This week we’re really pleased to be able to share a great first-hand account of just what it’s like on the build up to a race – relevant for those starting out but also for those of us with a few more battles under the belt! Here’s Gemma’s write-up on what to expect!…
I defy anyone not to get ‘that’ feeling when the Commissaire shouts “30 seconds to go!” on the start line of a cyclocross race (I’m pretty sure I’ve felt it as a spectator also!). Yet, as soon as the whistle goes and you take your first pedal stroke, it completely disappears. So, if the racing part is easy, how can you make it to the start line to find this out?
You may be new to cyclocross or a seasoned supporter of a partner, friend, parent or child but never actually entered a race yourself. 2021 could be the year to do so!
30 days to go …
First up, you will need a bike but you most definitely don’t need two! It is always helpful to have your own bike but there are plenty of people who would be willing to lend you theirs (or that second pit bike!). In fact, the encouragement of others to participate and succeed is one of the great things about cyclocross – you may be surprised how many offers you get if you say that you’d like to give it a go but don’t have immediate access to your own bike.
Another great thing about cyclocross is that it’s not always about the strongest rider and everyone else gets forgotten. Being a lapped event, once the whistle goes and you’re a few laps in, no one can really tell who’s in the lead. There are races within the race, either between people of the same age group or those fighting it out to get across the line before their mate that just pipped them to it last week! There are also those who are racing themselves to do better week on week. When you are watching your next cyclocross race, don’t just look at those who appear to be flying around the course like a pro, watch everyone! How did she tackle the hurdles? How did he navigate that tricky downhill section? What happens when everyone gets tired?!
You’ve got your bike – time to get to know it and grow your confidence in riding it. Putting in hours on your turbo will not help you do that, you need to get out there and practice, practice, practice! To some extent, consistently riding your bike off-road will be a great starting point but it is the specific cyclocross skills, repeated time and time again that really help you feel confident to tackle a course on race day. Most of this can be done at your local park, so take your bike and set aside some time to cover the basics – fast starts, cornering, dismounts/remounts, carrying and shouldering your bike. It’s also a great time to find your limits on the bike – How quickly can you clip in and go from the start line? How fast can you take that corner? What difference does a lower or high tyre pressure make? How much room do you need before dismounting prior to the hurdles?
One thing I have learnt is that you will find your own way. Always be willing and take on advice from others but if something fundamentally doesn’t feel right and it’s making you less confident or slowing you down then revert to what you know because this will help you on race day.
A cyclocross course is a bit like a puzzle – you need to work out how you are going to ride each part of it in the best way for you. Just because someone else rides the steep bank doesn’t mean that you can’t get off and shoulder your bike – if that is a better option for you. On race day your original plan may not be possible but having lots of things in your ‘toolkit’ will enable you to make quick decisions on how to handle the course as the race progresses.
You’ve been practicing your skills, maybe you’ve roped in some friends and family to join you, have you entered a race?! There’s no getting away from it – if you want to race, eventually you’ll need to enter! If the calendar allows, pick an event with features you feel suit your riding skills. The weather likes to throw all of our plans out of the window but you can at least start on familiar territory. Cyclocrossers love to talk about courses they have ridden – the year they did brilliantly on that course and the year it was a total disaster! Ask around and you will have a better understanding of a race course which may suit you best.
30 hours to go …
Leading up to the race, keep practicing those skills – particularly those you struggle with (everyone loves to practice the ones they already excel at!) and any that you feel might be useful on the day.
Then it’s time to do your specific race prep – What are the timings? How long will it take to get there? What is the parking like? When and where can I register? When is the course open for practice?
The organiser will most likely send out a race pack in advance of the race. Read it! This will cover everything you need to know and usually contact details if you have any queries.
Pack your kit bag – think about what you will need prior to the race, during the race and really importantly after the race. Cyclocross season can be cold and wet – despite your reservations, it is likely you will want to enter your next race as soon as you’ve finished this one (is a well known phenomenon!), prioritising your post race-recovery will help you do that.
Check your bike – Your bike is what’s going to get your round the course – you have to be able to rely on it. This seems obvious enough but we’ve all got to the night before a race only to discover that we’ve not cleaned the bike from the last race and one of the tyres is flat because it picked up a puncture that you’re sure wasn’t there 2 days ago!
