I’ve said, elsewhere, that success at triathlon is a matter of time management (at the longer distances, that is; short course guys live their racing lives more in the spirit of this post). Doing well in a cyclocross race, on the other hand, is a matter of pain management, or at least discomfort management. ‘Cross combines the discomfiture of, say, a 40k time trial with the mental focus of juggling, tightrope walking, or chopping an onion (safely)—you can’t just shut off your brain in service of your legs. Unfortunately, your legs are screaming bad words at your brain the entire time you’re racing, which makes performing all of those relatively simple tasks a bit harder. Next time you’re making dinner, first punch yourself in both thighs before you pick up the knife to chop that onion. There, now you get the idea.
And now ‘cross tosses another obstacle your way: not only are you trying to perform tasks while under duress, you have to maintain that exact level of discomfort and focus for the entire amount of time that you are racing. Not just a five minute interval, or a two-mile repeat on the track, but 40-60 minutes of sustained focus during discomfort. It’s a good thing that cyclocross has ancillary benefits like mud, waffles, beer, heckling, and friends, because otherwise fewer people would do it.
The problem is, it’s difficult to actually see if you’re maintaining that focus during an entire race. Some data management tools can help, like heart rate monitors and power meters (the power meter is probably the best tool for post-race analysis, but most of us have only just finished the mortgage-like financial investment of installing power meters on our road and tri bikes, and ‘cross is supposed to be freer of those gigantic purchases), but the best thing in letting you know if you’re sticking to a sustainable effort is consistent and accurate lap timing.
Great, you’re saying. How in the world can I get that, short of asking someone to time my laps for me? That’s a good question, and I do have some backtracking to do, first, before I answer it. The usual prescription for doing well in a cyclocross race goes something like this: “Sprint the first 30 seconds, then ride as hard as you can for the first half a lap, and then settle in to your threshold pace for the rest of the race.” We watch the professionals do this on Sporza, week in and week out, and then wonder why the same plan doesn’t seem to be serving us as well as it does them. The first issue is self-knowledge. What we think of our “sprint” and “hard as we can” is often too hard for us. The professionals can weather horrific efforts like a sprint at 200% of FTP, followed by three minutes at anaerobic capacity. The rest of us will pay dearly for such an effort, in the character of not being able to maintain our threshold effort for the rest of the race. Sure, the start of a ‘cross race is important, but you’re not racing the pro race, where the start is literally make or break. Here, in the amateur ranks, you have a little more leash, and backing off a touch (just a touch!) can help make the rest of your race better. So yes, start well: be aggressive but composed; control your breathing; make that front third of the pack so you don’t get held up in first bottleneck of the course; but you do not need to be in agony in the first half a lap. You just need to be within sight of the front of the race.
Now you get down to work, and your work is simply this: try to hold consistent lap times throughout the rest of the race. When we watch races, it gets easy to think that riders like Sven Nys or Jeremy Powers or Katie Compton make huge, amazing, Hail Mary moves late in their races to get back to the front and win the race. We like this mythology. It fits in nicely with our desire for drama and storytelling. It is, essentially, a microcosm of every sports movie ever made, and it speaks to that part of us that thinks I could do something heroic like that, too. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t bear out this mythology. What great riders do, it appears, is pace well throughout a race, allowing their rivals time up front burning matches, hoping to stave off that last lap attack. Nys, Powers, and Compton display, in their races, lap times that are meticulously consistent—they rarely differ by more than a few seconds. The riders they catch may have faster earlier laps, but the energy they spend catches up with them, and their final laps are much slower. So it’s still a heroic thing these three riders are doing, but it’s more of the quiet heroism: Clark Kent instead of Superman.
