CX Fever project Part II - How to prepare for a cyclocross race?

It can be pretty stressful and overwhelming to do your first cyclocross race. As humans, we are often scared of the unknown, because we have no idea what to expect and aren’t sure how we can prepare ourselves to face that in the best possible way.

Hannah Bauer, the CX Fever Grant recipient has been racing cyclocross for 2 years. However, it’s only this year that she started to dip her toes in the UCI Elite Women racing waters.

Before the first race of the weekend, I asked Hannah how she was feeling and if she was excited for the race. She told me that she was excited, but also pretty nervous, so I asked her what made her feel that way. “The fact that it’s such a big field and that it’s a "UCI race" scares me a little” she said. She was also nervous that her equipment might fail her, because a similar situation had happened to her at her previous race. 

Having those anxious thoughts are perfectly normal and understandable; everyone has them. Furthermore, Hannah is only 17 and this is the highest level of cyclocross racing in North America. But honestly, being nervous means that you care and that is a good thing.

Based on her thoughts and on the challenges Hannah had faced at her first UCI event a few weeks prior, we came up with a strategy together in the hope of making her racing experience more enjoyable, and help her be satisfied with her performance.

Here are a few of the cyclocross race tips we came up with: 

Focus on what you can control

Hannah mentioned that she was a bit nervous about the fact that she would be racing in such a big and competitive field. She felt as if she was jumping into the unknown. As humans, we are often scared of things over which we have no control. So one of the best ways to bring down the stress level is to focus on yourself and on the things you CAN control. With Hannah, we sat down and pointed out some things that she could concentrate on that would help calm her down and feel as if she was in a more familiar environment. Those things included knowing the course by pre-riding it, making sure she ate well before the race, making sure her bike was in good working order and doing the warm up she was familiar with. We also came up with achievable goals and small reminders on which she could focus on during the race.

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Set achievable (and controllable) goals

As stated above, it is crucial to focus on things we can control. With Hannah, we came up with very simple goals that she could focus on during the race and that would ultimately help her have a performance that she could be proud of. One of those goals was to look ahead during the race. This simple act would help her to see what was happening in front of her and prepare or react in the best possible way for the coming obstacle. Another simple goal that we set was to consciously take some deep breaths in all of the descents so she could relax and recover as much as possible and be ready to attack the next hill.  

 "Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm". Personally, that was all I was thinking about on the brutal climbs during the Pan Am championships race. Thinking about my pedalling rhythm helped me not only to go faster, but also to have my mind focused on that, instead of on how much my legs were hurting at that moment.

"Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm". Personally, that was all I was thinking about on the brutal climbs during the Pan Am championships race. Thinking about my pedalling rhythm helped me not only to go faster, but also to have my mind focused on that, instead of on how much my legs were hurting at that moment.

If it doesn't work, don't force it. Just commit to running! 

Sometimes on a cyclocross course, some sections can be challenging and give us some trouble, but we are stubborn and keep on trying and crashing on them. Being perseverant is good, but the problem with that stubbornness is that after many attempts at trying and messing up a feature, we can become nervous and scared about that particular section. Here's a scoop: there are no awards for riding a section! And you know what? Most of the time, if we are not 100% sure we can clear an obstacle, it's faster to run it! So if you can't ride a section, don't sweat it, just commit to dismounting off the bike quickly and running the section with momentum. That will help you go much faster than trying, messing up, getting off the bike and then starting to run from a stopped position. During the pre-ride, Hannah and I identified which sections we wanted to ride and which we would commit to run.

 Dismounting quickly and keeping a good momentum while entering a running section is a great cyclocross training drill that you can practice at home.

Dismounting quickly and keeping a good momentum while entering a running section is a great cyclocross training drill that you can practice at home.

Find the "Cluster spot"

During her first UCI race, Hannah mentioned to me that after the start, she was stuck behind a big crash and lost many positions, which ended up being a struggle for the rest of the race. I gave her a spoiler alert: in a cyclocross race, there will ALWAYS be a tricky section where people will mess up on the first lap and create a big cluster. How do we get around that initial crash then? By preparing for it. 

Before the race, Hannah and I pre-rode the course together and we identified that first technical section on which we thought the first pile-up would happen. Hannah was able to successfully prepare for it during the race and she committed to running that section, rather than riding into the cluster and then being forced to dismount. 

 The first technical section of the race was a muddy and tricky off camber. 

The first technical section of the race was a muddy and tricky off camber. 

 "I knew this section was coming, so I got off the bike quickly and started running. This allowed me to pass a few girls, which was a great confidence boost in the race!" - Hannah Bauer

"I knew this section was coming, so I got off the bike quickly and started running. This allowed me to pass a few girls, which was a great confidence boost in the race!" - Hannah Bauer

Give yourself a chance

Sometimes, we don't achieve the result we were hoping for and we can be pretty hard on ourselves. But a disappointing result doesn't necessarily mean we did a poor performance. It's important to give ourselves a chance and make an effort to find what we did well during the race. This will help to build confidence and make bigger improvements. When I asked Hannah what had gone well, she said that she was able to achieve one of the simple goals she had set for herself: "I was looking up ahead during the whole race which helped me prepare better for what was coming. I even passed many people on the first tricky section, because I saw it coming and I was ready!". 

 "I had a GREAT start which enabled me to stay mid pack during the first lap. This also allowed me to have a clear mind and stay very focused." - Hannah Bauer

"I had a GREAT start which enabled me to stay mid pack during the first lap. This also allowed me to have a clear mind and stay very focused." - Hannah Bauer

 " Sometimes I'm pretty hard on myself for not being "better", but it's critical for me to remember that I really haven't been going at this for too long and to find the positive things I have been able to achieve." - Hannah Bauer

" Sometimes I'm pretty hard on myself for not being "better", but it's critical for me to remember that I really haven't been going at this for too long and to find the positive things I have been able to achieve." - Hannah Bauer

These simple tricks are not rocket science. They are actually pretty basic steps, but they help us feel in control of what we are doing and help reduce the stress before a race. Even if I've been racing for a long time, I always keep these in mind when I'm preparing for a cyclocross event.

Once the weekend was done, Hannah told me that following this plan and keeping these pointers in mind gave her a structure and helped her  know what to concentrate her mind on during the weekend.

Good luck for your next event!