It’s the season of cherubs, cheese, Christmas cake and cyclocross. Yes, up and down Britain and beyond, once passive fields are turned into a quagmire by the gnarled tires of (visually) beefed-up road bikes. It’s wonderful and exhausting in equal measure. “I’ve never tried that,” you think. Well, make this the winter you do, as you’ll enjoy a competitive boost to your 2024 season.
“But I have no idea of the technical, psychological and physical benefits of this historic cycling discipline which, legend has it, dates back to the early 1900s and beyond, as European road racers would race each other across the fields of farmers and more. tut fences,” you muse further rather laboriously. “Please tell me more with the help of the current UCI U23 Cyclocross World Champion, Shirin van Anrooij , as well as explaining the transferable benefits of my 2024 road season.”
Since you have thought it through so well, we are in this…
Science of speed
Cyclocross dominates the cycling calendar in the autumn and winter, and is usually played over a course of one to three kilometers in length in races of between 40 and 60 minutes. Off-road courses include sharp turns, steep banks, tree roots, sandbars and obstacles. These last two obstacles mean that dismounting and running with a bike strapped to either shoulder is a much needed skill. You also need the lungs, heart and legs of a thoroughbred as if the race “only” consumes an hour compared to a road or track race that can last five or six hours, the intensity is all out.
A 2017 study in the journal Sports and Exercise Medicine highlights intensity. A team led by Ryanne Carmichael, associate professor of exercise and sport physiology at Plymouth State University, USA, had eight experienced cross-country riders participate in both a laboratory Review and a cyclocross race.
In the lab, pedaled to exhaustion on a cycle ergometer, the researchers measured a range of metrics, including lactate production at increasing intensities. Broadly speaking, the fitter you are, the greater the power output while keeping lactate levels low. In Carmichael’s study, heart rate intensities were classified as low, medium, and high, where low equaled lactate levels of 2 mmol/liter or less to high 4 mmol/l or more.
Crossers covered a 2.7 kilometer course on varied terrain including grass, pavement and barriers, and hunted for leather for over an hour. The subjects had an average heart rate of 171 bpm and a maximum of 178 bpm. The percentage of time in the 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 races, the study concludes. The time spent in that high area [93.6%] suggests that sport requires a significant contribution from anaerobic energy systems.
“I would agree with that. That’s certainly been my experience.” The words there of Shirin van Anrooij. The 21-year-old Dutch rider grew up doing motocross and currently competes in Baloise-Trek. This is during the cold, dark months. As the days get longer, switch from cross to road and run for Lidl-Trek. “It’s a fantastic sport and it starts for me this year [2023-2024] with the Superprestige Boom race in Belgium on Saturday, December 2,” says van Anrooij. “This is later than normal as I’m looking to build more foundations than normal for my road season. But when it comes, I’ll be ready as I’m preparing now.” And what does that preparation consist of? A good question and one where the answer(s) will serve as takeaway nuggets that you can apply to your own cyclocross performance , whatever level of athlete you are…
1. Multisport benefits
“I run every week, although only for about 30 minutes. In training camp, I’ll run twice a week because I have more time. It may not sound like much, but you can enjoy greater gains from running in half an hour compared to cycling. We do cyclocross-specific mounting and dismounting, and running stairs upstairs carrying a bike. All these little details help, and you’ll definitely notice the difference come January when you’ve clocked in several races. Everything is a little smoother, a little more fast.”
2. Prepare yourself
“I run the Trek Boone 5 cyclocross bike with Bontrager wheels. It’s only a single front chainring and usually 38t. Outback I’ll often use 10-33, but maybe 36 if it’s a really hard race. Definitely the decision more important is the tire pressure. This is much lower than the road as you are looking to grip the surface, often under the mud. That is why when it is very muddy or sandy it could drop from 0.9 to 1 bar (13 to 15 psi). If it’s drier, it might be more like 1.4 bar (20 psi). It feels so different to tarmac, and in your first cyclocross workout, it feels like you’re on a plan. But persevere, for it will pay off.”
