For a number of reasons, cyclocross can be an ideal winter activity for the summer road racer. As an aid to improved bike handling it cannot be beaten: After a winter riding ’cross, bad road surfaces, racing in the rain, and descending will be a lot easier to cope with, as ’cross teaches you how to race and handle your bike well in all conditions.
Given the amount of effort required in a ’cross race—not to compete at a high level but just simply to get around the course—if you’re a road racer there is no better way to supplement your winter training than by taking part in occasional competitive outings off-road. ’Cross requires great strength, agility, and cardiovascular fitness, and these are all qualities that road riders try to develop during the winter months. Long, steady distance work on the road bike, regular “crosstraining” such as stretching and running, and core and circuit training are all essential and should be continued, but ’cross can add the competitive element to keep you going.
If the weather is bad for long periods, it sometimes becomes dangerous to go out on the roads, and very uncomfortable in cold weather. But an hour’s ’cross can give you a workout similar to a two- or three-hour road ride—plus it allows you to avoid the icy roads, keep warm, and still get in a high-quality training session.
Continental road riders have always used ’cross more than their British or American counterparts, even at the very highest levels. One of the all-time greats, Bernard Hinault, was a real fan of ’cross and used it regularly as part of his winter preparation. He claimed that it provided riders with complementary training and taught them to improvise, as they never knew what surface they would have to ride on. For those of you too young to remember some old guy called Hinault, look no further than Chris Horner, an American, or Roger Hammond, who is British, to see two English speakers who are paid to perform on the road, but who appreciate the payoff they receive from their participation in ’cross racing. A cyclocross race anywhere in Europe will always attract a good turn-out of road riders, and while it is true that many of the stars are paid good money to show up because they attract big crowds, they are still there for a purpose—to prepare for the summer.
If you doubt the value of replacing your traditional Sunday training ride with a cyclocross race, then race the smaller Saturday races instead. They are usually low-key affairs, and this will leave your Sunday free for your normal training on the road. And don’t just race on the ’cross course; it is well worth putting aside one day a week to train on it, too. You can often find some organized ’cross training going on one evening a week somewhere close by. Don’t worry about doing the interval training that the specialists use; just try going for a one-hour ride and use the session as a guide to your fitness—I’ll bet it makes you gasp.
Assuming you have ridden a full road summer season through to September, there are two possible lines of attack for a ’cross season. The first option is to go straight into the ’cross season as soon as it starts, while you still have good form from the road, take a break in early November, and come back to it at the end of the month. The second option is to take a break from racing in October, start riding ’cross in November, and then race straight through February. Both options will give you a good break from competitive cycling and prevent any staleness from creeping in. You should continue doing your usual winter work, and continue riding through to at least the middle of January, depending on the race calendar in your region. This gives you February and March to get used to the longer distances required for the road, but with some quality sessions already “in the bank.”
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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.