Honing Skills in Cyclocross

When winter snow makes the high roads in the Cascade Mountains impassable, we turn to cyclocross. It’s our preferred winter sport – challenging, fun and a great way to hone our skills for the big summer gravel adventures. The skills of ‘cross are less about jumping across barriers – although that is fun, too – and more about learning the feedback from your tires. Being able to feel how much grip you can lean on is a useful skill for gravel riding. When you push your bike to the limit and beyond, you learn what it feels like when the tire is just before the point where it’ll slip. You’ll also learn how to recover when your bike slides. And if you don’t recover, speeds are slow and the mud is soft…

Last weekend was our big  ‘cross race here in Seattle’s Woodland Park. The ‘cross course winds through tall trees, and it often feels like you’re right in the Cascade Mountains. Riding here is fun in itself, but racing in these surroundings is special.

Lining up in a pack of racers isn’t something I do often these days, but these aren’t the pro and elite racers. We’re here for fun.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t racing hard. I’ve never been a great sprinter, but at least I’ve honed my clip-into-the-pedal skills during many years of urban commutes.

Everybody races for the ‘holeshot’ – the first corner where the pack fits only two abreast. If you make it in the top ten, you can enter the corner with minimal braking. Somehow, I managed…

The barriers are another great place to make up positions. Time your steps just right, lift the bike just high enough, jump across the barriers, and vault back on the bike with almost no loss in speed: It’s a lot of fun.

I love that ‘cross is such an inclusive the sport. Right after our field, the Clydesdales started. Which other cycling event has a category specifically for riders weighing more than 200 lb (91 kg)? Make no mistake – these guys are strong. So strong, in fact, that their bikes seem almost weightless: They lift them like toys as they rush across the barriers.

In ‘cross, you ride multiple laps of the same course, so you can try different things each time. Which line is fastest through this corner? Can I carry a little more speed here? Can I stay off the brakes during this descent? It’s a great way to hone your skills.

You also learn to read the surface. The soil of Woodland Park has areas with sandy loam, where grip is excellent even in the wet…

… and others with clay that can be very slippery.

The last lap was the most fun. Traffic had cleared – I was behind the truly fast guys – and with the finish approaching, there was no need to keep anything in reserve. Now I could let the bike fly. My old Alan is a well-known fixture of the peloton by now, and I don’t get many questions about it any longer. It still works as well as it did when it was new, and when Alans won every ‘cross championship title in sight. Everybody knows that the tires determine a ‘cross bike’s performance, anyhow.

At speed, the spinning tires clear the mud out of their tread – provided there is enough open space between the knobs. ‘Cross tires grip better the faster you go. Some of that mud flies in your face, but that is all part of the fun.

When the finish line came, I knew that I was in the top-10, but had no idea about my exact placing. It really didn’t matter – now was the time to chat with friends and acquaintances, then head to a bakery nearby… If you’ve been thinking about ‘cross, give it a try – chances are you’ll like it!

18 Responses to Honing Skills in Cyclocross

  1. jeffoyb November 18, 2019 at 2:10 pm #

    Yay! Nice pics and story.

    I find CX to be the most like XC (skiing) of any bikesport. I suppose it’s the sliding. And also the cushiness of the tires. Clinchers weren’t inspiring to me but when I first tried tubies I had an Ah-ha! moment that I’ve never looked back from. Smooth! You can really finesse them.

    It’s rare that XC skiing requires as much handling skill as CX does but actually my favorite ski trails are super twisty like a CX course.

    It’s also the hardest-charging of the bikesports. It seems there’s less chance for recovery and less need to stay perfectly sharp. So I feel free to really turn up the dial.

    I can fit a LOT of workout in a short time near home with CX. It’s intense, kind of like heavy-bag work. An hour of CX is the max I’ve done or heard of anyone doing.

    And you’re right: IT IS THAT TIME OF YEAR! It’s the only sport that I follow as a fan. And the season is full gas right now! The races are fun to follow and to spectate, from big to little. I watch US races and also Euro. The video production, live and edited, is wonderful. (My favorite thing is seeing all the little kids running for joy along the courses! That’s the best!) It’s so easy to see the whole course and watch the drama unfold! You can really see people put together good performances or get inspired and rise above … or crack. Because of the mental aspect and the brevity … and lack of $millions … it seems less likely to be doped. Check out cyclingfans.com or GCN for videos.

  2. Timothy November 18, 2019 at 5:25 pm #

    Cross is really fun. Everyone has a good time, some have a real party attitude that I admire. It’s also how I found my favorite tires before Compass/Rene Herse developed their current supple high volume offerings: I would race high end 33mm tubulars until the treads wore down, then mount them on my road bike for more miles of smiles. I sometimes would shave down the outer knobs for smoother cornering on pavement.

