Become a more powerful cyclist? It's time for cyclocross...

Cyclocross is a wonderous sport that’ll transform your fitness and technical skills. Here, we dig deep into the muddy fields to reveal how, with a little help from a world champion, it’ll benefit your road performance

'Tis the season for cherubs, cheese, Christmas cake, and cyclocross. Yes, up and down Great Britain and beyond, once passive fields are churned up into a quagmire by the knobbly tyres of (visually) beefed-up road bikes. It’s wonderful and exhausting in equal measure. “I’ve never tried it,” you ponder. Well, make this the winter that you do as you’ll enjoy a competitive boost to your 2024 season.

“But I haven’t a clue about the technical, psychological and physical benefits of this historic discipline of cycling that, legend has it, stretches back to the early 1900s and beyond as European road racers would race each other through tut farmer’s fields and over tut fences,” you ponder further in a rather laborious fashion. “Please tell me more with the help of current UCI World under-23 cyclocross champion Shirin van Anrooij, plus explain the transferable benefits to my 2024 road season.”

As you’ve pondered so nicely, we’re on it…

Science of speed

Cyclocross dominates the cycling calendar in autumn and wintertime, and commonly plays out over a course that’s one to three kilometres long in races lasting between 40 and 60 minutes. The off-road parcours include sharp turns, steep banks, tree roots, sandpits and hurdles. Those latter two obstacles mean dismounting and running with a bike nestled on either shoulder is a much-needed skill. You also need the lungs, heart and legs of a thoroughbred as though the racing ‘only’ consumes an hour compared to a road race or sportive that can roll on for five or six hours, the intensity is all out.

How intense is highlighted by a 2017 study in the journal Sports and Exercise Medicine. A team led by Ryanne Carmichael, associate professor of exercise and sports physiology at Plymouth State University, USA, had eight experienced crossers take part in both a lab test and a cyclocross race.

In the lab, they pedalled to exhaustion on a cycle ergometer, the researchers measuring a number of metrics including lactate production at the increasing intensities. Broadly, the fitter you are, the higher your power output while keeping lactate levels low. In Carmichael’s study, heart-rate intensities were categorised as low, medium and high where low equated to lactate levels of 2mmol/litre or under up to high at 4mmol/l or over.

The crossers rode over a 2.7km lapped course on varied terrain including grass, pavement and barriers, and went hell for leather for over an hour. Subjects had an average heart rate of 171bpm and a maximum of 178bpm. The percentage of time in low, medium and high zones was 0.3, 6.1 and 93.6%, respectively. 

Cyclocross is performed at a higher intensity than road, criterium or mountain-bike racing, the study concluded. The time spent in that high zone [93.6%] suggests that the sport requires a significant contribution from the anaerobic energy systems.

“I’d agree with that. Certainly, that’s my experience.” The words there of Shirin van Anrooij. The 21-year-old Dutch rider has grown up riding cross and currently competes for Baloise-Trek. That’s during the cool, dark months. As the days lengthen, she swaps cross for road and races for Lidl-Trek. “It’s a great sport and one which starts for me this year [2023-2024] with the Superprestige Boom race in Belgium on Saturday December 2,” van Anrooij says. “That’s later than normal as I’m looking to build more bases than normal for my road season. But when it comes, I’ll be ready as I’m prepping now.” And what does that prep consist of? A good question and one where the answer(s) will serve up takeaway nuggets that you can apply to your own cyclocross performance, whatever level of athlete you are…

1. Multi-sport benefits 

“I run every week, albeit only for around 30 minutes. At training camp, I’ll run twice a week as I have more time. It might not sound a lot, but you can enjoy greater gains running in half-an-hour compared to cycling. We do specific cyclocross practice of mounting and dismounting, and running upstairs carrying a bike. All those small details help, and you certainly notice the difference in January when you’ve ticked off several races. Everything’s just a little smoother, a little quicker.”

2. Gear up

“I use the Trek Boone 5 cyclocross bike with Bontrager wheels. It’s only a single front chainring and usually it’s 38t. Outback I’ll often use 10-33 but maybe 36 if it’s a really hard race. Arguably the most important decision is regarding tyre pressure. This is much lower than the road as you’re looking to grip the surface, often beneath the mud. That’s why when it’s really muddy or sandy, I might run as low as 0.9 to 1 bar (13 to 15psi). If it’s drier, it could be more like 1.4 bar (20psi). It’s such a different feeling to tarmac and, on your first cyclocross training ride, it feels like you’re riding with a flat. But persist as it will pay off.”

