Friday, September 25, 2009

It’s Not About The Barriers: Risk, Reward and the Cyclocross Course

The worst and the best cyclocross courses, I’ve raced them both. While you remember Cyclocross courses for certain features, the difference between a good and bad course rarely comes down to sand pits, log barriers, off cambers or cool hand built flyovers. The great courses offer risk and reward. (pictured above Masters racers take the risk of a fast entry into a 3 wide sand pit at OVCX Gun Club Race, 2008 Milford Ohio)

Cyclocross is much more than a fastest person wins bike race. It’s a mental game pitting skills versus speed. Some of the best courses I’ve raced tempt riders to make hard decisions throughout the course. The choice can be as simple as run it or ride it or as daunting as grabbing a handful of brake or blasting wide-freaking-open. At the OVCX Kingswood course this past weekend, a double barrier was followed by two 180 degree hairpins. Right off the bat, you’re thinking that sucks. It’s a total - everyone goes through slow and single file - choke point, but it wasn’t. The beautiful part of it was that you had to make the first hairpin a delicate fraction of a second after remounting from the barriers. The corner was taped wide. Some riders chose to run the first 180 the first lap and ride the turn on successive laps. Some opted for the longer but less susceptible to carnage outside line. Others tried their skills only to fumble getting clipped in through the turn. Multiple choice, but only one fast answer per lap. Brilliant.

One of my favorite risk/reward course set-ups was the natural double log barriers at the OVCX John Bryan race in 2008. The logs were a bunny-hop-able 10-12 inches thick, separated by a 10-12 yards of grass long enough to land and relaunch for the 2nd log. However, the logs were on a fast straightaway, leaving riders to question whether it was faster to dismount at high speed and run, or slow to hop them. With conditions changing and fatigue setting in over the course of the race, it left a helmet scratching decision every lap. It rewarded strong riders with the skills to risk bunny hopping them every lap. It still rewarded those that could dismount at speed without touching the brakes. It punished those who committed beyond their talents. Now, mentally make those logs 16-18 inches round and roll them within 4-5 yards of each other. Unless you’re the one freak-of-nature in the race that can bunny hop anything, everyone is going to hit the brakes and run the logs. The risk and reward is gone. It wasn't about the logs, but how they were placed in relation to the course and each other.

Don’t get confused; risk/reward in Cyclocross has nothing do to with opening up a course or making it less challenging. It is about choices. Take the Green Monster flyover at the USGP course in Louisville in 2008. It was a behemoth wooden bridge structure with about 10 stairs on one side, a table top, and a ramp down the other. The stairs were tall and shallow. The table top wasn’t more than 2-3 feet longer than a bike. The steep ramp shot you out into a wide fast turn. The structure was wide enough for riders to tackle two abreast. It rewarded those with extremely quick dismount/remount skills combined with technical skills and punished those who hesitated for a split second of indecision or a case of nerves. More than once I saw it cause a gap between a rider with buttoned up skills and someone who had to look down to clip their foot in their pedal. Sure the Green Monster was challenging and an intimidating sight, but it was it's placement on the course that really made it spectacular. Had there been a tight turn at the bottom, riders would've played it a little more safe and never have attacked it as hard as they did.

Risk/reward, in regards to cyclocross courses not only applies to the obstacles, but the little nuances of the course. One of my favorites, while just a mosquito of a detail, is having a section of the course be a little pavement on one side and grass on the other. I’ve encountered this feature number of times and have learned to look for it in my pre-rides. Imagine a grassy stretch leading into a long sweeping corner. However, the corner slightly crosses a paved drive or golf cart path. Experienced riders will know that riding on pavement is faster than grass, so they’d take advantage to stand up and bang out a few hard pedal strokes on the pave. Others simply didn’t see the crumb of advantage right in front of their eyes. The risk: we all know what can happen going from wet grass to smooth pavement. Whoops!

My last example is about adding the element of speed to a course, particularly into and out of obstacles. When you put a tight turn in front of or after an obstacle, it forces all riders to stack and slow. Now replace those choking turns with a more direct or fluid route in and/or out of the obstacle. Riders that can really attack the obstacle at fearless speed are rewarded. Intimidated riders have to slow. The better all around cyclocrossers are rewarded, not the lucky ones who eek through the stacked up carnage.

Even though cyclocross is gaining immense popularity, the courses are still crafted by grass roots clubs and teams, not ex-pros or people that try to eek out a living on race promotion. It’s still September and a whole season is in front of us. When most design a course, they think: we need a sandpit, some off camber, a stretch of single track, some logs, some tight corners, a set of stairs, a little pavement, a nasty run-up and our logo on the barriers. Those are just elements, paint in the can. Tie those elements in a way that rewards riders who can take the risk and do it faster than the competition, now that makes a good course.


Chris said...

Good observations, Joe. Definitely something to think about during course set-up. Duane, the rest of the BC/TL crew, and myself will be looking at the Fisherman's course this weekend, so nice timing.

Mark said...

The other thing those of us that raced both days at KingsCX learned is a course can be turned upside down, simply by running the course the opposite way you thought it should run. It might have more climbing, less, faster, flow better, or slower. I agree Joe, there is a fine line there to how much of that can of spray tools you use - too much, you spend so much time off your bike or going so slow, the fun factor is gone, too little and it's a crit course on grass. Mohican State Forest is a great example. Ride that backwards, it looses all its fun factor. But step into it anywhere along the trail and it's fun counter clockwise.