You’ve put a lot of time and effort into preparing for this race, take your time to ensure your bike is up to the job.
Arriving at the race
Hopefully you’ve arrived in plenty of time which enables you to wander around and register without having to even think about racing just yet.
Look out for friendly faces, it’s always a good chance to catch up with people you may not have seen for a while – sometimes the conversion and coffee is so good you even forget you’re there to race although don’t get too distracted because you still have preparation to do.
They’ll be other races already in progress when you arrive so where possible, walk round the course and get a feel for how it rides. Look at what others are doing (remember, not just the pro’s!) and take a mental note on how you might tackle each section in your sighting laps. Occasionally, this has the opposite effect where watching others race puts the fear into you that wouldn’t be there if you were actually riding the course. As with everything else you have done so far, decide what is going to work for you.
Then it’s time to jump on your bike (yes, literally – keep practicing!) and recce the course. For some this can actually be the most intimidating part of the day. There are limited chances to ride the course throughout the day so there will often be more riders on the sighting laps than you will be racing.
If you are feeling confident, then get in there with them! No one has special rights during the practice, it is a chance for everyone to get their first taste of how the course rides. A courteous ‘on your left/right’ is helpful if you want to go past someone but it is not the time to be engaging in those fast overtaking manoeuvres you’ll see during the race. If you are feeling less confident, then wait. It will take at least 5 minutes for the fastest rider to complete the course so you have plenty of time to start your practice laps when things quieten down.
You may want to test your legs a little and warm up but on the whole, this is your opportunity to become familiar with the course and feel a bit more confident prior to the race. One thing to note; I’ve often felt terrible on a practice lap and wondered how I was going to ride a section – but during the race adrenaline takes over and you will be able to do it. Remember, safe option – you can always get off your bike.
If you start to feel comfortable and get the chance then take some of the corners a little quicker to really get a feel for how your bike is going to react during the race. Pay particular attention to the first few corners as these will likely be fast and everyone will be jostling for position.
Practice laps done, you can start your final prep. Don’t hang around getting cold and forget to eat or drink. There’s usually enough time for you to return to your car, stay warm, pin your number on and do those last minute checks on your equipment.
30 minutes to go …
The nerves will really be building now but don’t get flustered. You’ve still got plenty of time to visit the portaloo’s (for the sixth time!) and if required drop a bag at the finish line so you’ve got access to a drink and warm clothing when you finish. If you have a willing volunteer then they could instead take these items from you at the start and place them at the finish line.
At this point there are two types of people – those who like to warm up and prepare by themselves, then there’s me ….. ! I calm my nerves by chatting to fellow competitors (who you will find are equally as nervous as you). “What do you think about that bit of the course?” and the inevitable “What pressure are you running?” Chat away if you feel it helps but do not change your plan for the race. You decided on it when you were level headed and thinking straight – now is not the time to be changing things at the last minute when potentially a lot could go wrong.
There will be a very clear whistle when you are called to gridding so prior to this stay warm and keep moving, not too far from the start area. You will be called up by number and asked to position yourself behind another rider. Don’t panic, the race isn’t starting yet, take your time and ensure you and your bike are ready to race.
30 seconds to go …
You are just about to find out what ‘that’ feeling is, I referred to at the beginning!
Head up, keep looking forward and focus on how you are going to get to that first corner in the best way, for you.
Living in Buckinghamshire and riding for Veloccino Squadra Donne, I took up cycling after a long term knee injury prevented me from running. Having previously competed at triathlon, I entered my first crit in 2016 and have been hooked on bikes ever since.
I decided to give cyclocross a go the following year, having no idea what it was or more importantly, what to do. Started last and finished last in my first race but I absolutely loved it. My immediate thought was that I wanted to come back the following week and do better! A mixture of bravery and stupidity got me through my first couple of CX season’s and I started to improve. In January 2020 I competed in the National Championship and hit my goal of top 20 Senior Women (just!).
I enjoy racing on the road with the squad but I will always love a muddy CX race! It feels like I still have a lot to learn and there’s always something to work on.
Most recently in September 2021 I entered the National Gravel Championships and won Silver in my age group. A fantastic race and overall experience!
During the off-season I train and race on Zwift for TURBO and Socks4Watts. I also co-host a cycling podcast for veloccino.