3. Visualising speed

“Though I’ve competed for a few seasons, it’s important to recon the course as they often change. Also, sometimes it’s raining heavily compared to other years, so you’ll need to choose different lines. Normally, three hours before start, during official course recon hours, I’ll go for a recon with Lucinda [Brand, team-mate] and Sven Nys, [two-time cyclocross world champion, now retired], who’s always on the sidelines explaining the best lines to ride. You might decide, for instance, that a stretch is faster running with your bike compared to riding. Often, I’ll jump off and run and Lucinda rides, and we see which one is faster. So, for all cyclocross riders, ensure you practise on the day itself. If I’m racing the Europeans or Worlds, you’re there the day before or longer and can do a course recon then.”

4. Warmth equals speed and injury reduction

“I’d recommend you always warm up as cyclocross is so intense. You can use a turbo trainer but I tend to use the rollers. I tend to flick through the gears for resistance and do five to 10 sprints. It’s not necessarily specific; it’s all about warming up the legs.”

5. The pits?

“Whether I change bikes in the pit zone depends on the race. At Hamme earlier this year [the X20 Trofee Hamme race in Belgium where Van Anrooij finished second behind Fem van Empel], I think I pit-stopped every lap because the bike was so heavy with mud. It was needed as, at some point, if it’s so muddy, your gearing doesn’t work properly. Then at some races, you don’t change your bike at all. Pit-stopping can also be used as a tactical tool as you might decide to stay on your bike one lap longer than a rival because you calculate it gives you a competitive advantage.”

6. (Minor) tactical element

“Is cyclocross tactical? For me, it just feels like 60 minutes full gas. The lights flash green and it’s all out till the finish. That’s what it feels like anyway, though sometimes I might start a little easier. Then again, you really don’t want to lose the lead group. If it’s a dry, really fast course, it’s sometimes prudent to sit on the wheel in front. But when it comes to cyclocross, nine times out of 10 the strongest cyclist on the day will win.”

7. Room for hydration?

“When it comes to drinking, I never carry a bottle as there’s no space for a bottle cage as you’ll be running with the bike. That said, sometimes in October, when it’s warm and sunny, I might take a bottle as it’s drier and you’re rarely running. As for fueling, after one or two laps I might have a gel. Our nutritionist said it won’t really make a difference physically but it maybe helps mentally.”

Crossover to road

Van Anrooij’s a regular winner on the cyclocross circuit so her advice clearly works. She’s also making her mark on the road, winning this year’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio and finishing third at April’s Amstel Gold RaceThe seemingly seamless transition between muddy fields and smooth bitumen is common. On the men’s side, every year since 2014 the cyclocross world champion has been, or has become, a star of the road. In 2014, Czech rider Zdeněk Štybar, who recently retired from road racing for Team Jayco Alula, edged out bonafide cyclocross legend Sven Nys. Since Štybar, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert – arguably two of the biggest names in road racing – have won eight times between them with Van der Poel ahead five to three. Britain’s Tom Pidcock, the great hope of Ineos Grenadiers, won in 2022. 

On the women’s side, a snapshot: Marianne Vos has won eight cyclocross world titles since 2006. On tarmac, her palmarès is equally decorated and includes winning three world titles, three Giro d’Italia Femminile crowns and an Olympic road race title in London, 2012.

Many think this successful crossover’s a recent phenomenon, but it’s not with France’s Octave Lapize attributing his Tour de France victory to an off-season spent in the mud. His Tour triumph came in 1910. Lapize knew back then, like Van Anrooij does today, that there are road benefits of wading through waterlogged fields in the winter…

More power and faster

“The high-intensity nature of cyclocross, which you’re racing for a big chunk of winter, pays off during the road season as you become stronger at accelerations,” says Van Anrooij. “This is particularly important at the spring Classics, like Flanders and Amstel, where your ability to accelerate, at the right time, can make or break a race.”

Become at one with your bike

“Arguably the greatest transferable skill is handling your bike. This is so important in cyclocross to remain upright on fast, muddy descents. You really notice it on the road, especially at a race like Strade Bianche where there are long stretches of gravel. Also, if I’m on the road and am pushed onto the verge, it’s easy enough to hop back onto the road. Where cyclocross doesn’t really help you on the road is positioning. It can be chaotic in the bunch and you don’t have that too often off-road.”

Cyclocross also keeps your competitive juices flowing so that you’re that bit sharper come the road season, makes you more durable and is really, rather fun. It might be the season for gluttony but have your fill of cyclocross and you’ll enjoy the perfect festive gift: stronger, slicker and more stamina-packed cycling.

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