How do I do the Cyclocross: Early-Mid August Edition

On August 14, 2014 by Christian

No. 3 of several in a series hyping up the 2014-2015 FLCX Cyclocross series

Ok, we’ve already discussed getting a bike for a reasonable price, and then we talked about some best practices for CX race promoters. Let’s talk about getting into shape, and what exactly kind of shape you need to get into to race CX.

First of all, if you are the type of person who wants/needs/desires structure and planning in your workouts, there are some great coaches in FLCX. Off the top of my head, I can think of, in no particular order, Josh Thornton, Ben Smith, Zach Fout, Vitor Alexandre, Eric Stubbs, Drew Edsal Jeb Stewart, Zoltan Tisza, and Vincent Cook. If I’m forgetting anyone else, it’s purely unintentional and if you contact me I’ll be happy to add you to the list. There are a lot of current and previous state champions in this list. These guys will make you faster than you currently are, as long as you take their advice to heart and eat right. They can teach you how to eat, train, sleep, and ride like a champion bike racer, and help you with technique and even make sure your bike fits you properly. It’s a relatively small investment to gain a vast amount of knowledge, and if you take your cycling seriously, it makes sense to hire one of these guys.

For the rest of us, who are perfectly happy to finish in the latter half of the standings after we take multiple marshmallow and Fat Tire Amber Ale handups, here’s what you really need to do to get ready for CX season.

First of all, you need to build some base fitness. This requires little more than time and the determination to follow a general plan. It helps if you have at least a small amount of current fitness, like the ability to hang on to a group ride for 30 or 40 miles, but this isn’t an absolute requirement.

To build a base for CX, you should probably start today, if you haven’t started already. If you wait another week, it will probably be too late, and you’ll end up with a palmares like that of Tim Hayes circa 2013. (Yes, I KNOW you beat me the one time we raced head to head last year, TIM.) So, to build base fitness, you need a road bike, or road tires for your CX bike, and you need to ride for 2-4 hours at a time at least twice a week.

Currently, I have Thursday and Sundays off, so my weeks look like:

Monday: 1.5-2 hrs (25-30 miles) recovery ride, easy but steady pace.
Tuesday 1-1.5 hrs (15-20 miles) informal efforts ride- moderate pace with accelerations or CX Skills Practice.
Wednesday: Rest day or easy spin
Thursday: 3-4 hours (50-70 miles) steady pace at the edge of discomfort- look for 19-21 mph on your computer as much as possible
Friday: Rest day or easy spin
Saturday : Easy spin or group ride, 1-2 hours, (15-30 miles), or CX Skills Practice
Sunday: 3-4 hours (50-70 miles) steady pace at the edge of discomfort- look for 19-21 mph on your computer as much as possible.

This is just me, customize it to fit your schedule, and obviously with all the rain we’ve been having it won’t always work out. If you have to miss a day, that’s ok. If you’re tired, skip a day, or cut back the time/distance. You’re an adult, presumably, so listen to your body. Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is probably more important than hitting a mileage goal, make sure you’re getting as much as you can. Recovery rides are equally important. Beat yourself up when you feel good. Give yourself a break when you’re exhausted. Be honest with yourself about how you feel. Often, your brain (my brain) will feel like drinking beer and playing video games, and try to fool your body into feeling tired. You (I) should try to tell your (my) body that it can play all the video games it wants after the CX season ends.

I will follow this schedule through the end of August. Once we hit September, I’ll start to dial back the long days, and start to do a little more intensity, maybe even some intervals. Ugggh, intervals. They hurt, but they do so much good. But you need a fitness base before you can take advantage of the physiological benefits of intervals, so you have to put in the saddle time first.

So my weeks in September will look more like:

Monday: 1.5-2 hrs (25-30 miles) recovery ride, easy but steady pace, on pavement.
Tuesday: 1-1.5 hrs (10-15 miles) CX Skills Practice with shorter intense intervals, preferably on a CX bike on grass or dirt.
Wednesday: Rest day or easy spin on pavement.
Thursday: 2-2.5 hours (30-40 miles) fast-ish road ride. A group ride is fine, if you get out in the wind. Sitting in at 18mph does very little for your fitness.
Friday: Rest day or easy spin on pavement.
Saturday: 1-1.5 hours fast group ride, at the front, in the wind.
Sunday: CX Practice Race/ simulation. Find some local guys, and go out and beat on each other for 45 minutes, or two 20 minute sessions, or whatever you all agree on. Warm up properly before hand, and make sure to practice barriers and running steps both before and during the practice race.

