Welcome to our Ask a Mechanic column where our expert mechanic Daniel Slusser answers your bike maintenance questions. If you have a question for Daniel, please post it on our Facebook Wall or e-mail Daniel directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s column will get your ready for your first CX race.
I plan on getting into cyclocross this year and I know from your profile that you like to race. Do you have any tips on preparing for a cyclocross race? Any special tips for the bike or race day preparation? From: Nick
Cyclocross could be described as the embodiment of the Manichaean world view and consists of deep pain and suffering punctuated by momentary triumphs, crushing fears, laughter, anger, hatred, brotherhood, and eventually elation. To race cyclocross is to experience both the intense good and evil of the world in 35-60 minutes of cycling through turf, mud, pavement, and sand. Now, don’t let the intensity of competitive cyclocross put you off, there are plenty of people that take a very lighthearted approach to the sport that make for the festival atmosphere that is often associated with it. It is up to you to decide which camp you will be a part of. Here, I will review the basics so that you know everything you need to for your first foray into the world of cyclocross including bike setup, nutrition, and race-day scheduling and prep.
First, let’s discuss the bike. Don’t worry about having the perfect ‘cross racing machine. You don’t need to have a pro level rig to enjoy the sport. You might even try using a mountain bike in your first race, if they are allowed at your local beginner race (they usually are in most places). If you already have a cyclocross bike, make sure the tires you choose have a versatile tread pattern that will work reasonably well in most conditions. It is not uncommon for the weather to change overnight or even mid-race and tires are the last thing you want to worry about at your first race. Just keep in mind that with clinchers you will likely need to use fairly high pressure (for ‘cross). Do some experimentation in your training. For a guideline, at a weight of 175lbs I have found that I need to run about 45psi up front and 50psi out back to avoid pinch flats on clincher tires with tubes.
Brake setup is critical with cantilevers in order to make sure you aren’t expending too much energy squeezing your brake levers in vain only to find that with a little mud, your brakes have been reduced to mere speed modulaters, or the mechanical equivalent of the bite stick chewed on by 19th century medical patients in lieu of effective painkillers during surgery. The trick is getting the height of the straddle cable right. Well… that, and having fresh cables.
If you are using canti’s with a w-shaped configuration then you want to set the hanger so that the straddle cable forms an angle that is roughly 90-100 degrees. Straddle cable angles less than 90 degrees will produce firmer feeling brakes but with less power.
If you are using a more traditional brake configuration with the brake arms roughly perpendicular to the rim, set the straddle cable hanger to a height that will produce a straddle cable angle that is about 80 degrees for maximum power.
For your fit you want to set the ‘bars up a little higher than you would normally setup a road bike. 10mm or so should do it. I also like to double wrap my ‘bars for a bit of extra cushion on the rough courses. Some of your higher ‘bar setup can come from the thicker tape. For saddle height you might go 5-10mm lower because you will need to hover over the saddle a bit when going through the rough stuff and dropping the saddle slightly will compensate for that. Lastly, remove any water bottle cages on your bike to make shouldering easier and safer.
Now it is time to consider race day preparation. 3-4 hours before your race you should have a meal that is medium sized and low in fiber and hard to digest foods. Carbs are best. Any hunger after that can be handled with a single energy bar.
Get to the race no later than two hours before your race begins. Ideally you will get there three hours in advance. That will give you plenty of time to scope out the course, pre-ride it, enjoy watching a race or two, get your race number and warm up. With respect to getting that race number, that should be job number one when you get there. Registration lines can be long and sometimes new race promoters are unprepared or understaffed and that leads to registration delays. Once you have your race number, the rest of the time table is yours to decide.
For me, at around 45 minutes before the race, I like to warm up for about 15-20 minutes either on a trainer or riding around the grounds. Then, make sure that you are 100% ready for the race including getting rid of any water bottles and taking care of final nutrition, as you won’t be eating or drinking during the race (“fast” has more than one meaning in ‘cross). I like to take one GU Roctane with about half a water bottle filled with a light electrolyte solution like Hammer Fizz or Gu Brew. Getting all this done now is critical to avoiding any panicked starting line antics like removing a jacket, eating, or getting rid of a water bottle.
Now you are ready for your practice lap. Line up for the practice lap early. I like to move briskly at about 75% race pace to finish my warm up but not so fast that I can’t see where all the lines have changed since I got there. The practice lap should also illuminate where and how you can deal with traffic during the race, as there will be a ton of traffic during that practice lap.
Lining up for the practice lap early and maintaining a brisk pace will pay off by getting you to the start line quickly thereby ensuring that you won’t be stuck at the back of the pack fighting traffic the whole race. If you are serious about racing, your starting position and your initial sprint down the first straight is absolutely critical. However, if instead of being a serious racer, you have a serious case of the butterflies, line up last to take the pressure off and give yourself a valid excuse for a below mid-pack finish. The first few races you do are going to be all about learning the ropes and having fun anyway.
Once out on the course don’t worry about adhering to some rigid yet unwritten set of rules that exists on the road. Your relationship with fellow racers in ‘cross has more in common with BMX than road. Feel free to close the door on someone trying to pass and look for opportunities to take another racer’s line. Just don’t throw any elbows and keep in mind that it is just an amateur race and a lot of folks are struggling to stay upright. Sometimes letting a slower rider know that you want to pass on the right or left (i.e. “On your left!”) will make things easier for both of you, but there is no requirement for you to do this, and the slower rider does not have to yield.
A final tip: because ‘cross requires a bit more bike handling skills than road, don’t think that skills alone are going to win or lose the race for you. The required technical skills pale in comparison to the fitness requirements. Depending on your perspective that should either disappoint you or buoy your self confidence. Either way, cyclocross is sure to be an adventure that will enrich your cycling experience and perhaps even provide a new perspective on life’s challenges and rewards. When it is all over be sure to have a cowbell, your favorite beverage, and a big ol’ can of trash talk, heckling, and other motivation to dole out to the fast guys and gals as they fly past!
Daniel Slusser is a professional bicycle mechanic with over ten years of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from HSU and a master’s degree in history from Cal Poly University. When he is not riding, wrenching, or writing he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children.