Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Guide For Kids Who Wanna Learn To Do Cyclocrosss Good and do Other Stuff Good Too (a.k.a So you want to try cyclocross?)

Q: Do you think I should try cyclocross?   

Of course you should. And if you are reading this you have probably come to that conclusion already.  I like to think that cyclocross is the gateway drug of bike racing.  It’s easy to get into but will almost certainly lead to some form of addiction.

First let me start by saying that cyclocross is a truly silly sport.  As my wife likes say, it is a totally contrived sport with a bunch of silly arbitrary rules--just like the games we all used to make up as kids. Go that way, touch your nose to the tire swing, then spin around three times, ride your bike in a circle, jump off your bike and run over some wood planks,rub your belly and pat your head and the first one to cross the finish line wins a floor pump.  Yet we both agree that cyclocross is the most fun you can have racing a bike.

One of the truly great things about cross is that pretty much anybody try it out using the gear they probably already own with whatever fitness or technical ability they already posses.  The spirit of “ride what you got” lives on in cross.

Another reason it’s fun at all levels is that there is always a race within the race. Whether you are racing for the win or racing not to finish DFL, there’s generally somebody within sight to gun for unlike a lot of XC MTB races.  And unlike crit racing, there’s no risk of getting dropped by the pack in the first turn and getting pulled on lap 2.  While crashes do happen (frequently) they rarely result in serious injury--a bruised ego accompanied by a mud stained jersey is the most common injury occurrence.
I don’t profess to be an expert but I’ve done enough races and made enough mistakes to have learned a few things along the way.  Here’s my guide on what you need to know to survive enjoy your first cross race.  Repeat this mantra:  keep it simple; have fun.  Just register and race.

There are lots of good cx race prep articles on the internet (see below for links) so I’ll try to tailor this specifically to local races. Also, the article will be aimed mostly at folks who have never done any sort of bike racing.  If you have road or MTB race experience you should get some useful info out of the article too. 

Equipment.  Serious cross racers can be an obsessive bunch but for your first race(s) keep it simple.The exensive array of campers, pop-up tents, trainers, portable power-washing machines, pit-bikes and personal soigners applying various forms of embrocation might be an intimidating sight.  Try to  ignore the myriad discussions of optimal tread patterns, tire pressure, gearing that are bound to arise.  Don't over think it. Basically, ride what you’ve got. 

What Kind of Bike Do I need?  If you already have a cyclocross bike then ride that puppy.  If you don’t own a cross bike then ride what you’ve got or borrow a cross bike from a friend. You’d be surprised how many people would lend you a bike to giving racing a try (it’s one of the rationalizations we use for owning pit bikes).   Remember cross the gateway drug and we are all pushers.  Otherwise any old mountain bike will do. A hardtail 29er is a good choice to pull “crossover” duty since you could theoretically mount 700c cyclocross tires on your existing 29er wheels. Oh, and don't forget to lockout that fork. Just be sure to remove the bar ends from your mountain bike because they are not allowed. A road touring bike with canti brakes or long reach caliper brakes might also work if you have enough clearance for knobby tires. Got Tall bike? Why not. 

OK, I’ve got a bike. What about tires?  While obsessive racers might have a plethora of different tread patterns at their disposal for various course conditions, one set is all you really need—use the ones that are on your bike already. Race on whatever tires your bike has as long as they’ve got at least a little bite.  If you are going to purchase one tire to cover all possible conditions the perennial knee jerk response is Michelin Mud 2.  While I can’t argue with that there are plenty of other good choices these days.  Oh, and I’ll assume that you are running clincher tires with innertubes (not tubeless) for now.  If you've already got a set of tubulars then you probably don't need my help.

What Tire Pressure Should I Run?  Use the lowest pressure possible to avoid pinch flatting. This will help smooth out the bumps and keep your tire's contact patch glued to the course.  Obviously pressure will depend on your weight and course conditions.  As simple rule of thumb, use the “rule of thumb”:  Press down on the tire as hard as you can with your thumb and you should just barely be able to touch the rim--then add a few PSI. On a bumpy/rocky/rooty course or if you are a clydesdale add a few PSI.  If you are a featherweight or it’s a smooth course leave it there.  By far the best way to figure it out is to pre ride the course (see below) and see if you bottom out the rim but remember that you'll likely be going much faster during the race. When in doubt add a few PSI—its better to get bounced around a bit than pinch flat and DNF (did not finish).  A good floor pump with an accurate gauge will help and try to use the same pump every time because gauges tend to vary between pumps.  Generally tubed clinchers should be in the 30-40 PSI range.  More if you are built like He Man.

