Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cyclocross for Triathletes

This was in the latest issue of Cyclocross Magazine (Issue 7 or those interested). I did not write it, it was written by Chris Gescheidle. He talks about some great points. If you're interested and want to learn more, check out

It was a nice late spring afternoon and although my triathlon training plan called for a bike ride with intervals, I decided to break out the 'cross bike and hit the trail.

"Wow! Look at those beautiful Texas wildflowers!" crowed one of the mother-son duo as I rode my Bianchi Cross Concept past them on a local trail not far from my house.

I passed them a few miles into the trail at an open field skirting a lowland creek, where Texans roam the fields looking for wildflowers all year long. Spring happens to be one of my favourite times to mount the 'cross steed and get off-road. The funny thing is I'm a triathlete and it's the middle of the early triathlon training season. So why am i even thinking about cyclocross?

Since I first tossed a leg over a 'cross bike and raced, I knew I was hooked. I’m sure most of you can say the same thing! And at the end of my first ‘cross racing season, I knew I had to incorporate it into my triathlon training. And why not? Triathlon and cyclocross share two common elements: cycling and running, so why not use cyclocross to my advantage year-round?

Dallas isn’t known for its cyclocross racing by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t get me wrong, Texas does flourish with some of the best cycling—on and off-road—you can find in the whole country. And for Teas, ‘cross makes a good showing from Dallas to Houston. So, I’ve decided to use the mild winters and warm (OK, hot) summers to my advantage. And I mean my advantage for triathlon and cyclocross.

The Basics

You’ve probably heard the stories of how world-class cyclists have proclaimed that ‘cross racing made them better at road racing. It’s true. Extending your riding through the winter makes you a better rider. Period.

It’s hard to most triathletes to continue to ride during the off-season without structure, while continuing to improve our skills. Sure, you can tell yourself that you will work on interval training, on-leg drills, close quarter riding and so forth throughout the off-season, but when it comes down to it, you will probably just ride.

Long, slow distance rides have their place, especially in the off-season. However, sprinkle in some cyclocross and watch your early season form climb the charts like a new Jonas Brothers CD.

When I trade my road bike or time trial bike for the ‘cross bike during my heavy triathlon training season, I remind my body and my mind of the skills that will make me a better triathlete. Let’s look at the different ways ‘cross helps me in a triathlon.

Handling Skills

One of the biggest and most visible improvements is bike handling skills. This oft-neglected talent of experienced riders comes shining through when you race ‘cross. Having to negotiate fatter tires through tight corners, through sand, or along the mud makes you learn how to handle the bar, pedal and brakes.

I remember the first time I tried ‘cross. There was no mud, sand or “trash dump
like I saw in later years, but the descent on the first U-turn caught my by surprise. It wasn’t that steep; heck, it wasn’t even a “descent” for the veteran racers that day. But with a triathlon background, I was used to mostly flat, time trial like terrain! Speeding down that creek bed had me holding on for dear life instead of holding my bike in a relaxed manner.

I realized that if I was going to get better at cycling, whether at road racing, cyclocross, or triathlons, I needed to hone my handling skills. In the end that made me better on race day and in training.


One of the key elements in triathlon that is often overlooked is the transitions. This is the place that the racer transitions from the swim to the bike (called “T-1”) or from the bike to the run (“T-2”). At the beginning of the race, the transition area is filled with bikes on their respective tacks, waiting for the participants to exit the water, grab their bikes and get out to the bike course. Of course, there are rules to follow when inside the transition area, as well as when one exits and re-enters that area. One of the rules is not being able to mount your bike until you are clear of the transition area and across the “mount/dismount” line.

I love watching triathlons from the “mount/dismount” line. I can tell from watching who has practiced mounting their bike (most don’t). if you’re good, ou can run out of transition with your bike, cross the line, mount your bike and go without ever stopping. If you’ve not practiced this, however, you will probably cross the line, stop to find your pedal, swing your lef over, slop on your cleats and lose your chain as you back-pedal. Then, as you almost fall over, get totally frustrated, you find you are starting your bike with a lot of stress. A fluid mount and dismount can save a few dozen seconds… more than a lot of equipment upgrades.

Practicing transitions, perhaps especially the mount and dismount of your bike, is ammunition in your arsenal. And because cyclocross incorporates mounting and dismounting, it’s a great way to practice specificity. If you can dismount quickly and efficiently for a barrier, then mount the bike after clearing the barrier, you will be better at properly mounting and dismounting your bike in triathlon.


Of course, you can’t race triathlon without running. Well, OK, you can, but your chances of cross the finish line ahead of others will be mighty slim! And, although ‘cross has less running than it used to, it’ll help you keep a bit of running fitness throughout the off-season.

