Triathlon is, except for the getting wet part and possible algae infestation, a very clean sport. Bikes are pristine and sleek; everyone is shaved up and covered in nothing more than is needed. Socks, you don’t need ‘em, they’ll only slow you down in transition anyway. You’re trim and fit and don’t need your stomach covered so go ahead and don that tri half-shirt. When the winner crosses the line the only thing marring their otherwise perfect form and figure is a healthy dousing of sweat.
Cut to Cyclocross. Though it’s possible to have a dry sunny day to race, the sport is better known for the epic battles in mud. Men and women cross the finish line like broken soldiers, derailleurs are torn off and bikes weigh 10 lbs. more than when they started from the mud and course debris that has collected. Why would a triathlete want to invest time, money, and extra shower time cleaning out grit, for a sport that isn’t their main focus?
Cyclocross has its roots in Europe, and Europe is still the land of promise for cyclocross…for now. There are several different versions of history pointing to the creation of cyclocross. The main consensus is that cyclocross was born out of the off-season training rides that Tour De France riders and other cyclists would use to keep their form until the following spring. Riding through the forests, back roads and fields, finding the best way to deal with the obstacles in their way while maintaining speed and heart rate. These racers being of the competitive nature soon turned these training rides into informal races and competitions.
The conditioning of a triathlete has a lot to offer to the sport of cyclocross. Cyclocross requires a rider to master a number of skills beyond just riding a bike. Triathletes must master not only the 3 disciplines of triathlon, but also transition prep and execution. The core strength that triathletes have built from hours of swimming and strength training translates well to cyclocross. Riders must have a strong core to balance themselves while riding on off-camber sections of course and navigating technical terrain. Although cyclocross is a “cycling” sport there is some running involved. A cyclocross course typically contains a couple sets of barriers, designed to force the rider to dismount, carry the bike over the barriers while running, and then remount. Steep run-ups are also very common; these steep hills are utilized in a course to add to the challenge. Riders typically “shoulder” their bike run up the hill and remount to continue riding. A race is not typically won on these running sections, but it can be lost. Someone who has good running fitness can run faster or at least maintain a lower heart-rate while navigating these sections and keep themselves in good standing for the race.
Triathletes are notorious in the cycling community for generally being poor at bike handling skills. This is due to both race and training conditions that focus on fast straight-aways with an emphasis on speed and form. Just try showing up to a local cycling club ride on your TT bike and look at the faces and grumbling from the other cyclists on road bikes. Because of the varying terrain and skills required to do well in cyclocross a triathlete can enhance their skill set and become a much better bike handler and overall cyclist. Cyclocross courses can contain one or more of these features: paved, gravel, or dirt roads, mountain bike single-track, grassy fields, mud, sand, leaves, rock, and roots. Additionally you may be riding these courses as a solo rider or you may be in a pack. So, you’ve got to not only learn how to move around on your bike to handle the various surfaces and hills, but you have to learn how to ride in a pack without putting yourself and others in danger. This can be intimidating on your first race when the pack heads into a corner and you bump shoulders, elbows and handlebars, while trying not to cross tires with the rider in front of you. This may sound fun, or it may sound daunting. Cyclocross in Utah is very popular so there are many racing classes based on both experience and age. You’re bound to find something with which you’re comfortable. Racing cyclocross offers a couple of additional benefits to a triathlete. First, it gives you a chance to continue training and racing through the fall and early winter. You get the training benefits just like those early Tour De France cyclists back in Europe. This will help your speed and conditioning as cyclocross races are only 30-60 minutes long; 30-60 very HIGH intensity minutes. Cyclocross season also offers you the chance to break things up a bit. After training and racing triathlon for the last 10 months your mind and body can use a break. After racing ‘cross for 3 months you’ll feel mentally ready to dive back into base training; getting ready for upcoming triathlon season.
Cyclocross bikes are specific to cyclocross. The short description of a ‘cross bike is this: road bike with cantilever brakes, wider tires and wider clearance of the frame and fork for those tires. To race cyclocross you’ll need either a cyclocross bike or a mountain bike. A road or tri-bike won’t work, road tires don’t offer enough volume or traction for a ‘cross course. There are UCI (the international governing body for cyclocross) rules regarding cyclocross bikes, but the races here in Utah are not UCI sanctioned so we don’t need to worry about any of those rules. Just show up with your old mountain bike and race. It’s a great way to maintain that triathlon fitness, increase your bike handling skills, and give yourself a mental break from triathlon. You’ll get back to triathlon training in the winter or spring with more enthusiasm and skills.
For information about Cyclocross in Utah go to: www.utcx.net