By Chris Carmichael and CTS Senior Coach Daniel Matheny
As the road and mountain bike seasons trail off, many athletes are left without a guiding purpose to be on the bike. If you’re wondering what to do with your hard-earned summer fitness and looking for a way to rekindle your childhood desire to play in the mud, then jump into Cyclocross!
Cyclocross (CX or ‘cross for short) combines aspects of road cycling, mountain biking, and steeplechase using a bicycle that looks like a road bike but is equipped with cantilever brakes and wider tires. A ‘cross race can take riders over grass, sand, dirt, pavement, gravel, mulch, and snow. It’s a great way to give your fall/winter a purpose and minimize the amount of fitness you lose from your peak summer form. The high-intensity efforts provide a great training stimulus for your VO2 max and lactate threshold energy systems, and taxing these systems has a positive impact on base aerobic fitness as well. Cyclocross is also a perfect way to implement the Time-Crunched Cyclist philosophy since the training sessions can be short and intense, and races are 40-75 minutes in duration.
Cyclocross is exciting, intense, and fun, but it requires some skills you may not have learned from traditional road riding or mountain biking. The unique pieces of cyclocross racing for most newbies to the sport are the barriers and the fact you must dismount and remount your bike while racing at max effort. There’s a lot of technique involved in dismounting the bike before the barriers, running through the barriers while carrying your bike, and then remounting it. The pros make it look easy, and with some practice you’ll be able to do it smoothly and quickly as well.
Slow down to go fast
Why do you need to slow down to go fast? Because the steps to proper dismounts and mounts are the same no matter how fast you go. Mastering the movements is easier at a slower pace, and once you have the technique mastered you can add the speed component. In this article we’ll cover only the dismount and remount of the bike. There are other skills for ‘cross racing, like shouldering the bike, maintaining your speed as you run over barriers, etc., but the dismount/mount is the first and fundamental skill you need to get started.
Find a small park, grassy field, the sidelines of a sports field, or even your yard if it’s at least 25 meters long, and get ready to practice. The vast majority of athletes dismount by unclipping their right foot and swinging their right foot behind the bike to step off on the left side. Some people do dismount to the right, but it can be more difficult because you have to be more careful to avoid your derailleur and chain – and if you mess up you’re more likely to gouge your legs with your chainrings. For explanation purposes going forward, I’ll use the right leg as dominant, thus a resulting left-side dismount.
Even though you’ll be dismounting the bike to run over barriers in a race, start by learning how to dismount and remount the bike with no obstacles to worry about. In your chosen practice area, after a brief warm up on the bike, pick an open stretch of grass (like the length of a sports field) to practice in a down and back fashion.
The learning process for a dismount/remount can be broken into 4 parts: 1) the leg swing, 2) lifting your bike, 3) dismount and lift, and 4) the remount.
1. The Leg Swing:
Pedaling at slow speed (10mph) with your hands on the brake hoods, unclip your dominant right leg, swing it around the back of the bike in a “round house” sweeping motion, and simultaneously push your bike away from you so it’s slightly right of vertical to counterbalance the shift in your weight. Now bring your right foot in behind your left and touch your toe to the ground. For this drill you’re not completing the dismount, but if you were you’d step down onto your right foot here. For now, swing your leg back to the starting point. Attempt to find your pedal and clip-in without looking down if you can. Practice just this piece alone, and notice that if you lean the bike too far to the right of balanced, there’s more of a chance your right foot will contact the wheel as you step down.
2. The Lift:
When you lift your bike to start running with it, you want it to be balanced in your hands. If you’re holding it too far to the front, the back wheel will drop and hit the barriers as you run. If you hold it too far back, the front wheel will hit a barrier or the weight of the bike in front of you will throw you off balance. To find the lift point on your bike, try lifting it at various points on the top tube to find the bike’s center of balance. Now move your hand 2-3 inches back towards your seat because you’ll usually be lifting the front of the bike with your other hand on the bars as well. This is your lift point. Placing a piece of electrical or handlebar tape at this location on the top tube can be helpful.
