"I wrote this article a few years ago now, but everything in it still rings true. The funniest part for me is what Tom Pidcock and Mathieu Van der poel have gone on to do since then. I think it just underlines what I was saying at the time. Cyclocross should be for everyone and an essential part of every young rider's programme if they want to be the very best in the future. It teaches so many of the fundamentals needed for all other disciplines while having fun... which is the most important part!"
Why everyone should race Cyclocross
Every so often the benefits of racing Cyclocross are highlighted by riders competing successfully across disciplines. In the past, riders such as Lars Boom and Zdenek Stybar have switched to road racing with great success and just recently there have been another couple of examples which made me want to write this piece.
On the UK domestic scene is Tom Pidcock, World, European and National Junior Cyclocross Champion who dominated one of the hardest Elite Tour Series events in Durham after already having won the Junior Paris-Roubaix earlier in the year. In his own words, he ‘has been struggling to find a goal’ since ‘Cross Worlds - god help all of us when he does.
Then, on the international scene, Mathieu Van Der Poel out-sprinted Phillip Gilbert to win stage two of the Belgium Tour and a few days later pushed Nino Schurter all the way in the second round of the World Cup MTB Series. He made a small mistake and eventually ended up in second place.
What MVDP did is absolutely ridiculous on a number of levels, and I can have a pretty good stab in the dark at what sort of numbers he must be producing. But, as we all know, there is a damn site more to racing than just numbers. The tactical mind and the technical skills needed to compete at these levels are beyond comprehension for most.
While the pessimists will highlight that I have only provided the two examples, and that both Tom and Mathieu would have been just as successful without ‘Cross as a child, I’d like to point out the below:
Quickly scanning the start sheets from the World Junior Cyclocross Championships over the last 15 years, I can easily pick out the following names: Gregory Rast, David Boucher, Maxim Gogolev, Sebastian Minard, Koen de Kort, Enrico Franzoi, Steve Chainel, Sebastien Langeveld, Jaraslav Kulhavy, Jean Pierre Drucker, Roman Kreuziger, Boy Van Poppel, Ramon Sinkeldam, Alex Howes, Jon Izaguirre, Peter Sagan, Scott Thwaites, Sean de Bie, Clement Koretzky, Dan Mclay, Julien Alaphilippe, Bob Jungels. All of these guys have had or are currently very successful Road or MTB riders having left Cyclocross behind.
Who knows how many more names you’ll find on the National Championship start lists!
So, what is the secret to their success? Cyclocross.
Being able to manoeuvre a bike is key. It can be the difference between winning and losing world titles, or between top ten at a local-league event and fighting the mid pack. It really does matter.
Riding around a ‘Cross course provides a fun, safe environment where bike handling skills are developed. The different terrains (mud, off cambers, roots and ruts to name a few) mean multiple skills are continuously tried and tested. The main rule to follow with cyclocross is “adapt or you’ll fall off”.
Luckily for us, the human body is fantastic at adapting and learning. To remain upright, and in the direction you want to go, you’ll need to be confident, apply your brakes here and a little power there, and allow the bike to move underneath you. It will soon become second nature.
Additionally, given the close proximity to other riders at the start of a ‘Cross race (and even during the race in corners and technical sections) bumping shoulders or over lapping a wheel isn’t the end of the world. The race continues with a slight flutter of the heart but you’ll soon get used to it.
When someone who has raced ‘Cross heads to the road, riding within a bunch is a much more relaxed affair. A slight touch of bars, or manoeuvring in a tight spot, isn’t a big deal. The heart rate remains low and valuable energy isn’t spent on nerves or from constantly braking. Even when racers hit a technical section of road, it will be nothing compared to what they will have experienced on a ‘Cross course.
With good bike handling, energy is preserved and time can often be gained with the cornering techniques learnt in ‘Cross. Pedalling through slower corners to maintain grip or simply correct weight distribution in the corners all adds up. Technical ability is literally free speed.
There has been a lot of research over recent years about pedalling circles or “pulling up” during the pedalling phase. Power meter technology has meant that riders can monitor this, and cyclists are well equipped to analyse and improve their pedalling efficiency. A much more primal way to see a rider’s efficiency is to send them across a bumpy or muddy field - the rider with a smooth pedalling technique will be head and shoulders above the rest. So by riding off road a rider has to develop their pedalling efficiency and technique to simply keep up.
The bumpy, muddy field test leads nicely onto my next point.
Applying the same philosophy as the above, raw power is also put to the test. Explosiveness, strength endurance and being dynamic on the pedals is tested in every cross race.
How does this relate to road I hear you ask? Monitor a power file from a road race and the readings are extremely dynamic. Riding in a bunch is a very on/off style of riding, and you’ll need a quick acceleration to close gaps, move up or hold your position at critical moments of the race.
If you are reading this and wondering how dynamic ‘Cross really is, in 2009 at the Koksijde World Cup I completed 206 sprints in one hour of racing which exceeded my max aerobic power (MAP). The kind of numbers produced in ‘Cross races are the sort that win road races. If you add some endurance training, you’ll produce the kind of results that MVDP has been displaying recently.
Finally, ‘Cross can be a tactical game. Using your strengths cleverly to combat your opponents’ flaws, and having to dig in deep during the parts of the course that you find most difficult, are crucial to stay in contention for the title. Even if you are not racing for the win in the front group, you will find yourself around other riders on the last lap... and you are racing for every position. The “want-to-win” and the ability to “dig in” is something which isn’t always created on the road. It’s easy for road racers to simply say “I just finished in the bunch”.
As you can probably tell from my own career choices, and this piece, I love cyclocross and I really want people to race and experience it for themselves. I think it is some of the best fun you can have on a bike. It’s super safe, away from traffic and training off-road is rewarded.
I know I have concentrated on the development of younger riders in this piece, but it is never too late to evolve as a rider. Middle aged third cat? There’s still time to change and improve your riding style with the help of some ‘Cross riding or racing.
You don’t have to have the world’s best equipment to compete either. Entry level ‘Cross bikes don’t cost the earth and the bike can double up as a winter road bike if you need to get another bike past your partner and into the garage.