CX intervals come in a wide variety. They range from the “sprint out of the saddle out of every corner interval” to the full on 20 minute “Oh my god I want to die because there’s 18 minutes to go interval”. One I’ve always “enjoyed” was finding a 1-2 mile circuit with regularly spaced street lights, and sprinting from one streetlight to the next, then resting til the next, then sprinting again, basically until you want to throw up. Hopefully, this will be after more than 3 sprints. Shoot for a whole lap of this misery, then take a lap off to recover. Then, if you feel like it, do another lap of intervals, or just call it a night. Longer intervals are necessarily less intense, but they hurt more because they last longer. You should rest longer after long intervals than you should after short ones. There’s a whole internet out there with opinions and advice on intervals, so if you want more detail, let me google that for you. Remember, CX is what you make it, and the harder you train now, the more you can slack off once the season starts and you can rely on races to keep you fit.

Some of you are saying, “Christian, surely you can’t be as slow as you have historically been if you are actually doing all of these workouts, and to those of you who are saying this, I can only say that you are very mean-spirited and unkind, and probably correct. But while I feel I corner and handle most of the technical sections as well as most people, I really struggle at the whole pedalling really hard parts of CX, and that’s where I watch people ride away from me.

Also, you should probably keep an eye on what you eat, cutting out a lot of the fat and junk sugar, and adding as many fruits and vegetables as you can stomach, but hey, you’re riding your bike a lot, so this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Remember, as long as you can zip up your skinsuit and/or jersey past your belly, then it still fits you fine.

Follow these most of these steps between now and the first races at the end of September, and I promise that you’ll be at least as mediocre as Tim and Rich Dybdahl and I.

The next volume in this series will contain advice on what a proper CX skills workout should consist of. Look for it this weekend!

Training for Cyclocross III: Longer Intervals

On October 19, 2013 by Christian

In the first article on intervals I outlined some short, intense sprint-focused blocks aimed at preparing you for the highest-order output cyclocross has to offer.

In this one I lay out some less intense suggestions. These are geared toward training the body to go hard, but not 100%, for the full 30 to 60 minutes of race. One set in particular is aimed at simulating the efforts of different parts of a race; the other is simply aimed at pushing your threshold upward.

The race lap intervals:

Think about the first lap of a race-balls out for a minute or more, then another several minutes of easing back a notch but still being well above your 45-60 minute pace, then finally settling mercifully into that pace. Let me first give credit to Josh Thornton who suggested the structure of the first-lap effort to me earlier this year—he is a smart guy, a wicked fast racer and has some fantastic ideas about training. Anyway, each of these efforts looks much like a certain part of a common race rhythm. Note: take 10-15 minutes recovery interval between each of these.

1st lap: I call this the 1-4-4 and, again, thanks to Josh for the idea. Once you’re well warmed up, the interval begins with a minute at ~130-150% of your FTP if you train with power. If not, it is a nearly all-out effort much harder than a threshold effort. Then, you drop to 105-110% of FTP for 4 minutes—this is the VO2 level effort, or if you train by heart rate just above your normal race average. The final 4 minutes is at race pace or at your threshold. Let’s say your FTP was around 300 watts. You’d spend a minute at 390-410 watts, drop down to 315-330 for 4 minutes, then down to around 300 for the final 4 minutes. It hurts.

“Middle lap” effort or the “2-7-1”: Depending on your fitness level or the time of the season you might do one, perhaps 2 of these. First two minutes is back at your VO2 level; then 7 minutes at threshold, then a final minute back up at VO2. Note these aren’t maximal levels—again, during the middle chunk of a race this is less common. We often get into the selection group at the start, settle in there, and then things shake back up in the last 10-15 minutes.

“Last lap” or 5-5-30-30: five minutes at your threshold followed by 5 all-out 30 second efforts, each of which is followed by 30 seconds at endurance/tempo pace. At first you will likely need to drop to full recovery pace for each of those 30 second recovery periods, but ask yourself: do you have that luxury in a race? No—stay up at your tempo pace and tell your body to get with it.

More standard threshold efforts are 12-20 minutes at your functional threshold power or 60-minute/LT heart rate. The point of these steady-state efforts is simple: the threshold is the one number that is most amenable to movement by proper training, unlike your VO2 max, for example. That’s why we push and prod it so much—because with the right training you can push that number closer and closer toward your VO2 max, making it possible for you to handle a harder baseline pace during a race. And that’s the name of the game.

Sometimes I have cyclists start a hard workout with a sprint block, then do one or more of these lap efforts, and finish with a threshold effort. Others they’re just one kind in a day, depending on the kind of training block going on at the moment or what kinds of racing are coming up. The point here is that all of these efforts—and the maximal sprint ones too—have to be fit appropriately into a longer cycle, whether one week, 3-4 weeks, or even the entire CX season.

