For some, cyclocross is the only thing to focus on all year long, but for many it’s a way to maintain a high level of fitness through the fall and winter seasons. It can be a long season of racing after a long season of racing, but when properly set up, ‘cross season is a lot of fun. The courses are a mix of fast single track combined with open cut grass areas along with barriers and natural obstacles thrown in for good measure. The atmosphere is always a little zany, and the races are, well … hard. So whether you are focusing on a few races or a full season, here are a few tips to help you transition into your fall cyclocross season.
The Transition Phase
The first thing to realize is that whether you schedule a transition on the cross bike or not, you’re going to have a transition period. It takes time, likely 4 to 6 weeks, to fully adjust to a new cycling position, frame geometry, gear ratios, and race tactic specific strength. Cyclocross racing has unique energy demands, including running. So to transition into cross season, starting at least 4-6 weeks from your first few races, would be wise.
Start with riding the cross bike a few days a week and then progress from there. Incorporate the bike into your easier spin days at first, then increase intensity and frequency as you get closer to the start of the season. These training rides are best on dirt roads, trail, and open cut grass areas to closely simulate the terrain for a cross race. Working in a few longer duration dirt road rides, from 2 to 4 hours, will help you build upper body endurance, since the cross bike will work your upper body very differently compared to a road or mountain bike. This endurance will come in very handy during the late laps in a race.
Incorporate a run day into the week. Being prepared to handle the stress of runs and dismounts at the beginning of cross season will make you very strong at it by the end. If you do not run often, start with one day a week, for the first few weeks, running at a comfortable pace for 30 to 60 minutes, and then increase intensity from there. Most of the race takes place on the bike, so no need to overdo it with the run training. One to two days a week is plenty, but it should be a goal to at least be able to handle a one hour, zone 2-3 run, by the beginning of the season.
Focus on race-specific intensity, on the cross bike. Cross races require you to accelerate fast, repeatedly, hammer short steep climbs, and sustain zone 4-5 efforts on the flats. So as you incorporate more intensity on the cross bike, focus on leg speed drills, sustained functional threshold and threshold efforts, and short forceful efforts. Keep in mind cross is a long season. Too much intensity too early can be a bad thing, especially if you are coming off a full year of racing on the road or mountain. Keep the intensity to a few days a week, and use the rest of the week to focus on endurance spins, and bike handling skills. Read more about specific workouts and drills here.
Practice sprinting into 2-3 turns, using trees spaced 10-20 yards apart or cones and preferably in a grassy field, or on loose dirt. Carry as much speed out of each turn as you can, from one turn to the next. Sprint from turn to turn. Make both right and left hand turns. Spin easy for 1-3 minutes between each round of turns, and work 10-20 rounds. A barrier can be added to the end of this to work on dismounts, and some running with the bike. Finish the day with a 10-20 minute cool down, spinning in zones 1-2.
Leg Speed/Force Drills
These are best completed on dirt roads, trails, or grassy areas. Work into a 5-10 second standing/seated force effort, using a harder gear, or short steep hill, grinding out the effort, followed by 30 seconds of fast seated spinning in an easier gear. Spin easy for one minute and then repeat. Work rounds of 2-3 efforts with 5-10 minutes of zone 1-2 spinning between each round.
Strength Training – Renegade Rows
Incorporate these into your strength training days to build additional upper body strength. Start in a pushup position with a dumbbell in each hand. Lift one side at a time towards your torso, keeping the elbow close to your side, while bracing yourself with the other arm. Work each side through 15-20 reps, with one minute rest between sets. Work 3-4 sets of these. Reduce weight if you have trouble completing at least three sets. For more on strength training for cyclists, read this article.
The goals for racing cross are completely different for everyone, so the timing for when to transition into a heavier load of cross training will also be different. Regardless, cross specific preparation will help you enter the season with good form. Your first few races can be used to dial in training, and from there, depending on how often you race, training will need to adjust to balance the intensity of race weekends. Training during cross season is quite different than prepping into it, and is another great subject to be tackled at another time.