As summer turns to fall, many cyclists shift their attention from road, gravel, and mountain bike events to cyclocross. Held on closed courses in local parks, cyclocross is a perfect way to get a great workout, satisfy your competitive drive, and stay connected to the cycling community during the colder months of fall and winter. Whether you are a veteran ‘cross racer or just ‘cross-curious, here’s a guide to training and preparation for cyclocross racing.
With the soaring popularity of gravel events, more athletes are getting interested in cyclocross. After all, if you own a gravel bike you already have a reasonably good setup for cyclocross racing. And of course, you can use the “n+1” principle to add a purpose-built cyclocross bike to your collection.
Benefits of Cyclocross for Road, Gravel, and Mountain Bike Riders
Participating in cyclocross is great for preserving and developing your fitness from one summer season to the next. Summer-focused cyclists often lose 25% of their Functional Threshold Power (FTP) between September 1 and December 31. This typically happens because of reduced training structure (generalized riding in place of focused intervals) and reduced training volume from shorter days, colder weather, and holiday interruptions. Participating in cyclocross season addresses all these areas.
More specifically, cyclocross races are short, high-intensity competitions that feature hard accelerations and maximal efforts. Courses are designed to be technically demanding, with sharp turns, off-camber sections, and rough or soft terrain. There are also obstacles that require most athletes to dismount and run with their bikes multiple times per lap. As a result, training for and competing in cyclocross can improve power at VO2 max, anaerobic capacity, handling skills, and your ability to adapt to adversity.
Here’s a more in-depth explanation of 5 Things Cyclocross Will Do For Your Fitness.
Getting Started in Cyclocross
If you are not already familiar with cyclocross, it may seem intimidating to get started. In truth, cross is one of the most accessible disciplines in cycling. First, the atmosphere at a cyclocross race is as much a festival as a cycling event. More laid back than most traditional road and cross-country mountain bike races, and more raucous than gravel events, cyclocross might get serious inside the course tape but it’s a party everywhere else.
From an equipment standpoint, local cyclocross races have very liberal equipment standards. USA Cycling’s “Cyclocross Equipment and Regulations FAQ” uses a very general definition of bicycle and notes that “mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, single speeds, and even beach cruisers are okay for USA Cycling Regulation CX events…” as long as they meet the general definition. Stricter equipment regulations apply for higher level cyclocross competitions, including National Championships and UCI Calendar events.
For more beginner tips on getting started in cyclocross, see this article from CTS Coach Josh Whitmore.
Fitness Training for Cyclocross
Cyclocross taxes all levels of a cyclist’s fitness. Although the sport is most often associated with high-intensity efforts, the power for those efforts starts with a strong base of aerobic endurance. Fortunately, that’s exactly what most summer-oriented cyclists have plenty of as they transition into the fall and winter for cyclocross.
VO2 max and FTP
Next, cyclocross performance relies heavily on a cyclist’s VO2 max and FTP. A larger aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and a greater FTP as a percentage of VO2 max, mean you can do more work before ramping up your glycolytic system. This is important because anaerobic glycolysis rapidly breaks down carbohydrate for energy and dramatically increases the rate of lactate production. This is sustainable for short efforts, but then athletes must reduce exercise intensity and reintegrate the accumulated lactate into normal aerobic metabolism to be broken down completely.
Because of the short duration and high intensity of cyclocross races, and the technical nature of the courses that demand repeated braking and hard accelerations, racers also benefit from workouts that build anaerobic capacity.
If it sounds like the solution is to “just train everything”, the reality is far simpler. Most cyclists – whether road, gravel, or mountain bike – spent the spring and summer building aerobic endurance and Functional Threshold Power. Many improved their VO2 max through racing and group rides, or in the process of improving FTP. This means tuning training for cyclocross often means bumping up the focus on VO2 max and anerobic capacity.
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You can find key cyclocross workouts in this article from CTS Coach Josh Whitmore, as well as this 8-week Cyclocross Training Plan for Time-Crunched Cyclists. CTS Premier Coach Jim Lehman, who has worked with multiple Cyclocross National Champions, including Katie Clouse, Caroline Mani, Kerry Werner, Georgia Gould, and Ryan Trebon, also has an important list of cyclocross training mistakes to avoid.
Cyclocross Skills Training
Cyclocross combines elements of road racing, mountain biking, and steeplechase into a fun, often messy, afternoon on bicycles. Courses incorporate varying amounts of pavement, grass, dirt, and sand. There are also natural and/or built obstacles that may require cyclists to dismount and run, jump, or climb stairs. Overall, cyclists who ride on gravel or mountain bikes have the basic skills to ride on rough or loose surfaces. The unique skills racers need for cyclocross are dismounting, carrying, and then remounting the bicycle on the fly.
Nutrition for Cyclocross
Fueling for cyclocross can be tricky because the intensity is so high that athletes rarely have the time nor desire to eat or drink during the event. Thankfully, the races are so short that athletes start with enough muscle glycogen to perform at their best all the way to the finish line.
Similarly, although sweat rates during competition can be high (particularly during unseasonably warm race days), racers often complete events without consuming any fluids (except maybe the occasional beer handup). Some riders don’t even carry a frame-mounted water bottle, as it can get in the way when trying to carry the bike.
So, how do you fuel for cyclocross? The most important thing is to make sure your muscle glycogen stores are topped up. You can accomplish this easily through your normal eating habits, as full glycogen replenishment happens naturally within about 24 hours after an exercise bout. You simply want to avoid the mistake of restricting calories and potentially hindering glycogen replenishment in the days before competition.
For more details, refer to the following cycling nutrition articles from CTS Coaches:
- What to eat and drink for rides of any length
- Guide to Pre-race and Pre-workout Meals: What, When, and How Much to Eat
- Fueling early morning workouts and races
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