How do you train for cyclocross races?
October 28, 2007 2:13 PM   Subscribe

How do I get started with cyclocross? I've been a spectator at a cyclocross race and I'm looking at picking up a low-end cyclocross bike, but what's the best way to get started doing it? How do you practice the odd obstacles and challenges found in courses?

Cyclocross reminds me of drifting in cars -- it looks great at demos and competitions but I wonder how people actually prepare/practice for such a thing. It's not like anyone I know has access to a partially muddy steeplechase course on which to really practice all they want for cyclocross races.

I understand I should get a bike, get in really good shape, and be ready to race for about an hour or so. I figure I should learn how to dismount and remount quickly, but after that, I'm stumped.

I've seen cyclocross courses with stairs, mud, hurdles, hills, rivers, and all sorts of odd obstacles. Before I try my first beginner race, I was wondering how on earth should I train for such obstacles?

Do I look around the dirt roads where I live for downed trees and practice dismounts and jumping over stumps, then back on? Do I just practice dismounts then jumping over curbs in my neighborhood and remounting? Do cyclocross race organizers let you practice on the course a day before an event (if they allow this, I would drive out to an upcoming cyclocross event just to try my luck at a few practice laps). Should I just try hanging out with mt. bikers for a few weeks and doing every singletrack thing they can do. Is that enough?

Any other tips for anyone trying a cyclocross race for the first time?
posted by mathowie to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
From a google search resulting in Getting started in Cyclo cross

Damn newbies. JFGI!!! ;)

posted by Brockles at 2:55 PM on October 28, 2007

Response by poster: You can't read that article without signing up for some site, which is probably why it didn't show up in my google searches. :)

I'm pretty knowledgeable about the equipment and races, just looking for training tips from experienced racers.
posted by mathowie at 3:02 PM on October 28, 2007

(also, to be helpful and not get banned *cough*, there is some good info here.)

It looks to me like the best thing to do is to get the mount/dismount down pat (I imagine the solitude of a deserted area is preferable, rather than the day before the race) and once you can do it fluidly, start putting obstacles in. Trying it out on the course shouldn't be necessary - the issue is the dismount/negotiating/remount. That can be tried anywhere and I imagine the more preparation you do, the more fun you will get from the race. If you aren't competent with leaping over any old thing that lies in your path, doing it with the pressure of competition may well sap all the fun out of it as you trip over yourself, spear yourself in the nuts with bits of bike, and generally get in your fellow competitors way...

From that article, there are two separate elements - basic off road mountain biking, and negotiating the obstacles. If you are a competent mountain biker, then just practice the new bit repeatedly until you find a rhythm. Like most things of this kind, establishing muscle memory may well be the key, and this is easy enough to try on your own. Once you get confident and consistent, raise the height of the obstacles.

If you aren't a competent mountain biker, I imagine that would be the first target to hit. Jumping stuff can come second.
posted by Brockles at 3:04 PM on October 28, 2007

first go here.

then go here.

then go to your local bike shop and look for clinics / clubs who involve themselves in 'cross. Many (but not all) will be road teams, although more and more mountain bike oriented teams are getting into the 'cross thing.

good luck!
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:42 PM on October 28, 2007

Best answer: For me, the most important first step was going to a park and practicing mounts and dismounts on a flat, grassy area.

Once I felt good about that, I made a small loop that included a dismount, getting up on a curb, then a remount.

Then I did just what you described, which is setting up my own barriers. I made some out of PVC pipe, but tree branches work just fine. Then I rode a loop around the park and over the barriers until I couldn't ride any more.

But honestly, there is no better way to learn then to just jump into a beginner race.

And here is some Oregon-specific info:

The Cross Clinics that they have at Alpenrose at the beginning of every season are amazing. It's a bunch of world class racers giving newbies a ton of helpful information. I've seen people riding like pros after just a couple of clinics.

In and around Portland there are a couple of unofficial courses set up that everyone rides for training. Lots of people ride the Leif Erikson trail through Forest Park, with a few fire roads thrown in. There is another course setup off of the 205 bike path near the Gateway Max stop. Pier Park in St. Johns is another. Feel free to PM me if you need details.