3. Speed display
“Even though I’ve raced for a few seasons, it’s important to recognize the course as they often change. Also, sometimes it rains a lot compared to other years, so you will have to choose different lines. Normally, three hours before the start, during the official course recognition hours, I will go to do a recognition with Lucinda [Brand, team-mate] and Sven Nys, [two-time cyclocross world champion, now retired], who is always on the sidelines explaining the best lines to ride. You might decide, for example, that a stretch is faster to run on your bike compared to riding a horse. Often, I jump and run and Lucinda rides, and we see which one is faster. So for all cyclocross racers, make sure you practice on the same day. If I’m competing in the Europeans or the worlds, you’re there the day before or longer and you can do a reconnaissance of the course.”
4. Heat equals speed and injury reduction
“I recommend that you always warm up, as cyclocross is very intense. You can use a turbo trainer, but I tend to use rollers. I tend to shift gears for endurance and do five to ten sprints. It is not necessarily specific; it’s about warming up the legs”.
5. The pits?
“Whether he changes bikes in the pit area depends on the race. In Hamme at the beginning of the year [the X20 Trofee Hamme race in Belgium where Van Anrooij finished second behind Fem van Empel], I think I pitted every lap because the bike was so loaded with mud. It was necessary because at some point, if it’s so muddy, your gear won’t work properly. Then, in some races, you don’t change bikes at all. The pit stop can also be used as a tactical tool, as you may decide to stay on your bike one more lap than a rival because you feel it gives you a competitive advantage.
6. Tactical element (minor).
“Is cyclocross tactical? To me, it feels like 60 minutes of gas. The lights flash green and everything shuts down to the end. That’s what it feels like anyway, although sometimes it could start a little easier. Again, you really don’t want to miss the main group. If it is a dry and very fast course, sometimes it is wise to sit on the front wheel. But when it comes to cyclocross, nine times out of 10 the strongest rider of the day will win.”
7. Space for hydration?
“When it comes to drinking, I never bring a bottle as there is no room for a cage as you will be racing the bike. That said, sometimes in October when it is hot and sunny I can take a bottle because it’s drier and you rarely run. Nutrition-wise, after a lap or two I might have a gel. Our nutritionist said it won’t really make a difference physically, but maybe it helps mentally.”
Crossroads on the road
Van Anrooij is a regular winner on the cyclocross circuit, so her advice clearly works. He’s also making his mark on the road, winning this year’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio and finishing third in April’s Amstel Gold Race. The seemingly seamless transition between muddy fields and soft bitumen is common. On the men’s side, every year since 2014 the cyclocross world champion has been, or has become, a road star. In 2014, Czech rider Zdeněk Štybar, who recently retired from road racing for the Jayco Alula team, beat 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 asphalt, her record is just as decorated and includes winning three world titles, three women’s Giro d’ Italy and an Olympic road race title in London, 2012.
Many think this successful crossover is a recent phenomenon, but it’s not like France’s Octave Lapize attributes his Tour de France victory to an off-season spent in the mud. His Tour triumph came in 1910. Lapize knew then, as Van Anrooij does today, that in winter there are road benefits from wading through waterlogged fields…
More power and more speed
“The high-intensity nature of cyclocross, which you’re racing for a large part of the winter, pays off in the road season as you get stronger on acceleration,” says Van Anrooij. “This is especially important in the spring classics, such as Flanders and Amstel, where your ability to accelerate, at the right time, can make or break a race.”
Become one with your bike
“Perhaps the best transferable skill is handling your bike. That’s so important in cyclocross to stay upright on fast, muddy descents. You notice it a lot on the road, especially in a race like the Strade Bianche where there are long gravel sections. Also, if I’m on the road and push myself to the edge, it’s easy enough to jump back onto the road. Where cyclocross doesn’t really help you on the road is positioning. It can be chaotic on the group and you don’t get that too often off the road.”
Cyclocross also gets your competitive juices flowing so you’re a little sharper for the road season, more durable and really fun. It might be the season of gluttony, but fill up on cyclocross and you’ll enjoy the perfect holiday gift: stronger, smoother, more resilient cycling.