Cyclocross – the winter sport a triathlete should do, T.Smith

Cyclocross – the winter sport a triathlete should do, Tony Smith


Cyclocross, or CX, has emerged from its European roots as a way for road cyclists to keep fit during the winter, to become a specialisation in itself, with swelling numbers taking up the pursuit in the States and across Australia.

Perth has its own burgeoning CX scene with the Numbat Cup seven race series, State Championships, and prologue and epilogue races and the Supercross held at the Claremont showgrounds.

So what is CX? CX is a race around a (often muddy) paddock or field, with a course demarcated by flagging tape and may include natural and man-made obstacles that need to be negotiated. Some say it is a cross between road riding and mountain biking, with the use of drop-bars on a road type frame the preferred weapon of choice, on 33 mm tyres.

I can’t say for sure because I’ve never been a mountain biker, but I’m sure a lot of the skills drop straight into CX. But it’s not much like road riding at all. No peloton, minimal drafting, no free rides. I have heard CX equated to being a dirt time trial – and this was used in a derogatory sense. But, it is quite like a dirt time trial if there is no-one evenly matched with you. And for those that want to improve their time-trialling efforts, then CX is perfect for you.

If someone is evenly matched with your speed and/or skills, you can have a fantastic duel, or wrestle or skirmish over the 30–60 minutes you are on the battle field, ah, CX course.

Bike handling
Racing CX will actively encourage you to improve bike handling. In a typical CX race you will dismount and remount at least a half dozen times. The flying seat mount is directly transferable to triathlon, as is the hard braking dismount as you come to a barrier or set of stairs; think the dismount line at the start of T2. Only difference is you keep your feet in your shoes.

The starts of CX races are a flat out sprint for the hole-shot. Where the standing start results in a duck and dive for the first corner or obstacle , after which the race normally strings out into single file. This makes for great simulation for congested parts of triathlon courses like the mounting line, roundabouts, or turnaround points. It get you more comfortable having people all around you, avoiding hitting wheels in front of you, and learning that contact with another cyclist is not race ending or even something to be worried about, if you equip yourself to deal with it.

Triathletes are very good at going fast in straight lines. Cornering and 90⁰ turns are where a lot of speed and momentum is washed off on triathlon bike legs. These skills are where any triathlete can make up a lot of time, let alone avoiding crashes and mishaps. Practicing this skills at a race pace effort is where a lot of improvement can occur quite rapidly. A CX race is a perfect place for this as the consequences of losing grip, or over shooting the corner while pushing your boundaries, are so much lower – think muddy paddock.

Emergency skills that you might need in triathlon are commonly used in CX. Bunny hopping obstacles like branches or kerbs (think dropped water bottles around aid stations) is common; riding on sand and gravel are commonplace (think running off the edge of the pavement to avoid an accident).

Hand-ups are a staple of CX races. This involves beer, sometime whiskey and even bacon being handed to a racer from a designated spot on the course. You can take hand-ups each lap if you wish. This is great practice for collecting water bottles from aid stations. Who wants to drop beer? or an electrolyte bottle on the second lap of a 70.3? I would say essential skills.


Bike maintenance
If you are a triathlete, you may clean your bike. You may even be obsessive about it. Clean bikes go faster after all. A dirty drive train can cost you speed. CX is a dirty, dirty pastime. If you didn’t know how to clean your bike before a CX race – you will soon learn, because it will never run the same after a CX race unless you pay attention to some important areas. These skills will help with tuning, and fine-tuning your TT rig.

Drive chain – After a CX race your chain will be filthy. It doesn’t really matter what sort of lube you use, you will either encounter, mud, sand, dust, or a combination of all three. It is ideal if you have a quick link in your chain, undo the link, and wash the chain thoroughly. Everyone has a different chain washing theory, just get it clean is my motto. Your cassette will have picked up dirt or debris in a CX race. I give it a scrub with warm soapy water and a scrubbing brush. If I am feeling OCD, I will use a rag to ‘floss’ between each gear on the cassette as well. Clean your front chainrings while the chain is off. Warm soapy water and a rag is normally enough.

If you’ve had a particularly nasty mudbath of a CX race, you may want to remove your cranks and give your bottom bracket a service. Daunting, yes, but You-tube was invented for a reason – to put amateurs on video to do experts out of a job. So soak up that You-tube goodness and watch some clips on bottom bracket removal and maintenance. In the end – it’s really not that hard. Having watched someone’s cranks fall off their bike while they were on a trainer (shortly after a bike service by real bike mechanics) it is really worth getting to know how to take off, put on and secure cranks. You don’t want your crank to fall off while you’re riding on the road in a tri.

Brakes – your brakes will have taken a pounding during a CX race, whether you use them or not. If you have disc brakes, you will have had some pad wear and may need to adjust them so next time you ride you don’t have the sphincter puckering sensation when hurtling towards a stop sign at the bottom of the hill with no response to your hefty grab of the brake lever. If you have hydraulic brakes, I say congratulations and you are on your own with bleeding those suckers. If you have cables, you may need to lube the cable (around the entry exit to the cable housing), or you may even need to replace cables and housings if it was a dire mud-drenched, mud festivus of the bicycle, CX adventure. If you’re doing all this, you get to know intimately how to adjust brakes, cable tension, lever pull, among other things. Great practice to relieve that rubbing brake pad, or to get some greater feel or response in the brake lever on your tri bike.

Bike tech
Tri bike tech is pretty full on. CX does not shun bike tech. It embraces all forms, apart from TT bars. You can run all sorts of frames for CX. You see it all at a CX race. Electronic shifting, 1 x drivetrains, mix and match of mountain-bike and road components in the same drive train, single speeders, fixies. All you need is tyre clearance within the front forks and rear triangle to run something that will give you enough grip for the CX course you are tackling. Tyre pressure brings out the bike geek in some of us – tubeless, tubed or tubular, you can get it on at a CX race, and has interesting cross-over with tri. You wouldn’t pick it straight away, but tyre tech in CX and MTB is having an impact in road and tri.

The workout
So, if nothing above lights your fire, the workout you get is second only to doing a sprint distance triathlon or duathlon. This alone should get triathletes all het up about CX. Between 30 and 60 minutes of threshold (often above threshold) work is some quality work in my book. It reminds your body of what it is like to go flat out for race, but recovery time is relatively short. Perfect for off-season when you want to keep in touch with intensity, but don’t want to dig too deep. CX is great for this because you can go as easy or as hard as you like. Mostly, this is harder than you think you would like, because it is easier to go harder than you think you would like in a competitive atmosphere.

WACX final race of the Numbat Cup series is on 19th August – see WA CX facebook page for deets. Keep a look out on the page for special events, one-off races and training or social events throughout the year.