And the cross community in the area is so helpful, you can ask anyone anything at any of the races, and they'll be happy to help.
posted by monkeystronghold at 4:26 PM on October 28, 2007

Best answer: okay now that I've sent the meat of my topic (see links), here's the rest of the novella:

Prepwork: hm. this depends on your goals. are you looking to start this season (currently underway) or next? the answer makes some difference. If you're looking to start this season, then just go try it, and have fun. You can buy a one-day licence at the events; I think it costs like $10 extra. The only thing you'd have to work on is barrier technique (dismount/remount) and that's pretty thoroughly covered in the second of those 2 links above.

If you're looking to go long-term with this (I am a cycling coach btw) then be prepared to understand that cyclocross is the most anaerobic thing you will ever do on a bicycle, bar none. Translation: if you do not like pain, don't bother. Cross is the only discipline I can think of where you start out in a full sprint, then go FASTER. You're essentially sprinting into and out of every barrier section, every turn, every change of surface... pretty much everywhere. There's no respite. If you think this sounds fun, well, it totally is, but then I'm a pain addict adrenaline junkie. Also, don't think that just because the races are short, that by definition they are easy. The funniest thing I've ever seen is aerobic athletes from other disciplines who are all like "oh hell, thirty minutes?! I can do ANYTHING for thirty minutes!!!". Yea, okay Geronimo, tell me that on your fourth lap, when your legs feel like cast iron pilings, that 18" hurdle feels ten feet tall, that measly little 10' runup looks like Mt. Everest, and all you really want to do is find a quiet corner to go lay down and die... or puke, your choice.

So what I'm saying, in essence - as far as prep, you'll need to take one of two tacks: either do it just-for-fun, and don't hold any expectations (hey, DFL is a place too!), or be prepared to put in some reasonably serious work. And by work, I mean, starting in late July/early August next year, you should be out on the bike for a minimum of 5-6 hours a week, putting on some slow to moderate endurance miles to build your base. Come August, add some intensity in the form of sprints, grouprides and/or intervals. Cross being what it is (highly anaerobic), then your best bet is to add in at least a day of [warning, highly technical nerdlink ahead] VO2max intervals. This last bit will add in the speed and strength you will need. You can intersperse your ride days with run days if you so choose, but jogging never helped anyone get faster at 'cross, because the best 'cross courses are about dismounts/transitions, NOT running. If you are running for more than fifty metres at a stretch, then either your promoter is a shitty course designer, or you have had some biblical weather conditions (or you made a really crappy tire selection or are a lousy bike handler in general, but that's your own problem). So any running prep should be more in the realm of sprints / stadiums type stuff, to build strength and 'snap', but going out and running 5-10K, while good for your overall aerobic capacity, ain't gonna do much for your dismount mojo.

Speaking of which, barrier technique is, as you noted, really rather important, as good guys can gain 10-20 seconds per lap just on barrier technique alone, whereas shitty barrier artists will lose n +1 places/lap, where n = some really demoralising number. The best way to get better at technique, as I noted above, is to find a local group with a good mentor / experienced racer type d00d at the head, who do cyclocross practise in your neck of the woods. These groups abound, also usually getting in gear in the mid-August/early September timeframe. Look around at your LBS and check out your local cycling clubs for one of these kinds of groups. Text on the web is no substitute for someone showing you the correct way to vault onto a bicycle... and believe me your nuts and Mrs. mathowie will thank me as well.

Gear: by all means go ahead and get an entry level bike, but don't spend a lot of cash unless and until you decide you enjoy it. Little known fact: you can use your existing mountain bike, you only need to remove the bar-ends (there's a rule against forward-facing projections, don't ask me why...).

Road bikes = not so much, since the tall gears, lack of mud / tire clearance and ineffectual brakes will give you a huge disadvantage.