When lifting the bike to run through a series of barriers, you’ll grab the top tube of your bike from the top (as opposed to grabbing it from underneath). You may have seen cyclocross riders carrying their bikes on their shoulders as well. This method is used for uphill runs or for running longer distances while carrying the bike. To lift the bike onto your shoulder you would dismount and reach for the downtube from the side of the bike you dismounted on. For now, though, we’ll just focus on the top-tube grab. When you lift the bike, your left hand should be on the left brake hood and your right hand should be on the lift point on your top tube. Lift straight up so both wheels are level or your front wheel is higher than your back (better to hit your back wheel on a barrier than your front).
3. Dismount and Lift:
Now try to combine the dismount and the lift. Start with Step 1 above, and then once you have your body on the left side of the bike, step down so your right foot touches the ground as you unclip your left foot from your pedal. You’ll take about a half-step with your right foot and your first real step with your left. As you get smoother at dismounting, the momentum of your leg swing will assist in the rotation necessary to unclip your left foot.
Throughout the movement so far, you’re hands should have stayed on the brake hoods. As soon as your feet are on the ground, your right hand should quickly trace the handlebars to the stem back onto the top tube, to your lift point. Lifting the bike about 2 feet off the ground by the left brake hood and the top tube, take a few walking or slow jogging steps. Set the bike back down gently on the ground so it does not bounce; a bouncing bike is much harder to remount. Before trying the remount, just get back on the bike and practice the dismount and lift steps several times.
4. The Remount:
The goal of a cyclocross remount is to maintain your speed as you get back on the bike. At the completion of Step 3, with your bike on the ground, move your carrying hand back to the handlebars so both hands are evenly weighted on the hoods again. Extend your arms, pushing your bike out in front of you in a superman –like action; take a last powerful step with your left foot, extending with your toe to start your hop. Your body will almost be horizontal as you hop and your right thigh will mimic the rear leg of a hurdler so it clears the back wheel and the seat. Your hop should focus on being more horizontal than vertical; you want your right leg to just clear the seat, rather than jumping high into the air and landing hard on the saddle. Aim to land on the inner side of your right thigh to keep all things safe down there. Once you land on the saddle, slide into the normal seated position and get clipped back in to the pedals while pedaling forward only. Practice getting one foot clipped in with a forward pedal motion that brings the other pedal around to contact the other foot so the action is creating forward momentum (as opposed to back-pedaling to get your feet into place). Once both feet are clipped in, then you can take a few pedal strokes and repeat the entire dismount, lift, and remount back and forth in your practice area.
Repeat this drill, slowly gaining speed from a walk-through, to a slow jog, and then to more of a tempo pace. As you gain speed the whole process should begin to feel smoother; if not then take the speed back a tick and make sure you have the process perfect.
Then the fun part is being creative as you piece together mock race courses that last 3-5min in length. Be creative! Add in parts of sidewalks (watching for pedestrians), mulch of playgrounds (don’t disrupt kiddos), and sand of volleyball courts (watch the net). Hit uphill sections where you can practice dismounts, weave through trees, transition from asphalt to dirt, etc. If you have friends join you, take turns leading through the course. For a less predictable workout, you can play “follow the leader” where each person makes up the course on the fly as he or she leads. This drill refines your reaction speed, forces you to react to instantaneous changes, and helps you with shifting gears for better momentum.
CX skills workout; ~ 50-90 minutes total
• 10-30 minute warm up on your CX bike to the park or on the roads around your chosen practice area
• 2 laps (down & back) just on leg swing and bike balance without full dismount
• 4 laps practicing full dismount and remount at walking speed
• 4 laps increase pace to jog through
• complete 10 laps on your hot lap circuit (options below)
– in a 1 lap at race pace, 1 slow format
– play follow the leader if you have multiple people alternating the leading person
– practice starting with a foot down (like a race start) and going all out for 1-2min to simulate a start. Settle into a tempo to complete the lap, take a recovery lap, and then repeat.
• Cool down with an easy spin home or around the roads.