    • Jan Heine November 18, 2019 at 5:56 pm #

      It’s no secret that we were inspired by the ride of FMB tubulars when we developed our Rene Herse (then Compass) tires. Translating that ride into clinchers that could be used daily was something we were dreaming of.

  3. Paul Glassen November 18, 2019 at 10:35 pm #

    Yes, I remember Alans being ridden in Seattle area cross back in the 1980s. I still ride, but no longer race, my mid-80s Andre Bertin. Question; the largest tire the Bertin will accept is about 30 mm. Wider, more modern cross tires won’t fit. How about the Alan?

    • Jan Heine November 19, 2019 at 12:20 am #

      Tires used to be much narrower. When I started racing, we used 20 mm tires on the road, and our cyclocross tubulars were somewhere between 25 and 28 mm wide. On my Alan, I now run 33 mm FMB tubulars, and they barely clear the chainstays.

      • nellegreen November 19, 2019 at 7:43 am #

        I am happy with your choice to comply with the maximum width regulations for tires as you achieve top 10 placings.

        • Jan Heine November 19, 2019 at 9:40 am #

          Top 10 placings in the Cat. 4 Masters isn’t really anything the UCI is worried about! I don’t think any of the guys in front of me adhered to the rules, but nobody worries about it.

  4. Joshua Melanson November 19, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    I was out there racing the Cat 3 masters race later in the day. Woodland is always a fun course and well attended. Conditions this year were entertaining but I struggled all race trying to find the “fast” line though the 180 mud bog after the run up. Never got it right. I am disappointed I did not see your Alan in person.

    • Jan Heine November 19, 2019 at 10:55 am #

      The mud pit was amazing! Coming up the hill, you thought you could accelerate as the trail flattened, but instead, the mud just gripped the wheels. I saw some slower riders fall over because they lost so much speed. From a purely technical point of view, I wonder whether fatter tires could have floated over that, or whether they’d just have spun on top… Would have been nice to meet you, too. Next time!

      • Josiah Anderson November 19, 2019 at 4:14 pm #

        Even my Steilacooms didn’t make that corner easy, although they were wonderful everywhere else. I raced at 9:30 and was barely able to ride that mud pit- running was much faster. I’m also sad to have missed you and your Alan. Will you be at Nationals?

        • Jan Heine November 19, 2019 at 7:01 pm #

          Will you be at Nationals?

          If I want to go to Nationals, I need to train a bit! But maybe…

  5. twentyclicks November 19, 2019 at 6:51 pm #

    CX is brilliant fun. Short and intense, so even the time pressed can train for it. There is always a race no matter where you are in the pack, so everyone finds similar competitors to push themselves against. The pressure of the race also helps with your confidence and handling… sometimes, even in practice, I am not sure how to ride a section, but when you see the people in front do it and there is a train on your back wheel you have little choice but learn to relax on the bike and let it flow.
    You also get really efficient at washing your bike!

  6. Tinus van der Plas November 20, 2019 at 3:23 am #

    As a big fan of cyclocross and ALAN I have shared yout aticel with our ALAN group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/105186656182574/

    • Jan Heine November 20, 2019 at 8:11 am #

      Thank you!

  7. Brendan Hennessy November 20, 2019 at 3:57 am #

    Hi Jan, that’s a beautiful piece and one which will be well recieved by newcomers. As a fellow Alan rider I’m sure you will therefore understand my pain when I say “Alan Frame 1981-2019 RIP”. http://www.oldvelos.com/round-4-of-the-munster-cx-league-rip-alan-frame/

    • Jan Heine November 20, 2019 at 8:11 am #

      Great to hear from a fellow Alan rider, but so sad to hear yours broke. However, if it’s just the derailleur hanger that snapped off, then that shouldn’t be a problem. Mine broke off many years ago, and I put on one of those hangers that sandwich onto the rear dropout. Mine even is an original 1960s Campagnolo, which bolts on, so the derailleur doesn’t fall off every time I take out the wheel. You can see a photo in this post.

  8. Brend November 20, 2019 at 8:41 am #

    indeed that’s a plan Jan. I’m looking forward to surprising the OldVelos community wih the reincarnation of Alan Frame. Do you know there’s a vintage CX race in Belgium (or possibly Netherlands). Closer to me than you, but I still haven’t made it!!

    • Jan Heine November 20, 2019 at 9:14 am #

      The vintage CX race sounds like fun – seeing the bikes would be wonderful. However, I also feel that the old bike doesn’t hold me back, so there is no need for a ‘vintage’ category.