An entry level cross bike will not set you back too badly, and will have the bonus of becoming your jack-of-all trades / citybike during the rest of the year. When I'm not using my fixte as my commuter / allpurpose bike, my CX bike is the next option in my stable o' five. Cross bikes rule on versatility, and broke students can and do get away with using them for pretty much everything. In my more cash-strapped days, I've gotten away with using my cross bike as my sole bike for road racing, commuting, and mellower trail riding (even did a couple MTB races, obviously not on technical trails tho). As is true tho for any jack-of-all trades equipment, cyclocross bikes are a compromise; gearing that's not quite big enough for (serious) road racing, not quite small enough for (serious) trail riding, and those skinny tires and lack of suspension mean you'll develop good dirt skills *very* rapidly... or die trying.

so, um, I guess that about covers (most of) it. Feel free to ask any further clarifying questions at will, although you should get a fair start from what I've seen of the combined links/info already present on this thread.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:36 PM on October 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

You once linked to Luke Seemann from your blog, now he's doing cross and also writing chicagobikeracing with some cross pointers. BikesnobNYC also had one of the most illuminating posts about cx that I've ever seen.
posted by jmgorman at 5:42 PM on October 28, 2007

I asked a cyclocross stud I know and he recommended this site. Enjoy!
posted by iguanapolitico at 6:56 PM on October 28, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, I talked to Luke a bit but he's a noob like I would be.

I had heard that cyclocross can be anaerobic the whole time and I'm just now understanding why that would be. There's no coasting, no downhills, and I can see how that would just kill you.

I'm definitely not going to do it for competitive reasons, it just looked like a fun way to spend a saturday, so DFL in the beginner class would be fine for me. Thanks for the tips all!
posted by mathowie at 6:59 PM on October 28, 2007

Definitely do it. It really is the most fun you'll have on a bike this year. I rocked a singlespeed this year and it made everything much more satisfying. I was going to lose anyway and by riding SS it was just me and the course. I wasn't racing everyone else, I was racing myself.
posted by jmgorman at 7:12 PM on October 28, 2007

dude 'cross is the most fun you can have with your clothes on! With the added bonus that the 'cross community is VERY different from both the somewhat insular, cliquish roadie crowd (yo, I'm a roadie, I can say this if I want!) and the ZOMGWTFBBQ!!!11one GONZO D00DZ mtb clan. okay, okay, that's hyperbole, I kid (mostly) but in all reality I'd vote cyclocross racing Most Likely To Succeed With the MeFi Demographic, from the simple fact that we/they are a HUGE bunch of geeks, who are comfortable flying the geek flag, and more than willing to infect initiate yet more geeks.

... and like any truly awesome geeky pursuit, 'cross is utterly, astonishingly addictive. mainly cos we/they dig beer and silliness in equal measures, see "drag racing" (Surf City's a famous one, tho if the thought of dudes in pink tutus racing 'cross doesn't scare you away, I dunno what should...).

*rubs hands and cackles with glee at the thought of the impending Boulder UCI cyclocross events*
posted by lonefrontranger at 7:42 PM on October 28, 2007

There's a ton of information out there on the net by local (pdx) riders. Laatste Ronde is written by Brooke, a local racer and moderator of the CX board at He or someone he linked to had a great how to for making your own PVC barriers that you can throw in a duffel bag and ride to the park with.

You're in a hotbed of cyclocross racing and from my minor forays into it a few years ago everyone was very supportive and helpful to newbies so don't be afraid to find a team and ask questions.
posted by asterisk at 8:18 PM on October 28, 2007

My own bike, which I picked up because I thought it would make a good city bike (it does), is a Bianchi Axis cyclocross bike. After I bought it, I started poking around local cycling forums and found out there's a lot of "singletrack" around. Singletrack is basically a trail of hardpacked earth that's at least a bike-tire wide. You can take a cyclocross bike on that.

What I discovered riding on these trails was that after you have taken that pounding for an hour or two, doing crazy-ass stuff like jumping your bike over a branch or just letting your bike go over a three foot drop starts to feel very natural. I had, and still occasionally have, a lot of fun doing these kinds of things with my bike. I never did anything competitive.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:49 PM on October 28, 2007

This is tangential, but the really great bike chains for winter riding were invented in Portland, so you can train all winter if you want.
posted by craniac at 10:14 PM on October 28, 2007

Response by poster: Got my Kona Jake today, thanks all again for the tips. Now to go bomb some fire roads!
posted by mathowie at 2:53 PM on October 29, 2007

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