Beginner Cyclocross Tips and Workouts

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Cyclocross might just be the most fun you can have on two wheels, and the culture and community of the sport is perfect for beginners! If you have been curious about getting started, here is a guide to beginner cyclocross tips and workouts.

Reasons to Start Cyclocross Racing

  • It’s fun! CX has a slightly more laid back atmosphere where everyone helps each other out, good race stories are shared in the parking lot with your favorite adult beverage, and since you are part of the CX cult, everyone loves you whether you finish first or last.
  • It’s short. With race times starting at 30min, training commitments are minimal.
  • You can bring the family. Most CX races are held in city parks where spectators can easily watch the whole race while having a nice picnic or while playing at the playground. Heck, there’s even races for the kids, so bring their bikes also.
  • It will improve your bike handling skills. I guarantee that after a season of cross, you’ll corner better in crits, ride technical sections faster on your mountain bike, and will feel more comfortable with short explosive efforts.
  • You won’t get “out of shape” during the off-season. You will stay leaner, more fit, and will have less work to do once you decide to start training for next year.
  • It’s pretty safe. Crashes are inevitable, but for the most part, CX crashes are low-speed fall-overs on grass or dirt. No high-speed pavement road rash, entanglements with cars, or endos down steep rock gardens.

Tips for Getting Started in Cyclocross

  • Get a bike.

    Ok, you don’t really need a specific CX bike to try it out. Mountain bikes will work fine, just take off the bar ends and add some air to the shocks to stiffen them up a bit. Once you are hooked and decide to get a real CX bike, like any bike, proper fit is critical. Compared to your road bike, your handlebar position will be a little higher and closer to you. In most cases, you will get the same size bike as your road bike. CX bikes tend to already come with slightly shorter top tubes.

  • Practice skills.

    Cyclocross is filled with elements not typically encountered on your average road or mountain bike ride. Getting off/on your bike efficiently, running over the little barriers with your bike, running up steep embankments, tons of low-speed tight turns, transitions to/from different surface types are all unique to cross. Learning how to do these skills efficiently and effectively will help you conquer the bike driving side of cross, a significant piece of the overall puzzle of cross racing. Even for more experienced cross racers, intentional practice of these skills will help dust off those cobwebs from last season and develop greater proficiency and speed.

    Find cross course elements in your local city park, school sports fields, or even in your own backyard to practice on. You can even tailor workouts to use these course elements such as setting up a simulated cross course and do intervals such as Steady State intervals on the lap. Lots of areas or cycling clubs have free weeknight cross practice sessions or even free clinics where you can ride with other people and receive instruction. CTS coaches are also available for one-on-one or small group skills instruction at the location of your choice.
  • Experiment with tires and pressures.

    There is a reason why pros show up to CX races with a quiver of tire choices. Tires make the biggest difference when it comes to sticking like Velcro or sliding on your rear end. For the beginner, choose an all-purpose tire and experiment with different tire pressures in different conditions. It needs to be firm enough to not pinch flat, but soft enough to conform to the ground for best traction. Different courses require different pressures.

  • Play in the mud.

    The cyclocross cult is perhaps the only discipline of bike racing where people actually get excited when the conditions turn to crap. Embrace your dirty soul, get out there in the rain and the snow and race your bike. You know you wouldn’t be riding at all on that day if you weren’t in a cross race.

  • Just get out there.

    It doesn’t matter how much you’ve been riding your bike, how dirty your bike is from the last time you rode it, or how scared you are of the sand pit in turn 2, just do the race and have fun!

Workouts To Prepare for Cyclocross Races

Incorporate cyclocross elements into your training progression. Cyclocross races are characterized by tons of short sharp accelerations. Adding elements of these type of accelerations into your training will help greatly. Here are a couple workout you can incorporate into your race specific training:

Workout 1: Steady State Zone Intervals With 10 Second Accelerations Every 1 Minute

The goal of this workout is to develop your ability to execute and recover from hard accelerations while going at race pace. These are best done on a flat road surface, paved or gravel. Steady State Zone is 96-100% of your Functional Threshold Power.  Intermediate and beginner riders can do 2-3 sets of 6-8min. Advanced riders can do 2-3 sets of 8-10min.

Each interval consists of the following:

  • 55 seconds in steady state zone
  • 5 seconds, hit the brakes and slow to around 5mph
  • 10 seconds, stand up and sprint
  • 45 seconds, immediately sit down and maintain steady state zone
  • 5 seconds, hit the brakes and slow to around 5mph
  • 10 seconds, stand up and sprint
  • 45 seconds, immediately sit down and maintain steady state zone
  • Repeat the pattern, slow down to 5mph and do a 10-second sprint every minute for the duration of the interval
  • Rest 10-12 minutes between each interval

Workout 2: 20/20 Second Speed Intervals – Flats and stairs

For this workout, you’ll need to find a set of steps or a steep embankment that will take approximately 20 seconds to run up. You will also need to easily be able to ride back to the bottom.  The pattern of this workout is to alternate between 20 seconds “on” and 20 seconds “off” for the duration of the set. Each “on” section will alternate between riding on flat ground and doing the dismount/run-up. Intermediate and beginner riders can do 2-3 sets of 6 minutes each. Advanced riders can do 2-3sets of 8-10min. Heart Rate and Power are not important for this workout, just go HARD.

Each set consists of the following:

  • 20 seconds “on” Flat: On a flat section of grass or gravel, start from near dead stop, stand up and accelerate as hard as you can for 8-10sec. Then, sit and maintain that high speed with a cadence of 100-110 at a hard pace for the remainder of the 20 seconds.
  • 20 seconds “off” spin lightly, recover.
  • 20 seconds “on” run: Dismount and sprint up the steps / hill for 20 sec. Concentrate on short steps, high turnover rate, and placement of each foot.
  • 20 seconds “off” spin lightly, recover, ride back to the bottom of steps.
  • Repeat for duration of set
  • Rest between sets 8-10mins

By Josh Whitmore,
CTS Coach, Masters National Champion, and Instructor Trainer for the Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association (PMBIA)


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Comments 5

  1. Pingback: Clincher Tire On Tubeless Rims- Tips & Tricks

  2. I use the treadmill twice a week and do 30 mins of incline walking-run intervals. I recommend this running workout for cyclocross racers who work full time and have a family. In addition, I do two indoor spinning workouts ( intervals), 45 mins for each spinning workout. Finally, I do year round circuit weight training with machines to develop muscular strength. My weekend rides consist of riding the mountain bike for 1.5 to 2.0 hours, and 60 minutes of bike racing intervals on a 2.0 mile flat cul-de-sac in the Cabrillo Beach Marina.

  3. Excellent workouts specifically designed for cross. Exactly what I was hoping for. Thanks Josh I will definitely incorprate these into my training!

  4. If I am following the Time Crunched book cyclocross program, should I try to work these new workouts in or just stay with the existing program? Which TCC workouts would these new ones replace?

    1. Overall, the workouts in this article are examples of ways you can tweak the more traditional CTS workouts to be more specific to the demands of cyclocross. The existing Time Crunched plan for cyclocross is a great framework to start with. If you find you can handle a little more or have already been through the Time Crunched plan a couple times, try mixing in elements of the workouts in this article. For example, you can add the accelerations to any of the Steady State intervals in that plan, especially the ones farther along in the plan. The Speed Interval workout (or sets of it) would be a good substitute late in the plan for any Power Interval set. For example, replace one of the 5x1min Power Interval sets with a set of the Speed Intervals. I hope that helps!

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