipping in on the first pedal stroke, continue to pedal and clip in while you’re moving, and sprint the straightest possible path to the corner.
2 Get Off. Get On. Every cyclocross course has natural obstacles and barriers up to 18 inches high that force you to dismount, pick up your bike briefly like a suitcase, and then remount. The more speed you can carry through this process and the more smoothly you can execute it, the better you’ll do in races. You’ll have to execute this maneuver while you’re aspirating dust or mud, feeling like you’re sucking air through a straw. Make barriers out of PVC, or stack up logs, wood or railroad ties, and set them up about 10 feet apart to practice dismounts and remounts.
Van der Haar follows a specific order to keep his dismounts and mounts concise. “Swing your leg off around the back of the bike and brake as you approach the barrier. Lean your hip into the saddle and you can totally control steering. Slow down as you clip out, grab the top tube with your hand and pick the bike straight up — don’t swing it out — jump the barrier, set the bike down gently and jump back on.” The key to carrying momentum is jumping forward, not up. Swing your legs forward as you remount to propel yourself forward, then clip in and start pedaling as quickly as possible.
3 Shoulder and Sprint. There come moments in every cyclocross race where you get bogged down in mud or sand, or you face a hill so steep that you’re forced off your bike. “You want to get off your bike to run before you lose momentum”, says van der Haar. The rule of thumb for running versus riding: “Run if it’s faster than riding.” When you have to run an appreciable distance, you want to dismount the same way you do for barriers, but while you’re controlling the saddle with your hip, reach down with your right hand and grab the down tube. As you step off the bike you slide your arm through the frame, place the underside of the top tube on your shoulder and hold the opposite side handlebar with your right hand. It sounds somewhat vicious, but van der Haar emphasizes grace: “Don’t pull the bike any harder or higher than necessary to shoulder it. Be gentle.” To get back on, reverse the process, being careful to set the bike on the ground gently, which prevents the chain from dropping.
4 Hang Loose. When you race cyclocross, you’re guaranteed to face mud in all its variegated forms, along with deep sand at some point. These surfaces pose the biggest challenges to traction and handling you’ll encounter in a race and require similar approaches to navigate successfully. “Sit as far back on the saddle as you can to keep traction and let your front wheel do its own thing. Pick one line, don’t make too many adjustments and keep pedaling”, van der Haar says. Keep your eyes pointed straight ahead at where you want to go and strive for a pedal cadence of about 80. Locating mud for practice can be hit or miss depending on where you live, but you can always find sand. Head to the local playground and drag race through the sandbox to hone your technique.
5 Turn, Turn, Turn. Straightaways are few and far between in cyclocross races. Courses tend toward the vermicular, with dozens of turns to negotiate. The more quickly you can barrel through corners, and the more rapidly you reaccelerate, the more successful you’ll be. “You want to pedal through corners and when you get out of the corner, you want to click down twice to an easier gear, stand up to accelerate, sit down, then click up once to a slightly bigger gear”, says van der Haar. Set up a short course on varied surfaces and mark turns with water bottles. Pedal through every corner, applying the van der Haar technique and reaccelerating after every turn. Because cyclocross courses have so many turns, tight cornering technique, more than any other skill, can save you heaps of time and slingshot you ahead of the pack.