Lessons for First Season of Cyclocross?

I am planning to “race” CX this fall and will be a cat 5. For those of you who race CX, what do you wish you had known going into that first season? I know it’s going to hurt, I have tried to train repeatable interval power (short power build, etc) but what else should I be thinking about or looking out for?

Taking a ramp test tomorrow after most of summer training outside…will be interesting to see where things stand. We have a typical CX season where I live so will likely ease my way into racing in September and look to “peak” fitness in late Oct-ish…

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you will make way more gains dialing in technique and drilling dismounts/remounts and barriers than any fitness gains. Also positioning at the sprint in the beginning


I’m trying to think and there really isn’t anything that I was really surprised by when racing CX. Then again, I didn’t go into my first season (2 years ago now) with many expectations, I had built up a free craigslist hybrid frame into a drop bar CX bike and was kind of using CX to do something while I was doing sweet spot base and rebuilding a lot of lost fitness after being super busy for a period of time. So really it was just about having fun and learning how to race, but I don’t think there were any big mysteries of revelations.

This might sound silly, but I actually did my first few races in running shoes and flat pedals, despite having several years of experience with clipless pedals, just to make sure I could nail the dismounts and remounts without fear of doing something dumb in a race. If you practice enough this should be unnecessary!

As far as last season, my first “serious” one, my goals were pretty simple, improve my staging (done in my region by crossresults points) and get that done in part by nailing the starting sprint, because the bottlenecks will get you. Pretty much from the get go, I was able to improve 20+ spots from my starting staging just by getting that right, so I have a good deal of confidence in that going into this season.

I am unbelievably hyped for this season, you’ll have a blast!

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Have you got any cross training sessions where you live? That’ll help a lot.

Otherwise…just have fun! Cross isn’t just hard, its funny, crazy, and very rewarding. Even if you’re not placing well in the race, there are always little things you improve on, nailing a corner or slick scary descent, and there is usually someone to race against, even at the end of the field. Just go for it!

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Get toe spikes if there is going to be any mud.

Trying to get up a muddy hill when your the last race of the day and it’s been raining all day is like trying to run on ice in gym shoes.

Be comfortable with the bike squirming underneath you, and don’t fight the front wheel through ruts.
Get a little practice turning on slippy mud/grass and it gets pretty fun

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Learn to be as relaxed as possible with riders close by on all sides at the start, this will ease after a couple of straights. Don’t grab the brakes hard either to retain as much speed through the corners, also will improve traction and hopefully minimise falls.
Regarding shoes and pedals, second the use of studs, and practice jumping on and getting clipped in quickly.
Practice starts and getting clipped in asap.
The above skills should be practiced in a skills session every week, more often pre season.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from my first cx season was to not take things too seriously. There are so many silly things that will happen in cx that you have little to no control over (equipment failures, weather conditions, course conditions, getting caught up in crashes, etc). Use everything as a learning experience. You’ll find that with each race you’ll learn something new that you can apply to the next race.

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I’ve done exactly 1 cross race. I’m gonna do another this week, and the things I’m going to do differently are:

  1. Pre-ride the course a few times, at least 1 fast, and talk to/follow some of the more experienced people around the technical bits.
  2. Warm up properly
  3. Sprint off the start (I got stuck behind a couple of slower people, and by the time I was past, I was in a long off-road TT)
  4. Only move over so people can pass me where it’s safe and not going to completely screw up the corner (I almost crashed trying to get out of the way last time, and I also ended up in the long grass at least once)
  5. If it’s hot, take water. I didn’t last time (it’s only 45 minutes, right?) and I was so dehydrated after.
  6. Practise dismounts and remounts - it’s only a couple of times per lap, so that’s 16 times, but…

Winter cross is a bit different to summer, but that’s my starting point. Having fun is clearly the point of the whole enterprise, but it’s more fun when you’re fast, right? :wink:

Ive won a fair few cx races in my time local and regional.

My first season the things I was lacking:

  • smooth dismount/remounts and hurdles and steps.

You can be the fastest person on a bike there but if you cant o those you’re coming no where. I lost so many places in my first season just because of those things.

But hey its cx, learn to love the mud, rain, snow, cold, heat, hills and riding above VO2 max for an hour and youll be fine

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I did my first CX season last year and loved it. It is a ton of “fun”. A few quick take-aways:

  1. Run the sand pits. Yes you look cool if you can ride through them, but it’s a ton of work and as a newby you are almost certain to fall a few times. If you don’t care and just want to practice, that’s fine, but if you want to keep a consistent pace, work on your dismounts and run through. You will be much quicker. I was passing tons of guys in the pit by running. A good tip I have heard from many pros - “if you don’t think you can ride the obstacle 100% of the time, then always dismount and run it”.
  2. It’s already been said, but practice your dismounts and mounts. Start by just walking. Lots of people get it wrong in every race and lose a ton of speed. Years ago I learned flying mounts and dismounts for triathlon, and that helped me a lot in cross.
  3. Yes you need short power, but you also need to be able to hold power through the whole race, so don’t neglect your overall fitness. A lot of folks go out too hard and explode half way through.
    Have a great season and enjoy it!
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As other’s have said skills play a big a roll as does overall fitness. To get more specific these are things I wish I would’ve spent more time considering—it’s taken 2 seasons (or about 15 races to figure this out).

