How do I do the Cyclocross? (part one of a series)
You’d be surprised how many people ask me that question. Well, maybe not just me, but people of my ilk, ie those who have been telling any sentient being within a 12 meter radius just how great CX is and how they should try it immediately. Florida CX is actually a good place to learn CX, because our mild fall and early winter weather makes it much easier on you, your equipment, and the terrain we regularly ride on, so you’re not constantly falling over in mud pits and tearing rear deraileurs off your bike because they’re coated in 47 pounds of mud and various grasses, like you would be in New England or Oregon. Of course, there are people who will insist that the terrible conditions are what makes CX what it is in the first place, and while they are at least half right, they are also masochists and very likely partially insane. All that being said, we live in Florida and we make do with what we have.
The image most associated with CX is usually riders carrying the bikes over barriers or running up a steep hill, and many beginners are most concerned with “how do I dismount?” and “how should I get back on?” Let me tell you: Don’t worry about it. Yet. Dismounts and running are at most 30 seconds of each 5-9 minute lap. We’ll cover those later.
The first thing you’re going to want to practice is riding your CX bike in the grass. There’s a lot of different types of grass, and there’s grass on pretty much every single CX course I can think of, so knowing how your bike handles in the various types of turf is going to help you. The first thing you’re going to notice is “Holy Crap, I can go 20mph all day on pavement, and now I’m dying to go 9mph.” You’re probably pedaling in St. Augustine, which is the thick-bladed spongy rooted stuff, that people like for their lawns. St. Augustine grass just seems to suck your tires into it, and you can literally use it’s insanely high level of friction instead of your brakes when you’re diving into a corner. Bahia grass is faster than St. Augustine, it’s thinner and much less dense. The bulk of the grass we encounter in FLCX is Bahia, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to locate a park or a school or a soccer field to practice on some Bahia. As the season goes on, and the rains become less frequent, Bahia thins even more and gets faster and easier to pedal through. Both Bahia and St. Augustine have extensive, durable root systems, which means you will rarely slide out while cornering, unless the grass is exceptionally damp. There is also wild grass, which we encounter in Clermont, Gainesville, and Melbourne. It tends to grow in clumps, and is exceptionally lumpy, particularly in Clermont and Melbourne, so you really have to pay attention and keep your hands on the bars lest a particularly nasty clump grabs your front wheel and sends you to the ground.
All CX courses are mowed prior to the race, so you’re never going to have to navigate through knee high weeds, unless you have an off course adventure. Grass of any type is going to provide more traction than sand, and usually more than packed dirt as well. It’s the rare (for us) occasions that we have a lot of moisture on the grass that it can get slippery, but even then, running a tire with widely spaced knobs is usually enough to keep your bike heading the direction you want it to go. A semi-slick or file tread tire will work in dry grass, but will slide around a lot more in the wet.
To practice riding grass, you should focus first on just getting used to pedaling through it without going anaerobic. Ride around the perimeter of a soccer field for 20 or 30 minutes, for instance. When this gets boring, add some corners to your route. Loop around trees or benches or bring out some cones. Practice the fastest line through two or three corners in a row. Try it from both directions. Trust your tires, but learn where the limits of their adhesion is. You’re going to want to use your brakes as little as you can get away with, especially on a flat course, and you’re going to use a lot less front brake than rear brake than you do on the road. Try using less and less brake. Momentum is everything- the faster you get through a corner, the less the need to accelerate out of it. Since accelerating pretty much always involves you sprinting, or at least pedaling harder, it’s also going to involve pain. Obviously, it’s a great idea to practice accelerating out of corners, over and over again, because that is a skill you will absolutely need come race day.
Once you’ve worked on the basics of just pedaling in grass, and then cornering and then accelerations, you can put it all together and set up a little course for some hot laps. Some advice for that: if you’re sharing a park with other users, respect them, and don’t run them over. Dog walkers and soccer parents are super touchy about their pets/children, and really don’t like you buzzing around them when you’re drooling from pedaling so hard you can’t see straight. Set up your course to interfere with their comings and goings as little as possible. I know the sand in the playground seems like a great sand pit, but not if there’s kids playing on the jungle gym. Use your best judgement, so you can continue to use the park without hassles from the MAN.
Now that I’ve got the warning out of the way, here’s how to set up your course. Find a complex of soccer fields or an un-fenced public school or a larger public park, preferably one with lights, since the time change will affect us eventually. Then ride around the perimeter of the property. Weave in and out of trees, slaloming and creating hairpins and long, lung burning straightaways linking up the curvy sections. A course length anywhere from 6/10th to one mile in length is ideal. Try to have some pavement, some dirt, and well as some grass on your loop, most likely it will mostly be grass and that’s ok. Here’s a course we used last year at Puryear Park in St. Pete to give you some ideas.