Tubular what?  They are expensive tires shaped like doughnuts that you have to glue to the rim. Yes glue.  They are much harder to pinch flat and can be run at absurdly low pressures.  They are amazing and definitely "worth it".  For now though, nothing to see here folks…move along.

Tubeless What?  More and more folks are using tubeless setups to race cross.  You get some the benefits of tubular tires (lower pressure without pinch flats) without the expense or hassle of tubulars.  You also get the additional hassle of trying to keep them from “burping” air.  Ask the internet if you want to know more.

What's a good race for beginners? Pick a race, any race.  They are all good for first-timers. NJBA races tend to be smaller than MAC series races and there is a perception that NBJA races are more laid back.  While I can’t disagree, I think that any race is a good first race.  Cat 4/Cat C cyclocross fields are a funny thing—you have a wide mix of skill and fitness levels.  In any given race you’ll have people ranging from Cat 2 roadie types with mad wattage who just happen to be new to cross to people with limited fitness who have never done a bike race before. Again, there’s always a race within the race so just get out there and do it.
Save time on race day and avoid getting shut out by pre-registering online.  If you don’t have a USAC license you can generally but a one day license when you check in. If you have either a current USAC road or MTB license you are good to go. 

OK enough about gear.  What should I practice?  Often when people think cyclocross they think “barriers” and jumping on/off the bike since that’s a unique element of the discipline.  Sure there are generally barriers of some sort on most race courses and if you are a barrier ninja you could shave a few seconds off each lap but in my opinion it’s worth practicing other skills that can save you minutes per lap (like being able to ride a steep section clean that others have to walk).

It’s bike racing afterall, so if you only have time to work on one thing, work on your fitness—Go out ride and ride hard.  Learn to push yourself beyond your comfort zone.  If it doesn’t sting a little you aren’t doing it right.  Cross is all about hard, relatively short, repetitive efforts.  Do that. 

If you have time to work on two things then spend time in a park learning to handle the cross bike in all sorts of different terrain. Ride circles around trees; ride figure 8’s on the side of steep grassy hills; climb and descent steep hills; ride through mud and sand; practice clipping in to the pedals sprinting up to speed from a stop to simulate race starts.

Then if you have time to practice other stuff then work on dialing in your dismount/remount.   Even if you have a stutter step or if you do that left-foot-on the-pedal-while-scooting-along-then-sling-the-right-leg-over thing you’re still probably re-mounting reasonably well.  Hell, I know A-level riders who do that. Work on being smooth everywhere else and it’ll pay bigger dividends than having a pretty flying remount. 

Lastly, attend a cross camp or find a local Wednesday night cross practice.  There's probably one in your area.  Check your local internet forum or bike shops.  If you live in NJ, check the "'Cross Dressers" forum for information on the various practices around NJ. Usually people are more than willing to help beginners.  

Race DAY!
What should I eat the morning of a race?  Eat a substantial meal about 3 hours prior to your race but make it something that you know your stomach will tolerate easily. In the very least make it something colorful that wouldn’t mind seeing on your bar tape after your race.  Top yourself off with energy drinks/gels in the 2-3 hours before you start but you do not want to race on a full stomach.  MAC series races typically start the day with Cat 4 whereas last year NJBA ended the day with Cat 4.  Plan your food intake accordingly. If you can eat a gel or drink from a bottle during the race you’re doing it wrong. 

What do I wear?  What’s the weather like?  You are going to be racing full tilt for the next 35-45 minutes.  Wear enough to keep you warm but not so much that you’ll overheat.  Layer and take off what feels like too much during your warm up.  You are not going to have any time during the race to make wardrobe adjustments. 

Pre-ride Inspect the course.  I think this is the single most important thing you can do on race day.  Sure, pre-riding helps you warm up but you should use more as it as an opportunity to learn the course— Get out your monocle and really inspect the thing. Look for the best racing lines, evaluate the ground conditions, anticipate spots that transition between down and up so you know when to shift gears, ride and re-ride the tricky technical sections, etc…  Follow somebody more experienced to see what she or he does?  Are they riding the muddy sections or is it better to run?  What's the line on that greasy off-camber?

If your race is the first one of the day you’ll typically have free roam of the course.  If not, chances are you’ll have to get your pre-riding in between other races so here are some basic rules to follow:   Always enter the course at the start/finish line; Never pre-ride the course when there is a race in progress. Generally officials will let pre-riders on to the course after the winner has finished (again only at the start/finish line). Once on course, never pass an active racer—let them finisher their race without interference no matter how slow they are going. 

Pin that Number.  When you pick up your number they should tell you what side of your jersey to pin it on. Make sure it can be read easily from the side and isn't flapping in the wind.  Also make sure it’s not upside down.  Everybody makes that mistake…once. 

