So finally the amazing summer has passed!  We are into autumn... This time of year you get 3 sorts of cyclist - which one are you?!

  1. Those winding the season down, thinking about a winter break and looking towards next year.
  2. Those rather crazy beasts targeting the hill climb season.
  3. Those dedicated & competitive folk who still want and need to race and turn to cyclo-cross.

What we will look at today is what it takes to execute a good Cyclo-Cross (CX) race.

Each specific cycling discipline has its own key attributes, that to be successful in you need to specifically train for.  Cyclo-cross bears the greatest similarity to either Mountain Bike racing or Road Criterium racing, but with some subtle and important differences.

Races are usually less than an hour in length, are usually on man made courses that may include specific obstacles, designed to make the athletes dismount and ru , jump (or fall on their face for the fun of the crowd!).  Cyclists compete on special CX bikes, that look in many ways like a road racing bike with some important differences:

  1. ‘Knobbly 28mm tyres’ for grip / comfort.
  2. Disc brakes (*older models or traditionalists will probably use centre pull cantilever brakes that have good clearance for mud).
  3. MTB style dual sided easy entry pedals.
  4. Lower gearing more akin to mountain bikes.

Here's an example bike.

Here’s what a race file might look like from a ‘typical’ cyclo-cross event:

What this shows us is:

  1. This was a 5 lap race each lap taking about 8 mins.
  2. Each lap included 130ft of elevation change, the elevation gained in 4 mins of racing.
  3. This is in no way a ‘flat’ power profile, you need to be able to comfortably switch to Zone 6+ many times in the race - note the 800w+ peak, and then quickly recover.

So this points us to key attributes to succeed in this event, some are obvious, others more subtle:

  1. Bike handling skills - this goes without saying (or should!) but you may (or may not) be amazed at how poor some peoples are - and they can be a danger to you so your ability to ‘read’ the course, ‘read’ other competitors is key.
  2. Strong base fitness - you will be operating at an average of your FTP for the whole race - BUT with key and regular spikes that will go WAY above it.
  3. The ability to deliver multiple HUGE power spikes to get up rises, over obstacles.
  4. The ability to then quickly be able to recover to do this again.
  5. Be able to jump off your bike, carry / jump / hurdle obstacles if needed:
    1. Think footwear - MTB shoes make a lot of sense.
  6. Kit - think about gearing, tyre selection, tyre pressures, eyewear and actual race kit you use - it may be a cold day , but will you over heat 5 minutes in?
  7. Hydration and fueling, It will be likely be cold, it will be likely you will not be able or want to drink / eat in the race BUT pre-race fueling and hydration strategy are key here and the race can be won or lost here.

Training - so how do you train for such an event?

Assuming you are coming off a solid summer of racing / riding or having fun it’s likely your base endurance will be good enough to handle such an event.  What you need to focus on are some key areas listed below:

  1. Skills & handling - you may have been riding off road all summer, or conversely you may be a complete novice, or even if you haven’t raced off road for a year it will be important to brush up in advance.  Ensure you are covering different types of terrain (*or terrain you know will be in target races), you ride in wet and dry conditions and know the correct gear selection in these conditions.
  2. Training specialisation - as said above it’s likely your base fitness will be there, now is about specialisation for the demands of the race.  I’d be broadly thinking of 3 types of training session, each we will look into in a little more detail.
    1. Peak Power.
    2. Recovery from efforts.
    3. Intensity.

Peak Power:

Here we are looking at working on your MAXIMUM power of short time periods.  We allow adequate recovery so each can be as high as possible. Below are 2 variants:

  1. Z2 micro sprints, this works on both endurance and short (20sec) power bursts.  Simply it’s a Zone 2 ride with 20secs of MAXIMUM sprint work every 5 minutes.
  2. 1 Minute Maximum intervals - quite simply this is working on your absolute top end and ability to sustain Zone 6+ hard work and repeat it.  Adequate recovery is given and the aim should be to hit each minute interval very similar to the last.

Recovery from intense efforts

As we can see in the race file, a CX race has multiple intense efforts with very short recovery - so we need to simulate that in training.

  1. Micro intervals - here we work for a sustained period WAY above FTP, with a very short, but not total recovery period in.  ‘recovery’ is actually in Z3 - so you are still working HARD. This session is really good for enabling you to recover well between efforts , whilst still racing hard.
  2. Micro intervals & fartlek - this is a combination of the above, but also working on endurance.  Starting after a good warm up with a similar period of micro intervals to the above, this is then followed by active endurance  and then into 4 ‘fartlek blocks’ of increasing intensity, but diminishing time - this really pushes both your upper limits and endurance.


The race is 45mins to an hour of ultra high effort work, this next session works on that by keeping you over & under your threshold for that period of time, building both FTP and your ability to recover from intense sessions.  50mins of hard work ‘over & under’ your FTP.

I hope that was a helpful simple guide to CX racing and what it may take to do well.  Please feel free to contact us on how we can help you make the most of the CX season.

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