A CYCLOCROSS PRIMER FOR TRIATHLETES
Chris Bagg - Professional Triathlete - Portland, Oregon
In the nine years I have been racing or spectating cyclocross, I have seen:
—A man clad in cut-off jeans and a flannel shirt distribute Pabst Blue Ribbon to fans while he was racing.
—The rise of the unicyclist category in Oregon cyclocross.
—A 150 pound man wear a 51 pound weight vest so he could participate in the Clydesdale (200+ lbs.) division.
—Someone dressed in a Cookie Monster suit win a masters race.
—A grown man heckle a kiddie ‘cross participant.
—Racers being forced to climb over a) an ancient, moth-eaten couch, b) a fallen tree four feet in diameter, and c) a small river.
—Spectators dressed only in speedos and Luchadore masks in 35-degree weather.
—Another man wearing cut-off jeans (what is it with those?) and a skateboarder’s helmet win a National Championship.
—A ten year-old, newly crowned National Champion answer the question “What are you going to do now?” by saying “I don’t know…Party, I guess!”
Cyclocross (or ‘cross, which is a lot easier to say) is a sport in which participants ride machines similar to road bikes, but that are kitted out with medium width (32-35mm or so) knobby tires and mountain bike brakes.
Racers ride those bikes on lapped courses that feature pavement, dirt, gravel, grass, mud, sand, bodies of water, singletrack, fire roads, and, once—I’m not kidding—a defunct, hollowed out school bus. Course designers insert barriers or obstacles that force riders off their bikes (stairs, giant trees, long sand pits, railroad ties, short hills too steep or too loose to ride) a few times a lap, which means you get to see a bunch of cyclists attempt the sport of running for a few, precious seconds. At first glance cyclocross can be, to paraphrase The Knights of the Holy Grail, “A silly place.”
But isn’t a silly place just what you need at this point in the triathlon season? Although triathlon is a wonderful competitive sport, the training for it can become a grind, late in the season. Having to train for three sports (plus core/strength/stability/flexibility work) stresses our bodies, our lives, and our relationships. Sleep can suffer. We go so far into the weeds of our preparation that it can be hard to see beyond the sport. We become boring conversationalists.
'Cross, on the other hand, is the ultimate social and physical antidote for a body and soul tired on triathlon by October or November. “But I hear ‘cross is really hard, very intense!” you’ll say. “I’ve been training for long, steady state efforts all year—won’t I just get crushed?” Yes, cyclocross is a demanding sport—you’ll often average very high heart rates over the course of a race (a few beats over threshold heart rate, for those of you with a physiological bent), and a graph of your heart rate will look like a jagged mountain range, rather than the placid ridge-line of triathlon’s steady-state efforts. At first glance, the two sports seem totally different from an energy system point of view.
But look again. Triathletes tend to be very fit (they have to be, due to the volume demands of their sport, even at the shorter distances), and they’ll often spend some portion of their training weeks focusing on threshold power, or efficiency at threshold heart rate (for those of you not using these training metrics, these are the workouts you would describe as “very hard,” or 7-8 out of 10, or 17 out of 20; for those with training metrics, it’s probably described as “zone 4 heart rate” or “functional threshold power” or “FTP “for short). That energy system is the one that primarily governs outcomes in a ‘cross race. Yes, you’ll spend a lot of time above this level of effort (sprinting, short climbs, heavy mud or sand) and you’ll spend a lot of time below that effort (descents, pavement sections where you can let the bike roll, corners), but the average output remains very similar to what you would do in a sprint or Olympic-distance triathlon. In addition to the energy system cross-over, you know how to run, whereas cyclists will grudgingly add 15-20 minutes of running per week to their schedules, and then groan the next day about how sore they are. Even though you may never have heard of this sport until today, if you’re reading this piece there’s a strong likelihood that you would be good at ‘cross.
Up here in Portland, Oregon, I have the honor of running a cyclocross team attached to our local triathlon store, Athletes Lounge. Over the four years of the team’s existence, we’ve mostly drawn triathletes to the team, for many of the reasons outlined above. Oregon is one of the national hotbeds of ‘cross (New England and Colorado are two other regions where the sport is king), and there aren’t many triathlons around here after mid-September, so there was a large pool of fit people who still wanted to do some racing at the close of their triathlon seasons. The team grew and grew, as triathletes tried the sport, loved it, and added it to their yearly plan. It helps that, unlike triathlon, cyclocross events go on all day long, with dozens of races over several hours. Teams set up tents, bring chairs, beers, kids, and cowbells, and cheer for their members until the last race of the day is done, the dust is dropping back to earth, and it’s time to start looking forward to next weekend’s race.
- Chris Bagg is one of Wattie Ink.’s professional triathletes. He lives, works, writes, trains, coaches, and very rarely (but very happily) plays ping pong in Portland, Oregon. His coaching company, Chris Bagg Coaching Group, can be found on the web at chrisbagg.com/coaching or on Facebook here. He is @chrisbagg on Twitter here and @christopherbagg (he knows: confusing) on Instagram here.
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