Actual on-the-dirt cyclocross training should start as soon as your summer race season starts to wind down. If you compete on the mountain-bike circuit, then you’ve just had a summer of riding off-road, so there’s no real hurry. You’ll need a gentle reminder of the things that you cannot do on a ’cross bike that you can do on a mountain bike, but a couple of falls or punctures will soon refresh your memory. If you ride exclusively on the road all summer, you’ll need to start a little earlier—say, in early September. Reacquaint yourself with the techniques required and sharpen up your skills before starting any serious training on your ’cross bike.
If you live in an area where the varied terrain used in cyclocross is available, take single-loop 3- to 4-hour rides on your ’cross bike. Riding with a small group is a tremendous way of getting into shape while working on specific skills, and group rides are great fun. If you are stuck in an area where this is not possible, replace group training with long road rides, preferably on roads as hilly as possible. You should try to fit these rides in twice a week during September.
In October, your ’cross training should take place on a smaller circuit, but not so small that you get bored training on it for an hour. A circuit that takes 6 to 10 minutes to complete is ideal. Your ’cross sessions should incorporate some higher zone work, especially if there are a few of you and it gets competitive, and if this is done on the same circuit, then you can gauge your progress during the season. Again, try to get involved in group training on the circuit. If a group doesn’t already exist in your area, then simply find somewhere accessible, legal, and fun to ride and get started.
Training with a group on a regular basis can provide a boost. As German cyclocross champion Mike Kluge, a big fan of group training, said, “Cyclocross is hard enough; if it’s possible always try to find a group to train with. It’s more fun, you can practice better, and it brings competitiveness. Of course, people live in different places, but you just have to arrange it. If you train alone and you have a bad day, then you won’t get better, but if one of the group has good motivation, and that motivation dumps on you, then suddenly you can turn your day around.”
Examples of quality training groups are numerous, and some are legendary, from Kluge’s Berlin session in the Groenewald in Germany to Mario De Clerq’s group training in the woods at the top of the Kluisberg in Belgium. In England, there’s a weekly group training session on a single 2-hour loop in Derbyshire, and in Holland day-long sessions are held by Coach Nico Van Hest in Alphen near Tilburg. The national team trains for 2 hours every Wednesday morning, followed by general training for anyone from kids to veterans to novice women in the afternoon. Once word gets around that a group is out there, people will travel to join it; it’s the ’cross equivalent of “If you build it, they will come”!
Once the season begins, your ’cross training does not need to last for much more than an hour. With 10 to 15 minutes each for warm-up and cool-down, this leaves 40 to 50 minutes for the hard efforts, which should be varied from session to session to keep boredom from creeping in. Vary the circuits on certain days, or reverse the direction, and stick to these circuits all season. The Dutch group mentioned above changes sessions depending on the style of race that weekend. You can add run-ups, sand, mud, hurdles, and climbs to the session depending on the focus of the next race. This strategy makes the practices specific for a purpose but keeps them varied and interesting as well.
While training, you should always try to time your efforts, laps, and recoveries. Having a coach do this is ideal, but you can also use the stopwatch on your heart rate monitor or insert markers in your heart rate files as you start each lap.
The lengths of intervals and recoveries should always be recorded in your training diary for future reference. This will make it easier to measure your progress over time and help you determine when to intensify your efforts.
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Cyclocross Training and Technique will help you improve your skills, plan your training season, and choose the best equipment for cycling’s most exciting and technical sport.