The Cyclocross Experience: A Conversation with Tom Pidcock

It’s been a spectacular year for Ineos Grenadiers’ multi-disciplined athlete Tom Pidcock. A successful spring classics campaign was highlighted by a win at Brabanste Pijl and a photo-finish second place at Amstel Gold. He then transitioned to mountain bike at the Albstadt World Cup, finishing fifth from the back of the start grid. Next, Pidcock won World Cup number two in Nové Město. Finally in July, he capped off “mountain bike season” with Olympic Gold in Tokyo.

After a late start to the cyclocross season (being as he raced the Vuelta and road Worlds), Pidcock took two wins and three podiums in the six Worlds Cups he started. On the heels of these steady performances, Pidcock heads to Arkansas Worlds as one of the clear favorites.

Challenge recently sat down with Pidcock to talk about cyclocross, his career, Worlds and tires.

We wondered how cyclocross compared to Pidcock’s other disciplines. His answer? It’s the hardest discipline.

“The other day someone asked me, ‘What’s the hardest discipline?’ 100% it’s cyclocross,” said Pidcock. “There isn’t even any argument. I mean: the intensity, the focus, the weather, the mental sort of drain if you like. You spend a whole day. You eat just for the race. You do a full gas warm-up yourself. Then you add the weather and the intensity.”

“Four races in five days [for Kerstperiode]. I’d say that’s harder than any five-day stage race on the road. That’s for sure,” said Pidcock.

As sport evolves, it tends to require more, not less, specialization. However, Pidcock and his generation (van Aert and van der Poel) seem to be proving just the opposite. They are not only competing in multiple disciplines, but rising to the top in each.

When discussing his long term goals, Pidcock made it clear that he is not interested in specialization. “World Champion in each discipline. That’s probably my biggest goal,” said Pidcock. “I want to achieve, you know, everything there is to achieve. Well, not everything. I want to be seen, at some point, as the best rider in each of the disciplines.”

Even considering Pidcock’s extreme amount of talent, it’s still a balancing act for Pidcock to bring his best form to each discipline: “I race more, so I need more time off, but I kind of don’t have time for time off. That’s the most difficult thing, I think. It’s just about picking the targets and then giving myself time to prepare.”

All in all, the positives outweigh the challenges. “I like the fact that at different times of the year, it keeps me with an objective,” said Pidcock. “Sometimes I envy the winter that the road riders have, but it’s also nice to have a shorter term target I can concentrate on.”

Of the disciplines, Pidcock finds the transition to cyclocross is most challenging and takes longer. “The hardest thing for me is to be at my best in cyclocross. I think cross for me is the hardest discipline,” said Pidcock. “It’s the most about raw power. You know, I’m obviously, physically lighter than a lot of people, so I don’t have as much [raw power]. It takes longer, a lot longer, for me to be at my best in cross. I’m often into the season, towards Worlds, and then I start to peak.”

The keys to being a good cross rider? “They need to be fast and explosive and have good technical skills to be a good cross rider,” said Pidcock.

Pidcock went on to explain these skills as being more nuanced and subtle than one might think. “Actually, cross riding is mainly about micro skills,” said Pidcock. “Bunny hopping and getting the bike on your shoulder [macro skills]—everyone’s pretty similar about that.”

Pidcock further describes micro skills as “the feeling you get with the bike to be able to go around the corners as fast as we do with the grip that we have. That is the thing that takes everyone a little bit of time to get used to at the start of the season, even the best riders.”

“I think my strength is really my fitness. Then my weakness is probably my raw power like in deep, deep mud,” said Pidcock. Befitting his stronger power-to-weight as compared to raw power, he prefers climbing courses. He named both Namur and Hulst as his favorite tracks. In terms of courses at home in the U.K., Pidcock gave a shout out to Peel Park as a favorite venue. (Spoiler: it’s steep and slippery.)

Pidcock’s favorite course conditions? “This year I have been performing on the dry courses more than I have wet, but normally I’m better in the wet, so I’m not sure, probably wet I would say: slippy, technical wet,” said Pidcock.

Personally, Pidcock chose Grifo as his go-to favorite tire. He explained they are his most-often used tread. However, when discussing tire selection for newer riders, his advice was to buy Limus as one’s first tire: “Limus, for sure. Because you can ride everything with that, so if you are a new rider, you want one tire that can do everything. You also want the most grip if you are a novice.”

Pidcock and fellow professionals overcame their own tire selection challenges at the recent Val di Sole World Cup, which was intentionally contested on snow. Mechanics, riders, and directors rely on years of acquired knowledge regarding tire selection for various soil types. Comparatively, they have relatively little experience selecting tires for snow. “Well, that’s the thing, I think nobody really knew what to ride,” explained Pidcock.

Pidcock chose to race on Chicanes because of the feeling they gave him during preride. “In practice, I was struggling a little bit, not really feeling so comfortable,” said Pidcock. “The last lap, I switched to Chicanes, and then I just suddenly found a nice rhythm. We were like, ‘That’s it, we like this.”

In the lead-up to the World Championships in the United States, we asked Pidcock to reflect on the state of the discipline. Is cyclocross growing?

“Well, I think it’s growing,” said Pidcock. “I mean, the UCI, controversially, have changed the way the World Cup works with more rounds in more countries. I think that’s their effort to try to help globalize the sport, especially in regards to trying to get it in the Olympics. The World Champs in America: I think it shows that it’s becoming more global again.”

However, Pidcock acknowledged that internationalizing cyclocross is a big ask: “I think it’s a difficult job. I mean, [cyclocross] does such a good business in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s going to take a while for it to grow and become like that elsewhere.”

Even though the U.S. has hosted World Cup rounds since 2015, Worlds will actually be Pidcock’s first trip to the U.S. to race bikes.

Pidcock expressed a bit of regret that van Aert and van der Poel are not also making the trip. Asked if a World’s win would be less meaningful in their absence, Pidcock replied: “That is the biggest issue with them not being there. I mean, I think that is always going to be the problem with whoever wins, which is sad.”

While naturally Pidcock and his team have reviewed the World’s course via video, he looks forward to “experiencing it myself properly when I get there.”

By the time you read this, Pidcock will be on the ground in Arkansas and Worlds will be just around the corner. We wish him the best of luck!