Often a cyclist with some experience is really intelligent about a training day and perhaps a training week too. Harder is to build those smaller cycles into the meso- and macro- cycles that make for a great season, and this is what I think coaches are well placed to do. I am one, but I now have first-hand experience with Drew Edsall (, Jeb Stewart (Endurofit) and Josh Thornton (email Josh) and would recommend any and all of them. All three of these gentlemen have tons of experience in CX and beyond and I’ll speak to their graciousness and generosity as coaches.

Last thing: if you try one or more of these workouts, let me know what you think—I am always eager to get feedback so please drop a line.


Training for Cyclocross II: Technical Skills

On October 7, 2013 by Christian

Ben Smith from has some great advice for those of you who want to go faster on your CX bike. Yes, it will also hurt. If you “enjoy” this advice, check out his website for info on becoming a Legsmith client. You can get a lot faster on your bike, (if you follow the training plan,) and you get a cool sticker!.

In the last article I introduced some CX-specific workouts aimed at building the kinds of physiological strengths one needs to last for an hour of redline effort. In this one we move to the unique technical demands of ‘cross—namely bike handling on skinny tires and on building the ability to get off and back on one’s bike smoothly and efficiently, whether over barriers or at each end of a run-up or other running section.

Bike handling

To my mind there are two things to do to maximize your technical advantage come ‘cross season. First, ride mountain bikes on the most technical terrain you can find. Yes, the suspension is a luxury you won’t have later, and yes, the tires are fatter and grippier, but getting used to riding fast on your limit in the most technical stuff you can find can only be a good thing. The truth, too, is that if you race mountain bikes here in Florida our seasons overlap quite a bit. The Florida State Championship Series begins September 14 and ends December 8. The Florida Cyclocross series begins October 12 and ends January 18. In short, between early October and mid-December you could be trading bikes every weekend. I am.

The other thing is to ride your CX bike over much the same terrain on which you ride the mountain bike. You’ll be going slower, and you’ll have to pick your way through sections you can blast on fatter tires, yes. But mixing up lengthy endurance rides on the CX bike to include pavement, dirt roads if available, and single track too is a great way to build your comfort level on dicey terrain. Also great is to put together a CX circuit close to home—at a park for example—and include some hard corners, sand, gravel, mud if possible, etc. The more you hit this stuff in practice the more familiar it will feel come race day.

Barriers and running sections

A smooth transition racer can gain 3-5 seconds every time he or she dismounts and remounts. On the state championship course in Dade City, that means 9-15 seconds every lap that your opponents either lose or have to close by brute force. Ditto in reverse: even in a 30-minute race that amounts to a full minute or more just from the transitions. If you’re good with giving that much time up you may as well just wait a minute or so once the race starts, give the competition a nice big head start and then get going. Not how I roll.

So, how to get better through barriers. First, here are three very basic tips to drum into your sub-conscious and use as a transition mantra during races. “Start early. Be smooth. Step, don’t jump, back on.”

Start early. Just about everyone has barreled into a set of barriers and started the dismount too late (cue Tim Hayes video clip here). Better nearly all the time is to click out on the right side good and early, coast in without losing too much speed, and give yourself plenty of time and room to click out on the left. You get an extra couple of seconds’ recovery time and you won’t be hurrying through what should be a smooth procession. If you dismount on the drive side you’re beyond help (cue Tim Hayes public shaming here).

Be smooth. Practice without barriers to get used to clicking out on the right, swinging that right leg over, clicking out on the left, running (not jumping; run, don’t bounce over barriers) and lifting your bike just as much as is needed to clear the barriers. Yes, I know Jason and JP like to see if they can get their saddles high enough to clear the snow line; even Bart Wellens has tried that. I think it is a waste of energy. Don’t contribute to entropy in the universe; keep your bike as low as feasible.

Step, don’t jump, back on. Once you’ve cleared the barriers you’re getting back on. First rule: don’t try to jump up too high. Your saddle isn’t that high up; again, you want to slide right back on, not crash down from on high and smash something. On that note: that meaty part of your right inner thigh about 5 inches down? That’s your landing sweet spot, trust me. If you’ve learned to land on your rear end it’s a matter of time before you crunch your boys… or girl parts (I am told). Learn the inner thigh landing, starting anew at low speed if you need to. Land there, slide onto the saddle and reach for the right pedal with your right foot. It ought to be right there where you left it.

It would behoove you, or you and a group of friends, to build some barriers. Here are some directions for building them out of PVC pipe for very little money—less than half an entry fee.

A CX newcomer last fall asked me how to get ready for races. I told him 50 dismounts and remounts 3 times a week. I don’t think he liked that answer, but the truth is that repetition is the key. I surprised myself by pulling some pretty smooth remounts in early 2011. I hadn’t done it in 15 years, but back then a group of 15-20 of us used to meet every Tuesday and Thursday evening for CX practice at the Marymoor Velodrome (now site of StarCrossed). We did drills for 45 minutes, and must each have gotten off and back on a couple of hundred times.