Turning—this is probably one of the biggest differentiators between poor and good cyclocross racers. Start your braking before the turn, not in the turn and try to hold as much speed as you can going into and through a turn. This is a comfort thing and you won’t be able to perfect it in the first race. Carrying as much speed through the turns allows you to not have to hammer out of the corner.

Tire pressure—when it’s slick or sloppy run as low of pressure as you can w/o the risk of flatting. For example, I weight 180lb and run my Schwalbe X-Ones at around 22-23 psi. Lower pressure = more grip. Grip is good. When it’s dry you can run higher pressures and reduce rolling resistance.

If you can get out to a local park and do some practice.

Don’t blow up too early—because you’re Cat5 you’ll be racing for 30 min, pace the first lap or two, and then adjust based on how you’re feeling. Staying near the front allows you to avoid the yo-yo effect that mid-pack and back of the pack riders face. Given it’s your first season racing you’ll be placed at the back or near the back of the start grid, that’s ok, move up if and when you can.

You always have just a little more in the tank—there’s nothing worse than ending a race thinking, “Yeah, I coulda went a little harder.” Leave it on the course.

You’ll learn more as you race more. Drill the skills like others have said, but also use your first season to learn. Try different lines, run sections, ride sections, try it all. Learn as much as you can about how a bike handles, what it feels like to push the grip-envelope of your tires, and how it feels to disconnect your body from the bike.

Regarding fitness, I think some indoor workouts are good prep, but I think race-pace hot laps at a local park are better. Nothing on the trainer can replicate the demands of a CX race.

I’m a seasoned cx ‘vet’ i guess. Have won a handful of races. What I noticed is if you’re getting ready to remount either after barriers or sand or a run up, you can gain a few spots if you keep running with your bike and hop on with momentum or when it’s smooth to get back on - flats, after a corner etc.
I usually run the sand pending how deep it is or what’s after it. A tight turn or hill - run the sand.
Doing cx intervals - 30/30s are great and all, but if you’re aerobic fitness is crap, you’ll be out the back after the first lap.
I ride in the drops most of the time.
Practice dismounts and remounts. Practice running with your bike.
Find a park or a yard or whatnot, ride your cx bike, work on tight turns, off camber turning, off camber sprinting etc.
Ride your cx bike everywhere - single track, fire road, etc. Get use to it.
Have fun.


This is my favorite move, carry the bike on the inside line of a corner and remount after. Its a fine line between being cheeky and a dick but its usually easier than burning a match to have to pass that same person later

A lot of good advice about working on cyclocross specific skills. I will add:

  1. Get a “race bag” together of everything you think you might need: warm clothes, cold clothes, Wet clothes, spare parts, etc. Nothing is worse than being a race, pre-riding the course and realizing you have the wrong gear. You might crash pre-riding and need to replace a derailleur hanger or chain.

  2. If you have to wear arm or leg warmers, use a few safety pins to attach them to your bibs/jersey. During a race, they will slide down. Leg warmers that have slid down can be dangerous.

  3. Try and get to a race early and watch the start of an earlier race. You will be able to see where the first lap bottlenecks are. Figure out your effort, positioning and strategy for the first lap. Nothing is worse than cooking yourself after the start only to have to stop because the course bottlenecks.

  4. Also, when you pre-ride the course try different approaches, lines and techniques. Most people can learn to ride a course fast when taking the best line. However, the fastest guys know how to take a bad line fast or can adapt to changing situations. People will crash in front of you or stop or dismount unexpectedly. Being prepared for all the random that happens in a CX race makes a huge difference.

Have fun!

Hrmm. I’m no expert…but I’ve always thought that having a bottleneck should serve as even MORE incentive to go hard at the start. My thinking is I can go harder than might normally be wise, knowing I will get a short break at a bottleneck, and wont lose places through the bottleneck no matter how deep I went at the start.

If you can make up a bunch of positions by going hard and then recovering at a bottleneck, that’s a totally legit strategy. It just depends on your start position, where the bottleneck is, what type of rider you are and the course layout. Sometimes you can “save” yourself a little by going easy into a bottleneck, managing the bottleneck and then really putting down the hammer after it clears up. Riders that are gassed because they sprinted before it may be caught out.

The key take away was watching a race and trying to come up with a strategy for dealing with the first lap while everyone is still mostly bunched up. If you are new to cross and /or the course, watching how the race unfolds can be a huge benefit.

Yea. Last year I was staged middle of the pack every race. I was decent for short power though, and would often pick up 10-20 spots at the start of 100 person fields.

I think my staging will be much better this year…I’ll likely dial it back to just a good hard effort, not lose any position at the start, and not bury myself. This is assuming I might be staged high enough to not have to get stuck in huge, standstill bottlenecks for the first half lap.

Who knows though haha.

One topic not discussed is clothing and bags. I take three bags to a race, one for the warm up, race and post race respectively.
In reverse order, once you finish you know where all your dry post race kit is located without searching for it in a bigger bag. Nutrition can also be kept handy,gels and bottles.
The race bag will have my skinsuit if I’m not traveling in it, jacket, gloves and most importantly a dry undervest to start in. There is nothing worse than wearing a damp vest waiting for the start call up.
The pre race bag will have an older pair of cycling shoes, keeping the race shoes for the race itself. Same with gloves. On a really wet day I might wear waterproof leggings on the pre ride laps.
Regarding drinks, I take a bottle on the pre ride and finish it with a gel 15 minutes before the start.

yea and wear a jacket to the start line. You’ll be sitting there cooling down after the warmup. Then toss it in a bush after call ups