Monday, 5 November 2012

Cyclocross – A True Sport?

This blog post comes out of a series of conversations Rachel and I had with friends over the weekend of the Ally Pally supercross. Given that all these friends are in their own right very into ‘cross, maybe the whole pretext of what i am going to write is dubious, but nevertheless i found it an interesting take on things.      

So the question i want to ask is, as a mountain biker do you benefit more from cyclocross than a ‘cross rider would benefit from racing mountain bikes. As you might have guess from the title, my thesis is that ‘cross teaches mtbers more than mtb teaches cyclocross racers.

Historically, the bible of mountain bike training (“The Mountain Bikers Training Bible” – Joe Friel) dispenses with the idea that “serious” mountain bike racers can also race cross through the winter as anything  other than an occasional break from “long, steady distance” (LSD). The fundamental tenet of this book is that to reach a good racing peak in the summer time, you must do many many hours of long, slow rides in winter to accustom your body to stress of training you face later in the season. I would argue that this viewpoint is both outmoded (the book itself was published first in 1998, so nearly 15 years of development have occurred since then, and many coaches and sports scientists were already questioning the LSD model even back then), and that it is entirely possible for even elite level athletes to perform well in both the winter ‘cross season and the summer mtb season. This is all the more true with the (re-)appearance of “reverse periodisation” as a training method, whereby one adds intensity to training loads before then building duration – an approach used very successfully by the Sky pro cycling team over the last 12 months.

 Practicing what i preach at the Ally Pally round of the Rapha Supercross (thanks to D P B Harrison for the picture - )

The question i want to address is who benefits more – do summer xc races help you to ride a good cyclocross season, or is a good winter spent mud-plugging more useful to a mountain bike racer?
So, let’s examine the evidence. The first and most tricky problem we face is where we should look to see a good reflection of the true capabilities of both groups.  This summer we saw a definite cyclocross specialist in Nicki Harris crowned as national MTB champion, whilst men’s national ‘cross champ Ian Field finished just out of the medals at the national XC champs. So it’s looking good for the skinny-tyred brigade crossing over. In the past, we have seen multi-national XC champs Liam Killeen & Oli Beckingsale duking it out at the front of national trophy cross races, so maybe that evens the score somewhat. The reality is, we shouldn’t look to these people as a first approach – they are gifted athletes, they have ridden both disciplines many times, and they would do well in any arena of cyclesport they turned their attention to.

So where do we look? Well, perhaps the natural place to look is to watch people who are new to the crossover. If we look to racers who have stuck with one discipline for several years, and then switched we see a more interesting phenomenon. Without mentioning names and embarrassing friends, it certainly seems to be true that cross racers switch over to XC much more naturally than the other way around. With a pattern in mind, it is now interesting to try to examine why!

So why would it be easier to move from skinny tyres, crap brakes and drop handlebars to fat tyres, good brakes and flat bars? Surely the answer is in the question – to be good at cross, you have to be smooth as well as fit – the bikes are very unforgiving, and if you don’t treat them well, they buck and throw you off. Put someone with those skills on a more forgiving, more appropriate bike, and they will quickly adapt – all it takes is braking a little later, and a little less, cornering a little harder. As cyclists we are used to pushing limits, and learning to push them a little further as we develop skills. Faced with the opposite predicament, the XC racer is forced to back off, to brake sooner than they want, to be more gentle and more accommodating of the bike when they cross over (excuse the pun).  It’s a more difficult transition to make, because it requires you first go slower to go faster.

It’s for these reasons that i would encourage you, if your interests lie in racing well in summer, you spend some time getting muddy in the winter – it’ll make you a more rounded, more complete, and smoother rider. And whatever people might tell you, it’s a lot of fun too!

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