Get Some Skillz: Cyclocross Basics

It’s that time of year and I’m getting lots of questions about how to train and prepare for cyclocross. Training is a whole can of worms I’m probably not really qualified to go into, but it can be pretty simple if you let it. Here it is… wait for it…

Go hard on Wednesdays.

Yep, that’s it. Especially if you’re racing both weekend days (seems to be the new trend in Portland what with the super kick-ass Molly Cameron Gran Prix in play), you need to spend most of your time recovering and going pretty easy. ‘Cross is an intensive, crazy-hard effort and it takes a toll on muscles. Go too hard too often and you’re gonna get mighty tired, mighty quickly.

So, what does “go hard” mean? Again – don’t over-think it. If you haven’t done much training before, find a big hill that takes you 15-20 minutes to climb. Do it twice at race pace or just a little under race pace (it should hurt). Don’t stress about the exact amount of time between intervals or the length of the interval or your heart rate or any of that crap. Just do it – HARD – twice. The trick is to make your hard days very hard and your easy days very easy. You don’t get stronger when you’re beating the crap out of yourself up Saltzman, you get stronger during the following hours and days when your body is repairing itself. Recovery is your friend. Alternately, if you train at a medium endurance pace all the time, you will race at a medium pace.

On Mondays after a race weekend you should be off the bike or spinning super easy. For other days, throw in some steady endurance riding – or not – the great thing about ‘cross is that you can really get by on very minimal training hours, you just have to make the time on the bike really count. Throw some skill practice in for good measure.

Speaking of Skills

I have been helping Russell Cree teach his Thursday night women’s clinics at Alpenrose and there are always a ton of questions from beginners about mounts and remounts. I’ll tell you plain and clear: the only way to get better at these things is to practice – again and again and again and again. Repetition is your friend. If you ask Russell about this he’ll tell you some really long story about the four phases of motor memory development. I’m not gonna do that to you, I’m just going to call you out. You’re not practicing enough. Do I sound like your childhood piano teacher yet? Good.

It comes down to an approach that I call “100 throws and catches”. That’s how my mom made us start every softball practice as kids. 100 stupid throws and catches. We groaned and moaned, but at the end of the day we busted suckers because our fundamentals were solid. And I can still huck a softball 60 or 70 miles per hour and hit a catcher from deep center.

A final note about remounts: yes, these are harder than dismounts. Yes, it will take longer to get it right. You are not alone – everyone goes through this. But, remember this:

Even if you have a stutter step, you’re still getting back on the bike pretty quickly. You’ll be ok, it will work for right now. Keep working on it, but don’t freak out. It’s not the end of the world. It will come. Stop obsessing over it and work on being smoother and faster through the barriers – you should be running over them, not leaping.

(And if you want to get rid of that stutter step? Yep, you guessed it – go practice a lot.) Or come to a clinic!

Finally, if you really want to geek out and learn all of the nitty gritty obsessive shit there is to know about LT intervals and VO2 torture and crap, well, consider hiring yourself a coach. Totally not necessary to have a boatload of fun racing ‘cross, but pretty fun for those of us who consider ourselves our own favorite science experiment and can’t leave well enough alone.

When I finally got rid of my stutter step, I went a little superman! Not recommended.

When all else fails, just make a mean face. Starcrossed 2009.



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  1. Excellent article. Brought back memories of drumline practices in the parking lot during my drum & bugle corps days, sweat pouring down our backs as we chopped out those endless 8-16-32 drills on our snares, the accents reporting off the sides of the empty school buildings like crackling gunfire.

    Re-mounts are still elusive as I head into my third season of cyclocross. I practice regularly, but there is no way yet that I’ve been able to convince my butt that there is enough padding in the shorts to avoid injury by flying back onto the saddle. So as yet, I remain klunky and halting in re-mounts, like a three-year-old at Kiddie Kross. I haven’t yet figure out the magic formula and it’s frustrating. In the absence of being able to afford clinics this year, and with friends not yet showing up to the informal practices I’ve been hosting at my local park, what do you suggest for someone who is currently Working On Her Own?

