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Drawing from her pre-season training in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Elle Anderson describes how she refines her technical skill in practice, and how she applies the techniques to the races.
If asked to describe my favorite type of cyclocross course, it would definitely be muddy and technically demanding. I love when a course, or course conditions, push my limits and cause me to focus fully on each moment. Cyclocross comes alive when each race, each venue has something unique to offer the competitors in the form of challenges and obstacles on course.
Revisiting and refining my technique, balance, and bike handling skills keeps me motivated through the long (and often cold and muddy) ‘cross season. Whether it’s summer training, pre-season, or between the races, I try to practice as much as I can. It all pays off when I am able to overcome the most challenging sections on a course with confidence and finesse.
I certainly received an accelerated education on cyclocross skills when I stationed myself out of Europe last season. But when I don’t live and race in Belgium, here are my tips and tricks for using the open spaces out my door in San Francisco to get ready for cyclocross.
1. Run it or ride it?
I find that when going from bike to foot, quick and efficient transitions make up precious seconds each race lap. To practice, I often create a short circuit with a steep hill so I can repeat the motions of dismounting, shouldering the bike, running uphill and remounting.
When racing, I’ve learned to anticipate when I might need to run a hill or technical section. If there is a lot of traffic around me, or if I know my heart rate is high, it will be more difficult for me to stay on the bike over the obstacle. This is because someone else might throw me off balance or because my motor skills are decreased by my high heart rate. Getting off the bike to dismount and run just a moment before I have to allows me to carry my momentum instead of coming to a complete stop because I’ve fumbled. Therefore, when racing, if I’m not fully confident I can stay upright over a challenging section I usually opt to run.
‘Flying’ over the barriers in one fluid motion is a little like track and field with the hurdles. Ideally, my upper body stays relatively stable while just my legs move as I float my bike over the barriers. Before the season starts, I slowly work up to race speeds so I can dial in all the small details of the dismounting and remounting process to build muscle memory. Starting from a slow speed, I walk through the motions and gradually increase my speed until I feel comfortable approaching the barriers with as much speed as possible and carrying that speed through the barriers to remount.
The most important aspect of getting over the barriers is remounting afterwards. An extra two steps running after the barriers can help me quickly get back up to speed, and I especially focus on the last push off from the ground right before swinging my leg over the saddle. That gives me more time to find my pedals while I have momentum.
Traversing a slope can be particularly slippery and challenging, but by unclipping my uphill pedal I can use it for balance. If I start to slide out and fall to the inside I can catch myself with the uphill leg and push off to counterbalance.
Corning in a cyclocross race is all about feeling the surface underneath the tires. To get comfortable cornering on loose or muddy terrain, I design practice loops where I can experiment with my speed coming into the corners and practice speed checks to see when my tires start to lose traction. When I start to slide out of a corner in a race, I’m then familiar with the feeling of my tires skidding underneath me and can correct my balance to stay upright.
Sand is one of my favorite aspects of a cyclocross race and also what I struggle with the most. It’s so frustrating to get halfway through a sand pit only to get trapped by the loose stuff, forced to dismount and run the rest.
First of all, when approaching a sand section, I think about carrying in as much speed as possible to keep my momentum. Second, I relax my upper body to allow my front wheel to follow the ruts. If I try to fight the sand it will only end in me running. Last, I keep my weight over the back wheel and keep the cadence high and the pedal stroke smooth. Sand is still something of a mystery to me, as sometimes it feels easy and sometimes not easy at all!
Whatever the characteristics and obstacles of any given cyclocross course, the beauty and grace of this sport is created by our attempts to efficiently triumph each challenge. As I look ahead to my arrival in Europe for my first racing block, I’m excited to tackle the infamous courses in Belgium and to apply all my training and preparation.
Next up, I will be sharing my race day preparation and visualization tools. Stay tuned!