Male Cyclist Shot Of Legs In The Dirt During Cyclocross Racing

How to Transition to Cyclocross Racing in Three Steps

BY Zach Nehr

With the right strategy, you can ride bikes from March through December without burning out. Here’s how.

Is there a correlation between cyclocross and road cycling performance? Take one look at the upper echelon of cycling, and the answer is there. Wout Van Aert, Tom Pidcock, and Mathieu van der Poel are the superstars of road cycling, yet they all started in cyclocross. The mixed terrain-based cycling discipline of cyclocross racing is explosive, intense, and technically challenging. It’s also super fun!

It’s easy to see why so many cyclists race both road and cyclocross. But the biggest problem is not that their seasons overlap, but rather occur back-to-back. If you’re looking at tackling both road and cyclocross, you’re potentially looking at a nine-month season lasting from March through December. 

In this article, we’ll discuss three critical steps you need to take to help get your legs ready for CX.

Step 1: Take a Break Between Road and Cyclocross Racing

Road cycling is one of the most demanding sports in the entire world. Success requires daily rides, hard training sessions, traveling for races, and training in the summer heat. After a few months, many road cyclists can feel themselves edging towards burnout. 

A break — or “mini off-season” — means completely stepping away from your bike for an extended period of time. The purpose of a break/off-season is to give your body and mind the time it needs to rest and rejuvenate. 

By taking a few days or weeks off the bike in the off-season, you will build a stronger foundation for the next season of training and racing. It is the perfect example of “taking one step back to take two steps forward”. Without a proper break or mini off-season, your fitness and motivation will eventually plateau at best, or burnout at worst. 

How Long Should Your Break Be?

The length of your break between road and CX season will depend on a multitude of factors, including:

  • How long you’ve been training and racing
  • Life stress
  • Chronic training load
  • Mental health

Breaks can last anywhere from four days to four weeks. Riders who are more tired and stressed should take more time off the bike, and vice versa for riders who are less tired. Beginner road cyclists, for example, may only be training six hours per week and racing once per month. A four-day break between road season and CX season should be more than enough for them to rejuvenate completely. 

Elite racers, on the other hand, are often training upwards of 12 hours per week and traveling every other weekend to race. After six or more months, there’s no doubt they will be tired and maybe even exhausted. For elite racers, one to two weeks off the bike is the best place to start. If you’re not itching to get back in the saddle after two weeks, then extend your break by a few days until the motivation returns. 

Only WorldTour professionals take more than a month off at a time, and that’s because they regularly train upwards of 25 hours per week and spend half the year on the road. If you need more than a month off the bike, that is likely an indication of overtraining and complete burnout. Consult with a professional if you don’t feel refreshed after four or more weeks off the bike. 

High levels of life stress or chronic training load also necessitate an extended break. Above all, poor mental health is a sign that something is not right. Most cyclists enjoy cycling, so if your mental health is deteriorating on the bike, something has gone awry. 

You can learn more about taking a break in our Guide to Cycling Off-Season: When and Why You Need a Break. But first, when should you take this break?

When to Take Your Mini Off-Season

The timing of your break boils down to your race calendar — when is your last road race and when is your first CX race? Ideally, you want to take a break immediately after your last road race so that you have the most time to return to training before CX. 

Here’s an example of an athlete’s race calendar transitioning from road season to CX season: 

22042 Inline 1 Road To Cx 1

Step 2: Start Training for Cyclocross

Following your mini off-season, it’s time to return to training for CX. If you have an entire road season behind you, then you don’t need to do any base training for CX — the endurance work is done, and all you need to do is focus on CX-specific interval training. 

As opposed to road racing, CX racing is shorter, more explosive, and more technical. It is almost like an extreme criterium on mixed terrain including dirt, mud, sand, and barriers. 

CX races last anywhere from 20-60 minutes, so the majority of your training will not be focused on building your endurance. In addition, you don’t need to be stringing together tons of weekly miles. Most CX racers average 4-8 hours of training per week, and only elite CX racers do more than 10 hours per week. 

Key Cyclocross Workouts

When transitioning from road season to cyclocross season, there are a few things you’ll need to add to your training program:

  • CX starts
  • Sprints or micro-intervals
  • Technique drills

It may seem like a lot to add all of these sessions to your training program at once, but we’ll show you how below. As you begin training for the CX season, you should be focused on one to two high-intensity interval sessions per week. If you do more, you will be putting yourself at risk of injury or burnout. 

Here’s how to put all of these workouts together for a few weeks of CX training.

Example Training Week for CX Season

In my 12wk CX Race Preparation Plan, you can see how I fit each of these intervals into an athlete’s schedule, even with racing every other weekend.

You can read more about each individual workout in this article: Top Cyclocross Workouts for Fall.

22042 Inline 2 Road To Cx

Step 3: Focus On Technique Drills and Running

There is more to CX than pedaling hard, and there will be plenty of times when you’re forced to dismount your bike and run over barriers or up a step of stairs. CX technique is critical as well, and you can easily win or lose a race based on your cornering skills. 

Not all technique drills need to be rolling around cones in the parking lot. Though these exercises will definitely improve your skills, you can also perform race pace intervals on a CX course. It’s one thing to practice corners at your own speed and another to take them at race pace. 

Instead of following power or heart rate, you should use rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for these intervals. After all, it is dangerous and impractical to stare at your head unit while racing through a CX course. Studies have shown that RPE-based intervals are just as effective as power-based or heart rate-based interval training. 

Running is a more individual addition to a CX athlete’s training program because many cyclists are not natural runners. There is a higher injury of risk in running compared to cycling, so most CX athletes skip it completely. However, many elite CX racers run once or twice per week during CX season. 

Every CX course has at least one point of dismount (i.e., the barriers), and many courses have multiple points. Whether it is a run-up, sandpit, or another unique barrier, you might be running a few hundred steps every lap of a CX race. 

In addition to cornering and running, don’t forget to practice dismounts, remounts, and clipping in at the start. The holeshot is critical in a CX race, and missing a clip-in could mean losing 30 positions before turn 1. 

References

Van Erp, T. et al. (2019, March 11). Relationship Between Various Training-Load Measures in Elite Cyclists During Training, Road Races, and Time Trials. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30300025/ 

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Zach Nehr
About Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr is the head of ZNehr Coaching, a freelance writer, and an elite-level rider in road, gravel, cyclocross, and track racing. Zach earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science at Marian University Indianapolis and quickly thereafter earned his certification as a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach and TrainingPeaks Coach. He has a passion for writing and has a number of published articles on his website as well as VeloNews, Cyclingnews, Bicycle Guider, CyclingTips, TrainingPeaks, Final Surge, and Cyclist UK. Zach currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he splits his time between training, writing, and coaching.

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