OK, you’re thinking. I still don’t know how to put this into use. Well, like a lot of things I try to communicate to my athletes, it’s going to take some time and some reflection. First you have to get some lap times. To do so, I find myself in the tenuous place of suggesting you use Strava. Most of the time, I find Strava to be a lot like a vanity license plate (gosh, do I love that they call those things vanity plates—shouldn’t there be more things that come with adjective out there in front? Vanity cars, vanity houses—I think it’s awesome that there’s actually a piece of furniture called a vanity; people back in the day called it like it was; they still went ahead and used vanities, to be sure, but they didn’t cover it up with euphemism the way we do today; vanities today are probably called “self-care units” or something like that, although that sounds like a different piece of equipment altogether): sometimes fun, but mostly silly and useless. Strava encourages a lot of ego-baiting in our sports, and leads directly to more of that Quantified Self stuff that’s destroying our ability to have fun in the outdoors. In the service of your ‘cross racing, however, it can be very, very useful. I was uploading an early season race to Strava (see, I rail against it but can’t help myself, just like all of us), and noticed afterward that someone had created a segment describing the lap of that particular race. Huh, I thought, and investigated further. Sure enough, there were seven or eight of those segments on my file for that race, detailing my lap times. Here’s one of those earlier season races, which didn’t go the way I’d hoped it would. I’d started OK, but most of the race I just seemed to be struggling to keep up my pace and my motivation. Later, my lap times bore out that analysis
So this is exactly what you shouldn’t be doing: slowing down over the course of your whole race. You can see, too, my heart rate falling over the whole race, which is never a good sign—it means I went out too hard, was dehydrated, or just didn’t care enough, all three things that are under my control. Seeing these times I was able to say “Huh, this is exactly how I felt during the race—tired, frustrated, under-motivated.” What’s funny about doing this kind of analysis, though, is that it lets me know that most of the racers in front of me were also fading. During this entire race, the guy in 10th place just lingered out in front of me the same distance, meaning he was slowing down just as much as I was! He only finished about ten seconds ahead of me, so if I had paced a little bit better, I would have caught him easily! As it was I finished 11th and really jeopardized my chances of getting a call-up to the first day of the Cross Crusade.
Here, then, is a much better outcome. This is the seventh Cross Crusade race of this year, held at Portland International Raceway. I lost my call-up after two somewhat indifferent races in Bend over Halloween and found myself lining up at the back of the starting grid (the Cross Crusade uses a fair system of lining up riders that are out of the call-ups—it’s random but balanced). Instead of my usual nerves and fear, I was relaxed, knowing that nothing at all was expected of me lining up that far back. We started and I made my usual early starting mistake and probably dropped back a few more spots. I got held up in the early bottleneck, and could see the front of the race stretching away. No worries, I thought. My only goal today is to ride well in this mud and see how far I can get forward. It was a muddy, technical race, something I’m only OK at, but I knew that I’d be at least somewhat better than about half the field. Once I’d worked my way into some space I settled in and tried to rattle off some quality, controlled laps. Here’s the result:
My fastest laps were actually in the middle of the race, and when I did drop off a little bit in the final third of the race, I didn’t drop off very much. I caught and passed many riders in the second half of the race, and ended up 18th, which, from the back row of the A Race at a Cross Crusade I will definitely take. Guys who normally ride away from me were holding steady in front of me or even coming back—one of my nemeses only finished a few seconds in front of me, after I’d steadily taken time out of him all race.
OK, but what now, now that I have this information? Well, it lets you see how (or if!) you are developing over the course of a season. It lets you know what types of courses suit you (slow, fast, muddy, technical, hilly, flat). It gives you a measuring stick to other riders in your category, allowing you to see how much improvement you have to make (it’s usually only a few seconds per lap!). Here, for example, are the winner’s laps from the PIR race:
Wait! you’re saying. Those lap times slow down, too! Well, this is a lesson in context. The leader on the day established a big lead early on and then used excellent technical skills to hold things to the finish. You’ll notice the heart rate (after what must have been an especially awful first lap) stabilizes right around 176-177 for the whole race, and after that first lap the times are all within 20 seconds of each other. The big takeaway for me is that my times were almost a minute slower per lap than the winner—so it’s not my racing tactics that need work, it’s my mud riding and my fitness.