Sven Nijs, Bart Wellens, Erwin Vervecken... These names mean very little to anyone outside the world of cyclocross, but to those who know them, they conjure images of the gods of the barriers floating with grace through muddy run-ups... dismounting with precision into a full-on sprint over the obstacles in front of them in a lung-searing, leg burning hour of pain. Sound like fun? You bet it is!
So this begs the question, why should you try cyclocross? You're perfectly content sitting there on your trainer in your heated house, why would you want to go outside and play in the mud? Here are a few reasons:
improved handling skills in all conditions
a high-intensity workout in a short amount of time
a change of workout routine
it's a weight-bearing exercise
it's a great opportunity for outdoor socializing in the middle of winter
As a staunch track racer, I spent more than half of my life on the banked corners of a velodrome until about ten years ago, when I started cyclocross. My track racing results were improving, which put me in the higher categories, and I needed to find a way to continue to improve my fitness over the winter to be competitive with my pro counterparts come spring.
Cyclocross, in which racers ride, run with, and carry modified road bikes over a combination of road, gravel, and grass, combines the speed of road racing with the technical difficulties of mountain biking and the intensity of track racing. It was the perfect solution to my winter training dilemma.
Among the many reasons for racing 'cross (and I must admit, I was never a contender for the win) I found it to be an amazing way to improve my bike handling skills and balance. There's nothing like slipping and sliding through mud, grass, and leaves on relatively narrow tires to teach you how to stay upright. Combine this with 40 or 50 other wackos all attempting to do the same thing, and you've got some quality comedy for those standing on the sidelines!
If you're already a cyclist, your skills and fitness give you advantages in some areas of cyclocross, and possibly disadvantages in others. Mountain bikers feel really comfortable and confident riding in the dirt, but sometimes fall behind the road and track racers on the smoother sections of the course.
The workout itself is a vital reason for racing 'cross. Athletes in cold climates often struggle to complete high-quality, high-intensity workouts in the dead of winter. Cyclocross solves that problem beautifully, and in less than an hour. From the word "go," races are full-tilt battles to get the holeshot, and then an hour's worth of near maximal effort to maintain your position.
More often than not, leaders quickly separate themselves from the rest of the pack and work together to maintain that lead. In actuality though, everyone in the race is looking for any opportunity to exploit weaknesses in their counterparts, whether it's in dismounting the bike, running over the barriers, or jumping back on the bike.
The pace is high, reactions are quick, and when you're finished, you've done more work in 30 to 60 minutes than you would have in three hours or more riding on your own or in your basement.
Because of the weight bearing nature of cyclocross (due to the running), you should give some thought to putting in a bit of training before jumping into your first race. A solid two to three weeks of steady-pace running two to three times a week should allow your body to adapt to the movements of the sport. Trail running is ideal, as it very closely simulates the type of terrain you'll encounter in any race. Plus, be sure to take some time to practice your dismounts and barriers, as you'll find the race situation a little more forgiving than if you had just jumped in with no practice.
Don't know where to start? Talk with your local bike shop or cycling club--many often hold mid-week practice sessions in local parks.
Train right with tips and tricks and of the trade from Chris Carmichael and Carmichael Training Systems, at www.trainright.com.