With winter just around the corner, it’s cyclocross season! Challenge reached out to some authorities in the discipline to find out just what makes cyclocross unique.

If there’s anyone in the position to compare cycling disciplines, it’s Tom Pidcock. After all, he’s the reigning Olympic mountain bike champion, World Champion in cyclocross, and won the Alpe d’Heuz in the 2023 Tour de France.

Last year, Challenge asked ‘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.”

Ilenia Lazzaro is a three-time Italian National Cyclocross Champion and television commentator for Eurosport, Discovery Plus, and GCN. She agrees with Pidcock: “Cyclocross is an extremely tough discipline,” said Lazzaro. “In one hour, you give everything. It's unpredictable and we like it for this reason! The fact that it is raced in winter (in varied conditions) makes the athletes seem epic, like legends of cycling past.”

We have agreement that the discipline is uncommonly hard, but what does it take to succeed in it?

Finesse and Micro Skills

It’s tempting to oversimplify cyclocross by focusing on the off-the-bike skills, but Pidcock cautions against this: “Actually, cross riding is mainly about micro skills. Yeah, there’s bunny-hopping and getting the bike on your shoulder and everything, but everyone’s pretty similar at that. The biggest skills are 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.”

Because of the power and technical requirements of cyclocross, Pidcock finds it the discipline that requires the most preparation.

“The hardest thing for me is to be at my best in cyclocross,” said Pidcock. “Of the disciplines, it’s the most about raw power. I’m physically lighter than a lot of people, so I don’t have as much raw power. It takes longer for me to be at my best in cross.”

There’s also dialing the ability to corner at low tire pressures. “That is the thing that takes everyone a little bit of time to get used to, you know, at the start of the season, even the best riders,” said Pidcock.

Lead or Follow

It can be challenging for the casual viewer to interpret cyclocross tactics since they are a bit different from the road.

For example, the choice of when to follow (draft) versus lead in cyclocross is a strategic one.

“Drafting is effective when you have stretches of asphalt and you want to catch your breath a bit,” said Lazzaro. “It can help you to keep the pace higher than you could maintain on your own.”

Canadian National Champion Michael van den Ham adds one must weigh the risk of getting dropped when choosing to follow: “I will follow anywhere I am sure I won’t get gapped because of corners or features. That's typically any long straight, especially if that straight is preceded or followed by turns that are fast enough so that no gaps form coming out of them.”

If there is a risk of being “gapped off” or falling back, the rider will make a tactical choice to lead.

“I prefer to lead at any point on the course where the ‘accordion effect’ [group stretches and gaps form] is possible, ” said Van den Ham. “That might be a series of tight corners or a challenging section where there is a good chance someone makes a mistake.”

Lazzaro adds, “It is always good to stay in front and lead in the more technical sections, to be able to choose the right lines.”

If one has to follow into a technical section, it’s best to leave a bit of a buffer in front of you. “If you are behind, it is better to maintain a few meters of gap from the rider in front to be able to correct trajectory errors, falls, etc. of those in front of you, “ said Lazzaro.

Riding to Strengths, Minimizing Weaknesses

Riders who understand their strengths and weaknesses can use tactics to their advantage.

For example, Van den Ham manages a weakness by leading. “One of my weaknesses is features that have a lot of accelerations from a slow speed, so I generally try to lead into these,” said Van den Ham. “That way I can control how snappy the acceleration out of them is.”

Riders will use course preride (recon) as an opportunity to learn the track and plan how to use their personal skill set. However, this plan needs to be flexible.

“Normally during track recon, it is possible to understand what the weak and strong points are in that particular track,” said Lazzaro. “Riders start with a basic idea, but cyclocross is a situational. Riders must also think quickly and change approach/tactics based on how things turn out, how the track changes, or their sensations during the race.”

USCX Series Winner, Canadian Maghalie Rochette, agrees that flexibility is key.

“I try to go with an open mind and a focus on awareness, rather than a plan,” said Rochette. “I try to pay attention to how other riders are riding a section. If they are faster than me, I adapt to their lines. So yeah, I might go into a race planning to run a section because I’ve determined it’s smart to do so, but I trust my instincts and my skills. I try to just ride how I feel is fastest at each moment of the race.”

The Art of Pitting

Cyclocross has another wrinkle that is not present in all disciplines: a pit for strategic bike changes. Riders rely on their pit crew to be ready to help them to make best use of the pit. Communication with the crew is key, and it’s not always easy in the heat (and noise) of a race.

Lazzaro explains: “Since there are no radios, communication with the pit staff is only visual and vocal. All the athletes talk to their staff on the circuit, anticipating their entry into the pit zone even half a lap earlier.”

Riders might communicate a tentative pitting plan to their crew before the race. Based on conditions, they might predict how often they will pit, which pit they prefer to use, and the gear the bike should be in when handed off.

Rochette’s crew is led by her husband and coach David Gagnon. “We talk about pitting before the race, including if we think the conditions might change,” said Rochette. “But then during the race if I feel like I’m struggling with traction, I’ll tell David what I need one half lap before coming in to change.”

As we edge into November, the cyclocross season promises to get all the more exciting. The first major jersey of the season is to be awarded at the European Championships this coming weekend in Pont-Château, France. We hope you tune in to watch riders Challenge for the title.

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