Cyclo-cross is a wonderful way for road cyclists and mountain bikers to extend their competitive seasons and get a head-start on training for next season. The intensity of cyclo-cross racing provides a training stimulus that’s very difficult to replicate with standard interval training during the fall and winter, especially as the temperatures fall and athletes turn primarily to indoor cycling.
If you’re making the transition from your road or mountain bike season to cyclo-cross, it’s a good idea to take a break of about two weeks between your seasons. During this time, you want to retain the frequency of your rides (if you normally ride 4-5 times a week you should continue to ride 4-5 times a week), but you want to back off the intensity and pretty much entirely cut out structured workouts. Just ride your bike at a recovery or endurance pace for two weeks; you need the physical recuperation and you’ll appreciate the mental break as well.
You don’t want this recovery period to last much more than two weeks, however, because you don’t want to lose too much of the high-end fitness you’ve developed through the road or mountain bike season. In a two-week period, you might lose a tiny bit of your high-end fitness (the power for repeated maximal efforts), but your aerobic conditioning and power at lactate threshold will remain largely unchanged. And fortunately, any losses in power at VO2 max will come back quickly as you transition into ‘cross-specific workouts.
Once you get back into full-strength training, there are a few important things you need to keep in mind:
Cyclo-cross is a very technique-centric discipline, perhaps the most technique-driven of all cycling disciplines. It’s absolutely essential that you get on your cross bike for a skills practice or training race once per week. Fortunately, more and more communities have a cyclo-cross training race in the middle of the week, and you should be able to find one by consulting your local bike shop or cycling club.
Outside of a ‘cross practice, it’s important to incorporate race-pace interval workouts into your training program. One of the best workouts for this is a PowerInterval that ends with a cyclocross run-up. Like standard PowerIntervals, these start with a 15-second ramp up to the maximum power output or intensity you can sustain for a full minute. But unlike standard PowerIntervals, you want to ride into the base of a steep hill or staircase at about the 45 second mark. Dismount, shoulder the bike, and sprint up the hill or staircase. Remount the bike and accelerate back to race pace (about 10-15 pedal strokes). After each interval, spin easy back to your starting point and immediately start the next interval. Aim to complete 6-10 of these intervals in a continuous set.
Bank away endurance miles early
As the cyclo-cross season progresses, the weather will get worse and the scope of your training will become more race specific (short workouts, lots of high-intensity and Lactate Threshold intervals). While the weather is still relatively good, use one of your weekend days for long endurance rides. Think of it as an investment in your aerobic conditioning that will reward you in November and December. When it’s colder and the days are shorter, you’ll have fewer opportunities and less motivation to go out for 3- to 5-hour rides, so bank away that endurance training now.
Committing to your local cyclo-cross series is one of the best ways to pay your fitness forward into a strong road or mountain bike season the following year. Athletes who race cyclo-cross retain or improve their aerobic conditioning, power at lactate threshold, and power at VO2 max while athletes who focus solely on long endurance rides through the fall tend to lose 15-20% of their power at threshold and even more of their high-end power. So, if you'd also like to start your next season strong as an ox, finish this season with 'cross!