    • Beth,
      Instead of focusing so much on “flying”, switch your focus to being smooth and almost stepping onto the bike. Even if you’re not doing a high-speed mega-remount, being smooth (as opposed to klunky :) will make you way faster for a start. (I have a friend who says “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast – he was 4th in Nationals last year)
      Slow everything down and think of lifting that right leg over the saddle, landing on your inner thigh (not your butt) and sliding over. Your left foot doesn’t even have to lift the ground if you do it correctly. Keep practicing at a walking pace. Also, when I was trying to figure it out, I watched basically every online video I could find. During skills days I do a minimum of 100 mounts and dismounts and although I’m fairly smooth on and off the bike, I’m still working out issues as I go along.
      Clark Natwick’s video is pretty solid: he starts talking about remounts at 2:00min:

  2. Brandee Dudzic


    I am almost certain it was you who passed me at Krueger’s and offered up a “Good Job.” (or something like)

    It was my first race, and the bumpy-ness of it all made me felt like I was dying just a little bit (after coming off only roads) and the 2 second encouragement was what I needed.

    Thank you.


    • Hey BD,
      That’s so awesome – I’m glad it helped a little! I figure we’re all out there dying together, we might as well take care of each other.
      The bumpiness of Kruger’s is brutal, for sure. Nice job getting the first race in the books – that’s a huge psychological win and never easy!
      Next time you get stuck on bumps, think of staying really light on the bike – you almost want to hover over your saddle and you don’t need to grip the bars as much as you think – your bike knows where to go, follow it! Keep your pedalstroke consistent and smooth and imagine yourself floating over the top of the crappy surface. Also, don’t worry – not all the courses are so body-battering!
      If you see me at the races, please say hi!

  3. That was a fun read. Maybe next year I’ll try that training thing. So many people seem to use it, it must be good for something. :) I do try to take a few of the unimproved roads on my commute routes when it’s getting on towards fall.

    This year I’m going to try the go-hang-out-in-Europe-for-10-days training plan. I mean what’s more ‘cross than Europe? NOTHING!

    I’ll let you know how it works out. :)

  4. The best bit of training advice I’ve EVER read Heidi!!! Thank you, why do I always try and get too scientific to race mid pack only to find that I burn out mentally trying to follow a plan I don’t really understand.


    Easy on easy days
    Hard on hard days
    Recovery is my friend
    100 throws 100 catches.


    I can remember that alternatively I can get it tattooed on my knuckles!

    Now, just to slim down so i look awesome in that LA skinsuit!!!

  5. Btw. I still have that damned stuttttter sttttep.

  6. Cross season has almost finished here in Melbourne which is quite sad. Thanks for the tips, I need to spend the summer practising!

  7. Very interesting! Now I have to do some research on how to apply that to triathlon. It’s all about saving those five seconds after a super slow swim ;) What kind of cleats/pedals are used in cyclocross? I suppose not the clunky SPD/SL type, right?

  8. I f’ing love the suffer face Swift!!

    Good post.

  9. I kind of want to try cyclocross this fall for the workout factor, but I’m afraid that it will just be demoralizing to have a billion gazelle types sprinting over obstacles with their featherweight bikes while I struggle to lift my 30lb mountain bike over and over again. Is it worth it without the specialized bike, do you think? How much getting on and off is there, really, in a race?

    • Jill,
      Cross is great fun but I can’t speak to your local racing scene. Here in Oregon our beginner field is filled with roadie gazelles and 40-something mothers-of-three who are just out for a workout and a good time. It’s an awesome mix.
      On/off the bike really depends on the course – it can be as few as twice or much more than that depending… type of bike definitely won’t matter very much when you’re starting out and going through barriers or uphills with a heavier bike is definitely a little more work, but it’s really not that bad if you work on skills and learn how to be smooth and efficient. There are a few on MTBs here in Portland who routinely spank many, many “specialists”.
      It’s definitely worth trying at least once! If you hate it, nothing lost.

  10. I had a stutter step I could not break. I believe it had become reinforced and built in to my motor memory. I could manage 2 or 3 clean remounts at the beginning of each practice section, but then could not do it again. In fact, the more I practice the more persistant the double hop became. What finally broke it for me was learning to remount from the drops. There is some good reasons to remount from the drop, less severe angle of the hips when throwing the leg over, ready to sprint away hard. I don’t believe it’s better, just different. By doing something different I was able to bypass the improper muscle memory, and remount clean. Sometimes a new approach helps. I’m now able to also do clean remounts from the hoods.

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