In 2016 I fancied something new on the bike, to keep my winter varied, and to try new skills. What followed was the most hilarious introduction to cyclocross ever witnessed, I honestly think my wife wet herself laughing at me! All that season I had won races on the road, but I was not prepared physiologically and definitely not from a skills perspective, and that 54th place meant that I had some work to do.
The next few weeks will see cross starting across the country, and initially will see riders who have ridden road all year trying to carry form into the winter season, and those riders who specialise in cross starting their year much fresher. Whilst they may be in different places, the specific demands of racing are the same and training needs to reflect this.
One of the first things I had to do was to address the massive gap in my skills. Getting on/off the bike, lifting and carrying the bike, starts, cornering, off camber, mud, sand, falling over constantly! (you definitely need resilience in that tool box..) I was lucky that the legend that is Chris Young, ex GB international and all round hero was on hand with his Wednesday night skills and fitness sessions. I learnt so much from him within a few weeks and if you can find a club session nearby then go to it, understand what you need to do and set aside time in your week to practice. I did this on rest days. I also watched races and saw how the better riders rode lines, how smooth and light they were on the bike and how they chose to run or ride specific sections.
If you underestimate the importance of cornering alone, think about 20 corners on a typical CX course, lose just ½ sec per lap and do 7 laps of the course. Thats 70 secs you lose in a race and before any other issues are thrown in your way.
The next thing I had to understand were the demands of the event which is where the WKO software comes into its own. Below are a series of charts which initially surprised me. A cross race felt like the hardest thing I had ever ridden, it had to be full on the whole time, surely?
Picture 1 shows time spent in zone for a muddy 45 min race in Yorkshire. Look at how much recovery there is! It was half of the race itself at 24.5 mins. (50.2%) then the next highest level is Anaerobic capacity at just short of 15 mins (29.7%). Levels 2, 3, threshold and VO2 all sit between 4 and 6% of time in zone. Does your cross training reflect this?
Looking at the race in a little more detail you can see lots of spikes and time where no power is being put out, its not what you can call steady state. These points are big bursts of power being applied above threshold, followed by periods of recovery, coasting, corners, running and addressing obstacles. My FTP for this period was around 335. This race I averaged 231 watts but Normalised Power was at approximately FTP.
This chart shows where the top end power is applied. This is still an aerobic event but you need to be able to keep on burning matches without any loss of power. The variation index is a whopping 1.40 (TTs are usually between 1.00 and 1.05)
So having looked at this detail I set out to address my (many) weaknesses with my cycling coach Matt. This involved the design of some horrible sessions, and it took some time to adapt, but the skills started to improve, the top end started to show itself and in a brilliantly competitive Yorkshire league with upwards of 500 riders each week, I podiumed! It wasn’t just a one off either which shows how the event demand approach can work for anyone willing to try.
A sample workout could be as simple as the following
10 mins warm up level 2
30 mins at level 3 but every 5 mins do a microburst interval of 20 secs-max effort and return to level 3
10 mins recovery
15 mins at FTP but every 5 mins do a microburst interval of 20 secs – max effort and return to FTP
Cyclocross in my view is the most fun anyone can have on a bike, it keeps things fresh, the people who take part are probably the most sociable cyclists there are, it can be family fun with kids and adults racing on the same day and its run in a safe environment (unless you happen to be behind me when trying to run over obstacles!) What`s not to like.