Friday, September 19, 2008

Cyclocross: Why? Why Not!

By Luc ArseneauHead Coach, National Cycling Centre - Atlantic Canada

"YOU'RE THUNDERING DOWN a muddy descent, weaving around trees and dodging rocks, when all of a sudden The Log From Hell looms in your path. You have a fraction of a second to:

-- Lock up the binders, slalom to a halt and bellow profanities while you slowly dismount, pick up your bike and clamber over.

-- Try a bunny-hop that may send you sailing over the log -- but could land you in the ER.

-- Smoothly dismount at speed and hurdle the log in a single bound, leaping back onto the saddle and speeding off like Zorro in pursuit of a bandito -- without shifting out of the big ring.
This is cyclo-cross." (Patrick O'Grady � Cyclo-cross 101 - Mad Dog Media)

Over the past few years, many riders have asked me why do I encourage them to finish the season with a few extra weeks of cyclo-cross. Well, if this above mentioned quote does not sell it, let me throw in a few extra reasons.

One of the main concern I noticed as a coach was the short length of the cycling season. With the poor weather in Canada, our season simply expands from May to September (if we're lucky). With Road Worlds being held early October, I needed to find extra motivation to keep the cyclists riding in provision they ever made the national team selection. The principle is simple: I did not want to be faced by having to blindly add an extra five weeks of preparation to a season for such an important event without having done it before.

By September, lets face it, most riders have had it with bike racing, or even biking period. So I needed a special way to motivate the riders to keep on going. Cyclo-cross quickly became an easy, and very popular option. We even added some rewarding items to it as many of the Atlantic Cycling Centre riders are now enjoying some degree of success on the national cyclo-cross scene.

If you've never tried cyclo-cross before, let me tell you: it can be a blast. "The classic image of cyclo-cross is the high speed dismount-remount manoeuvre. This takes place when the bike is to be carried on the shoulder up a particularly steep or muddy incline, or else when an obstacle on the course cannot be ridden. In terms of technique, cyclo-cross is one of the most difficult forms of cycle racing. The bicycle resembles the road machine, with its dropped handlebars, 700C size wheels and relatively narrow tires." ( The races are short off-road races in a circuit-race format: 2.5 to 3.5 km courses; short, steep hills; and a variety of surfaces from pavement to mud and sand. The event would last from 40 minutes (junior, masters, women) to an hour (elite men).

So, a very short, incredibly intense event that also helps you build your bike-handling skills as well as to keep your fitness for a longer period of time, and overall, fun: jackpot! The riders are willing to follow and keep it going for a few extra weeks! On a physiological point of view, cyclo-cross will help you develop and maintain all energy systems and push you to some perceived efforts that will vary from somewhat strenuous (80 to 90% of Maximum Anaerobic Power) to extremely strenuous (100 to 110% of MAP). It�ll also develop your running skills as well as upper body strength; both very useful items to be adapted for winter training.

Your cyclo-cross preparation should be road oriented and include high intensity work (MAP), technical aspect and the following should be respected:

 First, work a program of running into your schedule (the transition is important); Try adding a short run after an evening ride, especially as the receding sunsets are shortening your rides;The ride will give you a great warm-up, and the run will extend your workout a while longer. A run of 15-20 minutes is good; up hills is even better. Set up some obstacles in your driveway or on a lawn and practice dismounts and remounts. The hardest part is getting used to carrying your momentum into a dismount... at first it feels very unnatural to be pedaling one moment, then sprinting on foot the next. Take it easy at first and learn to keep your balance as you increase speed. Work on your skills and try a race... and have fun!

With evenings getting shorter and shorter with the fall season, cyclo-cross training can easily be done in a short period of time. The volume on the weekdays can be relatively low.

Don't get me wrong though. Just don't think that the anaerobic fitness gained in the fall is still going to be there in the spring. What's important to understand is the goals of doing the cross season. You do it to maintain form - like my initial idea to prolong the season in the event of an eventual selection on the national team - or if you want to do the cyclo-cross season to perform. For this second option, your whole yearly training plan has to be developed with that perspective.

On a technical aspect, well we said it, cyclo-cross is a very technical discipline. For both mountain bikers and roadies, it'll develop incredible bike handling skills that will make the next rainy criterium or fast technical descent look easy.

But one of the main reasons to take up cyclo-cross, it's plain fun! At the end of a long cycling season, it's nice to be able to ride the bike for fun ... again. When you attend such an event, the atmosphere is something you won't find anywhere else; rain or shine, everyone is happy and anything is considered good cross weather.

The cyclo-cross season is now mostly over in Canada - although it almost just started in Europe where it's incredibly popular - think about it for the next season. The investment will be minimal and the benefits will be numerous. You don't have the money to invest into a cross bike? Look into your neighbour's garage. I'm pretty sure he's got a like new conditioned touring bike that can easily be converted. You'll quickly realize this will become one of your most useful bikes.

If the feeling of Zorro is still in you, I'll see you on the fields next [this]l!

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