Monday, August 15, 2011

Cutting The Course and Other Diabolical CX Practice Tips

Katie Compton Warms Up At Devou 
As if you were 2 days into crossing the Sahara, your mouth is open gasping for breath and water.  Your legs are searing.  Your coordination follows your downward spiral.  You take a turn too wide and bobble the barriers.  Then, pop!  You’re dropped, breathless, bummed, burnt and alone.  You think, “If this is practice, I’m doomed.”

A lot of cyclocrossers don’t treat practice as practice.  Instead, it’s the midweek wee-wee contest on dirt.  I’ve been doing these practices for eight years now.  If hammering every minute of a mid-week cyclocross practice was all it took to get as fast as possible, we’d all be racing Pro/1/2 or have a Stars and Stripes jersey pinned to the wall.

At every cyclocross practice a reclusive super fast guy shows up.  In his fancy pants regional-pro jersey, you’ll see ‘em light up a lap, maybe two or three.  Wow!  All you see is a flash of carbon and meaty quad fastness.  Next time, look closer.  What you didn’t see was him pull out after the first lap and retire for a drink at the car.  Yep, this time he’s doing single lap intervals while you’re riding alone after getting drop by the hammer heads for the 3rd time in a row.  The next practice, here comes fast guy blowing by from behind.  The next thing you know he’s cutting the course, only to come blowing by from behind again…and again!  What the $%*^ is with this guy!  He’s not being a show off, he’s practicing picking his way through the pack.  The following week, when everyone is doing 10 starts, the slacker is only doing every other effort or already has his bike on the car with a Gatorade in his hand.  Fast guy knows how to be focused and how much he needs to rest between efforts. 

If you treat cyclocross practice like a race, you’re missing the point.  Drilling it at balls-out pace only to get dropped and ride alone, will not make you faster or better.  It will make you very comfortable riding alone.  Practicing cyclocross is your opportunity to hone your skills and focus on short comings.  That’s what fast-guy was doing.  So, before you clip in, have a plan Stan.  I like to choose two skills and a workout.  When you’re done with practice, you’ll feel like you accomplished something rather than got beat by the fast guys again.

Kabush & Wicks
 Right now, make a list of what you suck dirty donkey turds at.  Personally, I’m more awkward than my father at a Lady Gaga concert when it comes to barriers.  I also struggle on long false flats where the power pedal mashers get the better of me.  On the bright side, I’ve always been shotgun quick on starts and the hole shot.  I’m a fast hill runner and never worry about sand.  While my mountain bike background makes me a good technical rider, I sometimes take off camber downhill turns like a semi-truck at Pike’s Peak.  If you’re not sure where you can improve, spend your first cyclocross practice in discovery mode.  Pace yourself with riders your speed and take note of where they pull away from you and where you put the hurt on them.  Next time, pick two things to work on.

While the organized practice may have a set of intervals designed in, you may be better off doing your own thing or a variation.  Locally our practices usually do the stair step 1-2-3-2-1 series of lap intervals, which is a good general set that works for most people.  However, if you did longer intervals earlier in the week, you’ll probably benefit more by doing shorter 30 second to 1 minute efforts at practice where you attack, recover, and repeat.  Or, if you want to get a few 6 minute efforts in, ride ever other lap at speed, and noodle your way through the laps in between. 

Molly Cameron @ UCI 3 CX Clinic
Plan to test your equipment.  If you have a pit bike or a 2nd set of wheels, ride them both.  You may discover that one bike doesn’t fit quite like the other or that those big knobbies feel like they surf on hardpack.  Practice swapping out wheels or bikes in the pit and gauge how long it takes to catch back on.

Bring some tools, a towel & water.  Bring your pump to play with tire pressure and a multi tool to adjust your fit or chain catcher.  If you don’t have another set of wheels, an extra tube can save your evening.  A towel will save you from showing your jewels to the mom and the kids on the soccer field.

Maybe your workout goal is to get in ten :30 second attack/recover efforts, practice the barriers, and work on riding the tough off cambers.  Remember it’s not a race.  You don’t have to do 3 laps at lactate threshold with the group.  Split your intervals up and work them into the group plan.  At the end of the night, skip practicing starts and go practice those barriers or the off camber.  Practice is about making sure you get faster, not about bragging rights.  Who is fastest doesn’t matter until race day.

J Pow! at Devou
Ignore the other riders.  Don’t worry if your peer riders are crushing it and leaving you wheezing like a donkey between bouts of mini pukes.  Chances are they haven’t ridden since Saturday, planned practice as their hard ride of the week or had a stressful day at work like you.  No one cares who wins practice.

Cut the course if you get dropped.  It’s not a race.  Plus you'll get an awesomely sneaky cool feeling when you do it.  The premise is it's much more beneficial to ride with others than to ride by yourself.  If you get tailed off by a group of your peer riders, cut the course and latch back on.  Whether it’s a faster line through a corner or something as simple as having faith in your skills, you’ll learn what makes the other guys faster.  If you get dropped by the fast guys, cut the next few corners and get back on the train. 

Start from the back.  Chances are you’re not going to get the call-up to the front two rows, or you’ll get stuck behind a wreck in a race or two.  If you practice starting from the back, you’ll gain the skills necessary to pick your way through riders, learn where you can make up time on the course, gain confidence in your fitness, be more calm when disaster strikes and be able to gauge your efforts when you really need to close a gap.

Trebon @ Devou 2010
Divide and Conquer.  Cross races come in three flavors: 30, 45 or 60 minutes.  Split your race into segments, and practice each with intervals.  A thirty minute race becomes three 10 minute efforts: the start, the middle, the finish.  An hour long race, might be a 10 minute start, a 20 minute first half, a 20 minute second half and the finish.  That’s why practices usually feature the stair step intervals.  How you play within these guidelines is up to you.  Maybe on the single lap intervals you focus on your start and top end speed.  Then on the middle 2 and 3 lap intervals, which could be 15 to 20 minutes long, you focus on an easier sustainable effort possibly with some 30 second attack efforts tossed in.  Or, you could practice starting from the back and fighting your way to the front.  Or, you could practice your sprint by coming in with the fast guys, cutting the tail end of the course and repeating the sprint effort 2-3 times until all the riders are back in.  Tailor your workout to the framework of practice.

Ask A Brother.  Cyclocross is not like the World Series of Poker.  There’s not a cyclocrosser I know that holds deep dark secrets to their speed.  If you have trouble with the sand, ask someone fast how they get through so quick.  What do they look for when deciding whether to ride or run?  You might find out that they’ll run the sand if they're in traffic to avoid a possible wreck and try to ride the shallower left hand side if they’re alone.  If the sandpit ends with a large lip, it may be faster to run it than risk dismounting in the middle.


Christopher Averett said...

Thanks for all the tips.

Joe Biker said...

Thanks for reading Chris!

Cyclocross Bikes said...

This has got to be the best training article I've read about bike racing in a long, long time. I wish more riders were this thoughtful about structuring their week and understanding that practice is not race day. Kudos, great job!!