Your competition probably isn't doing this.
You registered for your first CX race, or maybe you've raced a few times, but are still finding your legs, trying to improve.
In the run up to your race, if you're like us, you're googling "how to race cyclocross" or "how to win cyclocross race" or "cyclocross pro tips." We applaud the initiative. Part of the reason cyclocross is so great is the diverse skill sets required. There's a ton to learn!
However, amidst the googling, and the analysis of your recent training ("Am I good enough?"), you may overlook the simple, best way to finish higher without any more fitness.
How's that for a silver bullet cliffhanger??
While everyone worries about skinsuits, carbon wheels, aero helmets, tires and FTPs, most people completely neglect to practice cyclocross specific skills. It's like if a basketball team spent 100% of their time on conditioning, but no time on shooting, passing and dribbling. We all understand how crazy that would be.
But, this is what most weekend-warrior, Cat 4, new cyclocrossers do.
But not you!
You're going to gain a huge advantage through...
A public park is your best friend as a cyclocross racer. Most races are held in public parks, so where better to practice? Learning to take fast corners on grass and dirt, learning to quickly dismount and remount, and gaining experience on the myriad types of obstacles you might encounter during a race will give you a HUGE advantage on many of lower category rivals.
To be clear, this is for newer racers in lower categories. If you've earned your way into higher categories, it's expected you already have these skills and are working on further sharpening them.
So, how to practice? First, go to your local public park. Best to find one with grass and dirt you can ride on. Bonus if there's sand, like a beach volleyball court.
Once you're there, here are our favorite drills:
Throw down two bottles (or rocks or whatever) in the grass, maybe 30 feet apart. Ride figure 8s between/around them. Focus on getting a couple hard pedal strokes before the turn, setting up the turn to start wide, and cutting in so the apex of your turn is your bottle. You want to stay off the brakes, carry speed, and quickly get back to pedaling. Keep the outside foot down and really apply pressure into the pedal to assist your tires with maintaining traction. Move the bottles closer and closer together so you get a mixture of higher speed, wider turns and more delicate, slow speed turns. During a race you'll have plenty of both. Try this drill in dirt if you can, also.
In the grass, find an area where you can ride in a straight line for 100yds (ideally). We're going to mimic a start to master clipping in, the first sprint and making sure we have the right gear. Every cyclocrosser who knows what they're doing picks a specific gear that they like to start in. Literally, you should know as you line up what cog you want to start the race in based on your practice. If you pick the wrong gear, you could lose the race on the start line while you frantically shift and everyone rides away.
With your foot down, give yourself a 3, 2, 1, GO! Clip in, and sprint for 10 or 20 seconds. You want to get that foot in immediately and feel both legs putting down power as quickly as possible, without looking down at your feet at all. Do this 5-10 times (or more, go for it!) per practice session. Figure out what gear is ideal for you and either remember or jot it down in your phone so you can get it right on race day. An ideal start will net you a bunch of places right off the start line.
This is the most obvious cyclocross specific skill. It's the first thing people notice about cyclocross. It's also the easiest way to gain a bike length advantage on your competition in the lower categories. Whether it's a barrier, a ditch or just opting to run around a traffic jam of riders, an efficient dismount and remount is a big advantage.
We're not going to go through the technique. There are a million good YouTube videos on this. To start, check out these - here, here and here. Then, go practice. Practice dismounting, jumping over something, and remounting. Then, practice dismounting before making a 180 degree turn, like around a tree, picking the bike up briefly with a hand on the top tube and a hand on the handlebar. Lastly, practice dismounting, running up a small hill and remounting at the top. You can carry the bike by the top tube, or throw it on your shoulder. Again, YouTube can show you that technique as well.
The skill level differences in riders is most apparent at obstacles requiring dismount. Riders who have not practiced and lack confidence slow down much more and earlier. Then after the obstacle, they lose a number of seconds getting back on and resuming power to the pedals. It's not difficult to put 3-5 seconds into your rivals if you've practiced and they've not. Lastly, if you do run into a very difficult obstacle like a long sand pit where you're not confident in riding it, you can quickly dismount, run and remount, likely gaining time again over riders who attempt to ride it and falter.
The best cyclocross courses include off-camber sections. They're just fun. But challenging, too! You might have trouble finding a great off-camber pitch to practice on but if you have a small hill, ride up and down, doing switchbacks of varying tightness. Ride down it, gain some speed, and then make a wide, fast sweeping turn across it before you get to the flat bottom. If you've got a steep enough little hill, practice traversing it with your uphill foot out of the pedal, acting as a kickstand to protect against sliding out and then quickly clipping back in and turning downhill. And to finish, put a bottle on the hill 3/4 of the way down, and ride up and down the hill at varying angles, turning at the bottle. Experiment to find the fastest technique of getting through the turn.
If you do an hour or two each week of just the drills above, you will gain a big advantage on fellow racers. If you've done these and aren't ready to go home, and you have the space, constructing a mini-course is a great way to combine all your skills at speed. This can be tough in public parks, but set a route with lots of turns, on open grass, around trees, in dirt, up and down any incline you can find and include a couple spots where you have to dismount and run. Laps on your mini-course are much more fun with friends, but plenty effective and enjoyable alone as well. Pick out sections where you find yourself slowing or grabbing brake, and work just that small bit, finding the best line, the best braking point and the true limit on speed.
Once you gain the fitness, race experience and results to move into higher race categories, these skills are simply necessary. But at the lower levels of cyclocross racing, mastering these skills will easily pick up several places each race. And if you're already at the front on fitness alone, you'll gain efficiency, which results in less power being needed, which results in faster finishes and bigger winning margins.
Plus, it's super fun.
(And don't forget to show up with all the gear you might need - we can also help with that. Check out The Bag here.)