Line Up (the race before the race).  Staging usually happens 10-15 minutes prior to the start of each race.  This is the chance to get an all important spot near the front.  In the MAC series Cat 4 Men’s races are staged (“called up”) by order of registration (which means the race actually begins as soon as the registration page is put up on Bikereg).  In other MAC fields call-ups are determined by series standings.  NJBA races often have call-ups for the top 20 or so riders based on series ranking.  After that point it’s a scrum to secure the spots on the starting grid.  Courses are usually 8-wide on the starting grid. 
Depending on the weather you might want a jacket or water bottle as you are waiting for the start. 

Why does the start matter so much?  A good start can make a big difference.  This is especially true in Cat 4 races in our area where the fields are often of the largest of the day.  Why? Because racers usually get stacked up at the first “pinch point” in the race—often the first sharp turn or technical section.
Since you’ve already practiced starts (right?) you should have some idea of what gear to be in and how to clip in quickly.  When the whistle/trombone/bell goes off, be ready to pedal like hell and look to move up…safely. 

What about racing etiquette?  This is a tough one for beginning racers.  While it certainly is a race and everybody knows this, there are a few things to keep in mind.  1) There’s generally one preferred line on the course and everybody wants to take it. 2)  Two people cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  3) you are probably going to stand around after the race recounting the day's events with your fellow racers over a beer so race hard but be courteous.
(Ben Berdern settles it like a boss. FWIW Ben is racing in the US again this year and I happen to be a fan)

How many laps will we do?  It depends on race duration and lap times.  Examples:  In the past MAC Cat 4 races have been 30 minutes (note: looks like 40 min this year)—if the leaders are doing 7 minute laps then figure 4-5 laps.  NJBA Cat 4 races are 40 minutes—if the leaders are doing 7 minute laps then 5-6 laps.  There will be lap cards at the start/finish line once the officials determine how many laps in total if you can see straight enough to read them.  The ringing bell means you have one lap to go.

I heard there are pits? – Yes, there are pits just like in Nascar. No, a team of Nomex clad technicians will not change your tires and douse you with Red Bull if you have a problem.  Yes some people in your race might have pit bikes or spare wheels but don’t worry about any of that for now.  Generally there is one pit that is two sided meaning you can enter the pit from 2 places on the course.  If you have a spare set of wheels with cross tires throw them in--it might help you avoid a DNF.  If you have a spare bike you probably shouldn’t be reading this anyway.  Just make sure your pit wheels have some identification so the race promoter can contact you  when you forget them in the pit after the race.

What if I get  Lapped!?  Getting lapped is a part of the sport.  Whether you are a new Cat 4 racer getting lapped by a sandbagging Cat 1 roadie or an aspiring Elite getting lapped by Tim Johnson it’s bound to happen at some point in your racing career. The race officials will give instructions before the start of your race which should include mention of what they are doing with lapped riders.  Generally in Cat 4 fields lapped riders are allowed to stay on course until the final lap.  If you know you are somewhere in the back of the field and all of a sudden somebody comes flying up from behind it’s probably not somebody who is slower than you just “found their legs”—it’s probably the leader of the race lapping you.  He/she might even give you a heads up. In any case, try to pick a side and let the faster riders through.  UCI races have some other wacky rules about lap times as a percentage of leaders time but don’t worry about that as it’s not generally enforced in Cat 4 races. It will be obvious if/when you are getting pulled by an official.  Congratulations, you get to drink beer or eat wafels while your compatriots are still out there suffering.  

Why are the fans heckling me?  Because it's their job.  It's all in good fun. Probably better not to respond like this:
Instead, heckle back when they are out there racing. 

Wait, there's a dollar bill sticking out of the mud in middle of the course! Should I pick it up?   Most definitely.  And if somebody offers you a frothy beverage or cupcake "handup" you are all but obliged to accept it. Cyclocross has a long history of irreverence and lets hope it stays that way.

How will I know when to stop?  Look for the lap cards, listen for the bell and pedal like hell the last lap.  If you have been lapped and the officials don’t pull you, you’ll finish on the same lap as the winner (once the winner finishes, everybody is done racing the next time they cross the start/finish. 

What do I do after the race? Drink beer; eat wafels; recount your race with fellow competitors; stalk your competitors on; log on to to sign up for next weekend’s race!

Jeremy Powers Cross Camp Video - Highlights: excellent extreme-slomo of mount/dismount, bike carrying, cornering, etc...  Meh: How to pack your twin bikes for travel in Europe.
Adam Myerson/Cyclesmart: A bunch of good articles from the sensei
Cyclocross Magazine: Online and in Print.  Articles and Forums are a wealth of information

1 comment:

  1. Just to add to the library here, this is something everyone should study before their first cross race: