What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Cyclocross Skill & Drills

‘Cross! Yea, I know…lots of the roadie readers are rolling their eyes right now, but I don’t care. Cyclocross is a fun and frenzied way to extend your racing season or simply keep some of the high intensity fitness that defined your race season. For the hardcore ‘crosser, this is their Nirvana! Let’s look at some skills and drills that will help you whichever side of the cyclocross conundrum you fall on…

By Matt McNamara

The Super Prestige Cyclocross series kicked off at Ruddervoorde on October 10th, marking the official start of the real race season, but those of us on the West Coast know that this year really started a few weeks earlier…yep, cross in early September!

The desire to get on with it seems to be pushing the start of the season a bit earlier each year, and who can fault the promoters since big fields means a few more dollars in their hard working pockets, or the racers wanting a few more race days in their legs. The only down side I see is that early season cross may interrupt one’s preparation and skills work by a few weeks. Are you still looking to perfect your form and fitness ahead of the most important races? Great, here are some workouts and advice that might help.

Skills That Kill
While fitness is rules the day, technical skills will often trump fitness on super technical courses, especially loose or sandy ones. Let’s go to the wise words of one of Belgiums most prolific ‘crossers, 3-time World Champion Erwin Vervecken, quoted here from a Belgian article offering some sage advice on sand (and really on cross technique in general):

“The fresher you are, the fewer mistakes you make. You have to build in recovery. Sand is constantly seeking a balance between freshness and speed. Look at Niels Albert, very high power for a long period. While the rest may be able to recover and then give 95%, Albert does that at 98%, so recovery is important.”

“From there it is two key words: Balance and relaxation. The first few meters you drive as far as possible without pedaling, the moment you lose speed kick in your power, without being frantic. The bicycle must steer itself into the tracks, the more you wrestle with it the harder you make it!”

“Picking the right track is a bit of a gamble, especially in the first lap. Riding in third or fourth position makes it much easier to get through the sand. You may not particularly lean forward either, the more weight on the front wheel the greater risk that you will face plant. Hands on the hoods, or just behind, legs open, arms bent, very relaxed. Hover over the sand.”


Favorite Workouts
Skills work should be a part of every week’s training, but so too must the fitness component. Here are a couple of my favorite cross specific workouts:

Threshold Coast-Downs
This is just fun. Great for variety in a workout it also helps with the repeated surges of cyclocross racing. Spend the first forty five minutes warming up with a minimum of 350-500 kilojoules in your legs. Do a couple of 30s efforts to open up the legs during the warm up.

The workout starts with two minutes at your threshold power (FTP). Using your ‘average power” view on the power-meter, ride 2:00 at FTP then semi-soft pedal until power drops 10 watts, taking a minimum of 15-20 seconds to drop, then hard accelerate (near sprint) until your average power is back at FTP.

Repeat the soft pedal, ten watt drop, hard acceleration back to FTP sequence for 8-10 minutes. The coast/tempo efforts average approximately 80-90% FTP and get a bit easier as the interval progresses. The hard accelerations are usually between 5 and 40 seconds, average between VO2max and 1 minute maximal power, and get harder as the interval progresses. The farther into the interval you get, the harder it is to surge back to your average FTP. You have a lot of control over the ‘coast’ portion so don’t make it too easy! These are supposed to mimic the pacing and hard accelerations found in a race. Rest for 10 minutes between efforts and try to do between 2 – 5 of these in a session.

MAP to Threshold Race Starts
This is a favorite for a number of reasons. First, it works both VO2 and Threshold systems in a single interval. It also helps with those hard race level efforts at the start of a cyclocross race. Lastly, it allows for a very natural progression in length over a block of training, and as you develop over the years. Here are the details:

A short crisp warm up of no more than 20 minutes at ~70% of threshold power (hey, gotta focus in the fall right!?). Once warmed up do two minutes at your Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP, best 5 minute value is a good proxy) followed by at least five minutes at, or slightly above, your threshold power.

I usually clip a ‘new’ interval after the first two minutes and put a ‘short’ (~20s) tempo level recovery at the start of the threshold segment. This small respite allows you to return to threshold pacing straight away, and gives the interval an above threshold average when combined with the MAP segment. Plenty of recovery between these!

From an intensity perspective, these are great. Here is a graph of a recent MAP to LT effort we did on my weekly training ride:

The first two minutes were right at VO2power (134% FTP in this case), then a 15 second recovery (really, should have taken 20-30s!), then a five minute block at 120% FTP to finish, including a hard push in the last twenty five seconds (25s) at about 90% of my 1 minute best.

Unfortunately, I hit this first one a little too hard (123% FTP), and subsequent ones weren’t quite as well paced…but were effective none the less averaging 119% and 108% of FTP for the full interval. Notice by the third I was tired and that one wasn’t at VO2 in the first two minutes, but still finished pretty well.

The progression is to add time to the threshold segment each week. Normally I’ll add 1:00 – 2:00 minutes per week. Keep recovery at roughly 1 to 1.5:1 for these efforts. As you develop as a cyclist keep lengthening the effort until the total interval is about 15:00 minutes long. Ouch!

Putting It All Together
So, now the trick is to combine elements into the perfect mid-week cyclocross workout. We usually ride on Tuesday nights and build our practices around a combination of skills work and a physiological component. For example, we’ll do our MAP to FTP efforts on a steep and loose track near my house that forces riders to constantly adapt and modulate pressure in order to keep their tires from spinning, but which is steep enough to elicit the desired intensity as well.

Similarly, we do a long steady state effort on another local climb that includes a host of technical demands, a bunch of variable terrain (including downhills), but that is ultimately a 40+ minute threshold to supra-threshold effort that leaves us all well tired by the top (curse you Black Mountain!).

This quick look at cyclocross is designed to offer you a couple of valuable insights into techniques that make a difference and offer you some workout suggestions that just might help you reach the next level of performance. Give them a whirl and drop me a note, letting me know how they went! Until next time, keep sliding around with your foot on the gas…

About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. This fall he is again running the Sterling Cross p/b Fusion IO race team and looking forward to the arrival of rain! Matt is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. Learn more by visiting them online at www.sterlingwins.com.

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