Pre-race planning for cyclo-cross success

Want to sit on the start line of a cyclo-cross race feeling relaxed and in control? Want to banish all those niggling doubts like: will I get a good start? Can I really make it up that steep banking? Will I survive the first lap? The secret to success in cyclo-cross is planning.

Read-on to discover my Top Ten tips for a flawless race.

1. Start with a full lap

It might seem obvious but ‘cross courses consistently throw-up surprises, often nasty ones! Only by riding a full lap can you work out where that nasty off-camber section or tricky downhill is. While you are doing it, make sure to locate the start and finish line (they most likely won’t be in the same place) and the pits.

2. Practice the hard bits. Fast.

Having found the tricky bits on your first lap, you need to ride them: a. again and b. at something like race speed. All too often technical aspects of the course that seem easy when you are warming-up, suddenly become terrifying once the whistle has gone off!
Don’t attack the steep sections when warming-up, attack the difficult ones.

3. Watch and learn

If you want to see if that steep banking really is rideable, make sure you find time to watch one of the preceding races. The riders may be younger and / or more technically adept, so you’ll get a good idea of how to tackle it.
You can learn a lot from watching the technique of other riders during the race too. What are they doing differently to you? What gear do they use? Are they seated or standing? Are they using a higher entry speed? Where is their centre of gravity?

4. Feel the pinch (point)

At some point of the course soon after the start there will be a pinch-point: a section of the course where it suddenly narrows and the field stretches out. If you get stuck there behind lots of other riders it will severely compromise your race result before you even finish lap one.
The answer is to locate the pinch-point in your recce and decide on a strategy. Obviously the ideal strategy is just to get there first, on the fastest line, unhindered and sail through. Sadly ‘cross races, like life, rarely work-out how we planned! Unless your middle name is ‘Van’, chances are you won’t be first and it will be carnage, with riders all fighting for the same line. So have a Plan B clear in your mind: will you go left, or right? Or just get off and run?

5. Feel the (tyre) pressure

Most riders can’t afford a huge selection of tyres for different course conditions, but whether you have one tyre to last all season or a boot-full, you can make big changes to the way your bike handles with tyre pressure. Due to the huge variation in rider weight, riding style and course conditions, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to correct tyre pressure, you have to experiment. If it is muddy, the general rule is ‘as low as you dare’: the lower the pressure, the higher the grip. The downside is it makes you prone to pinch-flats, so always look for stones or roots on the course which could cause you a puncture and add a few psi to prevent it.
If the course is dry then you will naturally have more grip and will be travelling over obstacles at higher speed so will need more pressure so again, experiment.
Don’t assume you have to run the same pressure front and rear: try to get the bike balanced so at the limit of grip you get a neutral slide (both wheels starting to lose grip). This makes the bike much more stable and hence rideable.

6. Ride the wrong line

Naturally you will ride the course and find the best line, but remember during the race everyone else will be aiming for that line too. So be prepared: practice riding off the fastest line for when you have to. Which is better: left or right? Is there a specific tree root you need to avoid if you are sent off-line? You often find that what appears to be a slower line offers more grip and so might actually be faster, especially in the mud.

7. Ride the unrideable, then don’t

Some courses will have a feature which you are just not sure you can ride, for instance a steep, slippy banking, an extreme off-camber section or barriers. Now is the time to find out! Be brave and be prepared to get it wrong, you won’t be the only one. IF you can’t clear it cleanly after a few attempts then practice getting off and running it and stick to that during the race. If you find that actually you can just clear it be cautious: ‘cross courses usually ‘cut-up’ during the race and so what was rideable on lap 1-3 deteriorates and by lap 5 it’s no longer rideable. So ride it on the early laps but watch out for the signs of the grip deteriorating from lap to lap. One of the best signs is when other riders start to fall off!

8. Start as you mean to go on

Make sure you locate the start line and do a few practice starts. Don’t be distracted by the people milling around you, just find a quiet spot behind the start line and go through your start as though it were the race. Don’t leave until you’ve decided: which side of the grid you want to be on (if you have a choice) and which gear you plan to use. 

9. Check the pits

If you have a spare bike or wheels, it’s worth one final trip to the pits. Make sure your spare wheels have the correct tyre pressures and your spare bike is set in an appropriate gear.

10. Relax!

If you’ve done all the above then well done, there is nothing more you can do now. So relax in the knowledge you are fully prepared and try to enjoy the race.

If want more advice please feel free to give me a call to discuss how I can help you achieve your Cyclo-Cross goals.

Russell Gordon is the owner and cycling coach of inSync Cycling Coach. He helps cyclists of all abilities achieve their goals and he has raced road, time trial and cyclo-cross from regional to national levels. He holds TrainingPeaks Level 1 and British Level 3 cycle coaching accreditations.