I missed out on cross season for the last two years because I was on the injured reserve list all fall(s). They would have been my first two years of cross, which would have meant that the beginning of cross season this year wouldn't be my first rodeo. As it turns out, it WAS my first rodeo - one for which I was unexpectedly unprepared. In addition to about 20 years of racing a road bike, I also raced BMX as a kid, MTB in college and grad school, and I think I still own my high school record in the 400M hurdles. Also, I co-own a bicycle company. If anyone had the perfect pedigree for cyclocross, it's me.
And yet, I suck. Here's why and more importantly, how you can suck less at your first cross rodeo:
Practice vs. Training: Road racers train. Cyclocross racers practice (and train - more on that in a bit). Coming into the sport, my idea of practice was to build some barriers out of PVC tubing and run them for half an hour a couple of times before my first race. It was an exercise not intended (or likely) to make me any more competitive, but mostly to make sure I didn't make an ass of myself in a widely circulated Joey's OK moment while wearing the company brand on my bike and body. What I've since learned in the 4 races I've done, er, started is that running barriers is wholly inconsequential to your finishing position. Dismounts are more important inasmuch as you want to make sure you actually finish one before your front wheel reaches the barriers, but the real time loss can come from a botched remount. The reason is that when you get off the bike for barriers or a runup or because the guy in front of you overcooked a corner, you're going hella slower when it comes time to get back on. Here's some important math: 10mph is 15 feet per second. So every second you spend flailing at a pedal at 5mph while your rivals are clipped in and ticking them over at 15mph results in a 15 foot gap you have to close. Every second.
But even more important than practicing remounts is cornering. A cross course typically has 2-4 dismounts per lap, but 10x - 20x as many corners. Can you lose 15' to a faster rival in each of these corners? I sure can, and have. In fact, I've discovered two ways to lose position in corners - by going slower than the corner allows (which can cost you a couple of bike lengths easily) and by going faster than the corner allows (which can cost you 5-20 seconds, as well as a derailleur hanger or shifter). The variable here is that the corner allows different speeds based on your skill, so practicing corners helps in two ways. On the one hand, you learn where your limits are and are then able to take corners at the top end of your ability - say at 10mph instead of the 7mph you were wussyfooting through previously. But then as your cornering technique improves, the speed that constitutes your upper limit in a corner increases. Instead of railing a corner at 10mph, you'll be able to rail the same corner at 12mph. Using our math above, that 2mph increase is a bike length you've just opened up or closed - 20 or 30 times per lap. It adds up fast.
Efficiency of Speed: In a road race, much of the game is about conserving energy. Stay out of the wind, follow other riders to the front of the field when necessary, burn matches only with reserve and purpose. Your first cross races are nothing like that. You'll be at your limit from the whistle until you cross the line, which means that a couple of things influence how well you do. The first is how high your limit is of course. You can win a crit with a single match in your matchbook if you race smart; in cross you need to have much deeper fitness to be in contention. But what I want to talk about here is efficiency of speed, or how well you turn your effort into speed. Instead of saving energy, you have to be focused relentlessly in cross on speed. There is effectively no drafting which means that every length you give up by steering into the tall grass, grabbing the brakes, missing a clip-in or taking a poor line in a turn is a length you need to make up all by yourself. In a crit you can drop to the back of the pack out of laziness or boredom, and sooner or later someone will attack in the gutter and give you a free tow back up to the front. In cross, you own your own mistakes outright. Your focus necessarily has to change from conserving energy to conserving speed - every moment of the race, on every foot of the course. This is why cornering and remounts (above) are so important - you are the only one who can close each bike length you give up. And each one is expensive. If you're going to expend the effort, better to make someone else pay to catch you, then to spend it all on your own mistakes.
Pedaling Practice: If you're a road racer you're probably quite accomplished at maintaining a steady effort at a high cadence for long periods of time. Not only do you have almost zero opportunity to exercise that skill in a cross race, I think it actually turns into a liability. Force and cadence changes in cross are so frequent and severe that it's almost like an entirely different sport. You'll hear often that the best training for cross is to race cross and that's certainly true as it first introduces and then helps condition your muscles for the relentless stochastic efforts required. But the better you can replicate this in your training - with microbursts and over/unders and low cadence force drills on the road bike, or by training at intensity on a simulated cross course on the cross bike - the less strident the revolt staged by your legs on game day will be.
Weight is the new Aero: In truth, the affiliation of beer, waffles, frites and sausages with a racing season would make far more sense in June than October, since an extra 2-12 pounds in crit season has far less impact on your performance than the same weight gain in a cross race. I have never in my life wanted to be skinnier than on the run-up during the 2nd half of a cross race. Rolling resistance is higher and speed is lower in cross, which means that weight is far more important than aerodynamics. Do what you can to shed unnecessary pounds - shave your head, clip your toenails, wear a skinsuit a size or two smaller so it has less fabric, remove your appendix and anything else vestigial on your body or bike. Get your skinny on, because it really does matter.
A lot of people race cross because it's fun, and I count myself among them. But you know what's even more fun than racing cross? Racing cross well. At least, it looks like more fun - I'll let you know if I find out.