I suggest doing these drills, at first anyway, while you’re fresh—recovery rides are good for this. Of course, we don’t have the luxury of hitting transitions fully rested in races so at some point we need to pair anaerobic max efforts with the technical stuff. We can talk about that another time. In the next article I’ll outline some mix-it-up intervals that try to simulate race laps during various parts of a CX race.

Training for cyclocross.

On September 30, 2013 by Christian

Ben Smith from has some great advice for those of you who want to go faster on your CX bike. Yes, it will also hurt. If you “enjoy” this workout, check out his website for info on becoming a Legsmith client. You can get a lot faster on your bike, (if you follow the training plan,) and you get a cool sticker!.

Training for cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a strange mish-mash of needs. On one hand, you need to be able to handle your bike at speed, on skinny tires with only some bite, over often technical terrain, and you need to do it with your heart in the back of your throat and with little or no feeling in your arms. On the other, the intensity of cyclocross is more like a criterium with no drafting than like an XC mountain bike race (although here in Florida the windy single track we race on, with a constant punch-coast-punch-coast rhythm is often similar). As a result, two things are priorities in ‘cross:

being able to sprint, over and over, for the duration of the race, with minimal or no recovery. She who sprints most, hardest, wins; and
being able to carry speed and momentum through corners, through sand, and through transitions (dismounting and remounting over barriers and running sections).

That in mind, here are some training segments to work into a weekly schedule. These are useful because they can fit into just about any allotment of weekly training time, whether 6 or 17 hours. I suggest doing the sprint workouts early in the week, either Tuesday if Monday easy day has got you fresh enough, or Wednesday if you need to go easy on Tuesday as well after a hard weekend of racing.

Some sprint block variants:

8 all-out sprints of 20 seconds each, with each followed by just 10 seconds of recovery. This means a 4-minute block of mostly all-out sprinting. Yes, it will be painful and if you’re normal and doing it right by 2 ½ or 3 minutes in your arms will start to feel numb and tingly. If that happens now you know how I feel the last 15-30 minutes of most CX races. Make sure that, whatever you do after this, you take a 15-minute recovery period of easy spinning first.
15 all-out sprints of 10 seconds each, followed by 1:50 recovery/endurance pace. These don’t kill you the way the 8×20 will—but they are intense and with adequate time in between you can build a lot of them into a workout. Again, follow with 15 minutes recovery.
10-12 all-out 30-second efforts with 4:30 recovery. These employ mostly naturally produced creatine phosphate as fuel, and the long recovery time allows your body to replenish those stores.
5 minute block of race pace riding (threshold) followed by 5 30 second all-out efforts, each of which is followed by 30 seconds endurance or recovery pace. Do this one near the end of a hard workout to simulate a last lap situation.

So here are some starters. If one of these is all you can handle at first, fine. Do it and try two blocks the following week. In future articles, we’ll talk about threshold-sprint combo workouts as well as ones to focus on bike handling skills.

Cyclocross in Florida?

On September 28, 2013 by Christian

We’re lucky to have retained the services of Ben Smith PHD of to provide us with some free speed for our best cyclocross season yet. Please, allow Ben to introduce himself.

Ben’s first column will run Monday, please check back then!

Cyclocross in Florida?

I moved from Seattle to Gainesvillle in 2001, five years after I hung up my cleats and retired from competitive cycling. Between 1996 and 2011 the most impressive thing I did on a bike was to ride a Wal-Mart beach cruiser a mile between home and work no-handed, suit jacket and teaching stuff crammed into my messenger bag while putting in cuff links.

In January 2011 my daughter and I were browsing content on Netflix. She randomly clicked on “The 9 Ball Diaries,” a documentary about Tim Johnson’s 2007 race season. Knowing I’d done some bike racing she asked to watch it. She asked if I knew TJ and I replied that my last CX nationals in 1995—in Leicester, MA under more than a foot of snow—was his first national championship.

Then serendipity happened. Out of the blue I received an honorarium check from an Ivy League school where I’d given a lecture 7 years prior—believe it or not they’d forgotten to pay up and I’d forgotten to follow up. On impulse I got on Ebay and blew the whole honorarium on a lightly used CX bike. It arrived a few days later, I started riding it on the miles of in-town trail in Gainesville, and two weeks later decided I might try racing again.

2 seasons, 2 teams, two cycling disciplines (CX/XC) several bikes later here I am. Fitter and healthier than I have been since I was 25, having more fun in life and now able to ride in the woods with my kids, and giving coaching a go. In the next few months I’ll be contributing some articles to on training, cyclocross skills, fitting serious training into real life, and if you’re fortunate perhaps cooking.

Ben Smith|