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The Pre-Ride: Getting Ready for a Cyclocross Race

by Crystal Anthony

Cyclocross races themselves aren’t that long—30 to 60 minutes depending on your category—but there are thousands of decisions to make in that concise amount of time. During a race you’re constantly assessing when to draft vs lead, which line to take around a corner, whether to ride or run, when to attack. The more automatic and instinctive those decisions are, the better. Once your heart rate is elevated and your legs are burning, your ability to make conscious decisions goes down dramatically!

Experience over years of racing certainly helps with making these decisions on the fly. However, regardless of your level of expertise, the pre-ride is another essential component to informing and pre-determining race decisions. Here are a few tips to make your pre-rides effective:

1.  Make time to pre-ride. This may sound obvious, but making sure you have time to pre-ride is not always easy. World Cup races set aside 2 hours to pre-ride the day before a race, and schedule large chunks of time between races on race day. However, most local races and even UCI Cat 1 and 2 races in the US are two-day affairs, and they pack in a ton of categories each day. Most of the time, the schedule provides only 10-15 minutes between the end of one race and the beginning of the next for riders to preview the course. Add in potential delays, and some of those times might dwindle to 5 minutes! When you make your plans for when to arrive on site, plan to arrive in time for 2 of those open course times, while leaving an hour for your trainer/road warm-up after that. Sometimes this means arriving 3 hours in advance.

2.  Learn the flow of the course. This is as simple as riding one complete lap at easy pace to see the layout, note the major features, identify the “hard” and “easy” sections. Get a sense for how the lap as a whole feels. Is there a “technical” section where you can rest aerobically? Is there a section of extended climbing or heavy grass or repeated tough punches where you know will be more taxing? Also, note where you have a head wind vs a tail wind.

3.  Ride vs run. One of the frequent decisions a cyclocrosser makes is whether to ride or run a particular section of a course. This could be a sand section, barriers, stairs, mud, steep hill, or slippery off-camber. While riding any sort of tricky feature might be “cool,” the main question you should ask yourself is: “For me, which is faster?” As a test, have a friend ride while you run, and vice versa. If you can’t ride it cleanly after say 3 or 4 attempts, stop trying and just commit to running it. In fact, if you can’t ride it cleanly about 10 times in practice, don’t attempt to ride it in a race. Pre-ride is not the time to learn a new skill! Rather than spending copious amounts of time on 1% of the course, move on and spend that energy on the other 99% (see next point!)

4.  Line choice. Conserving your momentum is a key component to cyclocross racing. Anyone can enter a corner fast, the key is exiting with speed! Have you ever been in the situation where you are powering strong on the straights, only to get gapped when you and a competitor go through a corner? Early in the race, you may be strong enough to sprint back up to the competition, but over time, the extra energy you are expending is going to take its toll. Being able to to preserve more speed through the corner will allow you to save some of those matches for making a purposeful attack. During your pre-ride, scout out lines that will allow you to carry as much speed out of each corner as possible. Watch other riders, think outside the popular lines, stay low, separate your body and your bike.

5.  Your plan. Even in the pre-ride, you can get a sense of where your relative strengths and weaknesses are on a course. Compared to the people around you, you can get a sense of where you’re just naturally faster or slower. Use this recon to identify some places where you can make tactical moves in places that are your natural strengths. If you are in a close battle with a few other riders, you’ll want to have a plan for when to make an attack late in the race. No half moves… make any attack count!

    Once you’ve gotten in your pre-ride scouting, have an Enduro Bite to refuel, drink your Beta Red an hour out, then it’s time to focus on your coach-designated warm-up.

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