Many cycling-focused triathletes dread the run portion of the race. That’s a shame, too, because running is actually a great way to cross train between cyclocross and triathlon. Different muscle groups get used, which can help joint stability and lessen overuse injuries.

If you do decide to incorporate running into your training regimen, be sure to get your shoes fitted by a professional. Begin by adding running to a walking routine, and then gradually increase the mileage of running over time. Ultimately, you will sprinkle in speed work, sprints and even ‘cross-specific drills (i.e., hopping barriers) to improve your skills.

Riding in a Pack

Although most triathlons are non-drafting races, knowing how to safely pass someone or avoid a collision as you pass is is an often overlooked skill, too. I’ve often seen collisions, or near-collisions, on triathlon courses simply because someone wasn’t comfortable with another rider in close proximity. Instead of welcoming the change to their environment by practicing riding in a pack or passing, they freeze-up in fear, often to their own detriment.

Cyclocross puts a rider in the think of close-quarter drills. Unless you just get dropped early on, you will probably have chances during the ‘cross race to be close-up and personal with another rider The more you do this, the more comfortable you become with other riders around you during a race. Becoming at ease in this environment makes you a better rider in other races, including triathlons. When you’re out on you next group ride, practice rubbing shoulders (literally!) with other riders. Once you get used to the bump-and-grind of elbows and shoulders, you’ll be much less nervous when this inevitable part of cyclocross occurs. Plus, when you give someone a little bump on the tri course (or receive one), you’ll be less likely to go down. Note: Please check with the rider you’re going to practice this skill on before leaning into him; failing to do so will get you ejected from the group ride faster than showing up with your aero bars.

“Cross” Train

So, how do you get started? Well, first check Cyclocross magazine’s comprehensive race calendar from ‘cross clinics or races in your area. A clinic is an invaluable way to not only see proper technique, but also to have someone watch you, give you specific pointers and answer your questions.

Then, see if you can find a group with which to train. Contact race promoters or clubs for information on any groups training ‘cross on a regular basis. You man even find a group on Cyclocross Magazine’s online community site. Some groups host a series of practices races or workouts, for example every Tuesday evening, where you can come back weekly to the same course, hone your skills and actually progress.

Don’t have a cross bike? No problem! Your mountain bike or hybrid will do. Or, if you have a bit of clearance, simply install some narrow cyclocross tires on your road bike and get out there. Here in Teas it is fry, you can get away with running a road frame with 28 or 30c ‘cross tires. The Schwalbe CX Light and Ritchey Speedmax 700x30 are two of the narrowest out there. At your first race, you’ll see all sorts of bikes, so don’t be intimidated if you don’t have a ‘cross-specific bike. Just makes sure whatever you se can handle some off-road terrain, run-ups, cambers and, at the fun races, mud.

As far as the dismounts, remember your skills as a triathlete. If you’re an accomplished triathlete, you know how beneficial it is to approach the dismount line at a race and be able to “run in” because you’ve left your shoes on your bike. In cyclocross, it’s the same principal, except this time you’ll leave your shoes on your feet, dismount the bike on one side, run over the obstacle or barrier, then do a flying mount, the same as you would in triathlon T-1. Check out Cyclocross Magazine’s brand new newbie section on their website.

And when it’s necessary to run, you will probably have the advantage coming from a tri background. You’ve trained for triathlon using “bricks,” (a workout that involves running directly after coming off the bike), so the payoff in ‘cross will benefit you, too!

Getting Serious

Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be that easy. And you may experience a higher heart rate during the race than you do in triathlon. The constant accelerations and the cheering and jeering crowd will keep you at the redline.

You’ll have to practice your dismounts and the jumping over obstacles. You’ll also want to practice carrying your bike on your shoulder and carrying it up a hill. Now this is something you obviously don’t do in triathlon. In fact, we get really good at pushing our bike through the transition, but in cyclocross, you will need the skill of carrying your bike. That’s because there are so many sports on a ‘cross course where you cannot ride it.

For both the run and the bike, practice short, quick accelerations (think interval training on steroids). You might be lucky enough to get into a rhythm somewhere on the course, but most likely you will be hammering the entire time. Remember the duration versus intensity principle? This is intensity and duration!

But you can—and should—add ‘cross to your repertoire. Use the triathlon off-season to hone your cycling skills by adding a little cyclocross into the mix. Join a group ride. Attend or volunteer at a race. Join the community. Pretty soon you’ll see what the fuss is about. And you might just end up trading in that tri bike for a pair of matching ‘cross bikes.



thanks for the article Sherwood! Just what I need, another bike!

Plantmiester said...

Such is the plague of the cyclist. We all know the equation for the number of bikes you need:

n + 1; where n is the number of bikes you currently own.