Believe it or not, after 30 years of racing ‘cross, almost 20 years of coaching, and who knows how many camps, clinics, and articles, no one has ever asked me to write down my six most important tips before. I’m almost hesitant to do it, because I’m essentially giving away information I make a living selling to people. But Ritchey is a great company and sponsor of mine, and since they asked, I’m happy to provide it.
1. Start almost all dismounts by clipping out of the left pedal first and learn to ride unclipped. For those of us who started racing ‘cross on toe clips and straps, riding unclipped on the backs of your pedals was a normal, regular part of the sport, and the first step to any dismount. When clipless pedals first appeared, it was natural, then, for us to hold on to that skill, especially since many of the early clipless pedal versions were single-sided. As people came into the sport only ever racing on clipless pedals, the idea of riding unclipped seemed counter-intuitive, but it is still a critical part of most dismounts, and especially high speed ones. The idea of stepping off a bike at 20 MPH still attached to it with your feet seems crazy to me. Putting your foot forward between your body and your bike with your other foot still attached is even crazier. This is how people eat barriers. You never truly need to “step through,” but if you do, you should absolutely never do it while still clipped in.
If you want to bomb at a dismount as fast as possible and without fear, you need to be able to do that already disconnected from your pedal, and resting on top of it with the arch of your foot pressed against your crankarm. This is easier if you shoe has a lot of rubber on the sole, but if it doesn’t, try super-gluing a piece of tire tread in that spot for more stability. Just click your heel out at the bottom of the pedal stroke and move it back in, without changing the position of your foot. Your pedal will naturally come up to your arch and you pick it up there. The rest of your dismount can then follow when you’re ready. Occasionally you may have to pedal hard all the way up to the moment of dismounting, and in that case need to stay clipped in. In that case, always make sure just to step around the back of the bike on the dismount and use the rotation of your hips to makes sure you clip out cleanly. Never, ever try to step through in this case, since you can’t use your hips to turn your foot, and in fact it makes it harder to do so, increasing the chances of staying clipped in and tripping over yourself as you step off.
2. When you’re lifting your bike but not carrying it, always lift it with your elbow on the inside. So often I see riders jumping over barriers they’re tall enough to step over, simply because they can’t lift their bike high enough to clear the planks. The reason is almost always because they have their saddles in their armpits, with their elbows on the outside of the bike. Keeping the elbow on the inside means you can lift your bike over your head if you really needed to, and without having to rotate it out and away from you, away from the direction you’re trying to go, and into someone else’s space where it might get caught up with them. A good suitcase carry should start with a snap like a clean and jerk, allowing your bike to float through the air next to you while you run, not jump, over the barriers.
3. When setting up for starts, rotate your open pedal so that it’s parallel with your crank. This will position it so that you’ll find it more quickly on that first ½ pedal stroke. All ‘cross starts are field sprints, and it’s tough to field sprint if you’re not clipped in. At the same time, you can’t sit down and look for the pedal while everyone is riding away. So it’s both crucial to try and catch the pedal on the first ½ pedal stroke, but also just to keep pedaling and try again on the next stroke. To increase the chances of catching your pedal on the first try, rotate it so it matches your foot position at the point you typically connect to it. For most people and most pedal systems, that means lining the pedal up so it’s parallel with the crank.
4. Prioritize exit speed over entrance speed. An easy mistake to make when trying to push your limits is seeing how much speed you can carry into a turn, especially if that turn is preceded by a downhill where the speed is “free.” But free speed almost always has a cost, and that cost is typically blowing the exit of the turn, having to brake hard, and then having to sprint even harder to get back up to speed. Be cautious with your free speed, use entrances of turns to recover and stop pedaling earlier once you know the speed limit, ride a smooth turn, and use that saved energy to smash the exit.
5. Always sprint after turns or remounts. ‘Cross may feel like a time trial in terms of perceived effort, but it’s more like a criterium in terms of applied power. Sprint, coast, sprint, coast, sprint. When you’re really suffering, it can be easy to try and turn the whole thing into a steady effort. But if you want to go fast, you have to grit your teeth and get in the habit of taking a few hard pedal stokes after every remount, and out of every turn, before you go back to your cruising speed. Pay back every coast with a sprint until it becomes second nature.
6. If you can’t do it 10 out of 10 times, don’t do it once. Bunny hopping barriers or trying to ride a steep hill or section of mud might be possible in warm up when you’re fresh and get all the room you need to find the right line, but in traffic, at threshold (or above) and 30 minutes into your race, it might not be so easy. If you hop the planks 9 times and then crash on the final, 10th time, then you should have run them every time. Laying on the ground during a race is never fast. There are easily 100 other tips I could give you, but these six are important and will keep you busy for a while. Some of these are spelled out in more detail, along with some training information, on the Cycle-Smart website. Good luck, and hope this helps!
-Adam Myerson, Cycle-Smart coach
*Adam rides Ritchey WCS 1-bolt post, WCS C260 stem and WCS EvoCurve bars