Cyclocross: How to ride different terrains
This entry was posted on August 7, 2013.
It could be said that beyond fitness, knowing how to ride varying surface conditions is the keystone to racing cyclocross. Most courses will have more than one type of terrain, and no two courses are the same. I like to call it terrain management, and it's what we'll discuss here.
Terrains you'll encounter in cyclocross
Pavement is usually limited in cyclocross but is often used for start/finish lines if it is part of the course. That is because pavement is good for sprinting at the start, for the hole-shot or at the finish. Some caution needs to be taken when transitioning onto pavement; there can be a false sense of security that you will have gobs of grip because it's pavement, but if your tire tread is packed with mud or similar, you may not have as much traction as you may expect.
Hard pack is very common terrain in CX. These sections are usually easier and are a time to either recover a little if the previous section was exceptionally difficult or turn on the jets and gain some ground. Usually this a good spot to pass if you need to get around someone, or you may need to block someone if they're trying to pass.
Rough sections, generally rough hard pack, are areas that appear flat or nearly flat but are quite difficult to keep speed on. The reason is that they make it hard to stay in the saddle and crank out the power. These sections can severely sap your energy, so make sure to pace yourself through these sections. Control can also be an issue. Putting your hands in the drops will allow a more secure grip on the bars if your ability to hold onto the bars is coming into question.
Sand slows you down, it's hard to pedal in, and it's harder to turn in. The trick to most sand sections is hitting the section as fast as comfortably possible and try to plow through. Many times you will end up running longer sandy sections; you will want to plan ahead to either run from the start to keep momentum through the section by running or get a fast dismount before stalling out completely. Riding in other riders' tracks can help out as well. This means the sand your tires travel through is not as deep. Shallower sand is usually quite rideable, then keeping speed up and turning are the challenges.
Dust over crust is a term for areas that have a solid foundation with something soft on the surface, like a gravel road with loose gravel littering the surface or sand on hard pack. Often these sections can be ridden quite quickly, but cornering traction isn't usually the best. It can be a little more difficult to ride in a straight line, as well, as the depth of the "dust" can vary. Ride it like normal, and be cautious through the corners.
Mud offers many challenges and is a defining characteristic of late-season (usually wetter) cyclocross. Cross racers love mud, but mud clings to everything, makes your bike noisy and can gunk up the bike enough to cause some loss of function like decreased braking or hard shifting. There's also decreased traction through the mud and after the section if it's sticking to your tires. Always be careful of paved sections following muddy sections. The biggest challenge of mud is that it is hard to pedal through, and if you carry enough of it with you around the course it makes the rest of the course more difficult, too.
Deep/heavy mud... know what's on the bottom. Some mud sections are almost impossible to ride through. You'll hit the section and the mud is thick enough that it will stop the front wheel. You can imagine the rest. Running this could be interesting, too... like if you exit the mud pit minus a shoe.
Ride through others' tracks, watch out for slippery ruts, and try not to get bogged down. Keep the front light to float over the mud and the back heavy to get traction on the rear tire. Good mud tires help greatly for handling this type of mud. It may be faster to run some of these sections if they are exceedingly long. This is the type of mud that usually sticks to everything, so a backup bike and a friend with a hose are good strategy here, if possible.
Water is relatively harmless, but what's under the water may not be. Make sure you know what the water is hiding, whether it's hard pack, mud or something else. The same goes for running through water; you wouldn't want to trip and fall on a stick in the creek bed.
Snow is fun to ride in because the falls are usually softer. The biggest difficulty in snow is turning and any type of sloped terrain. Ride especially smooth in snow, brake early for corners, and be patient. Do what you need to keep from falling because falling takes a lot of time. Accelerations need to be smoother and more gradual to help keep from just spinning the rear wheel. You can think of snow like riding on wet, mud-covered grass... if the surface below is frozen and slick.
Ice is similar to snow, except it's always slippery and the falls aren't soft. Running is also difficult. Be cautious and ride safely. Straight lines are easier, but accelerations, stopping, turning, etc. can cause trouble. There's no easy solution to riding on ice; it's slippery. Avoid ruts or any sloped terrain that the tire can slide sideways on. Some frozen surfaces offer better traction than others; generally, the shinier the surface, the less traction there will be.
When to run instead of ride
If you can run a section faster than you can ride it, like in some sand or mud, it's probably a good time to run. This can also apply to spots where the difficult terrain is on a slope, like running up a sandy embankment. Usually, riding down sketchy terrain isn't bad, but if you can't stop at the bottom, running may be a reasonable alternative to crashing into barricades.
If there is congestion in a tight area and people are waiting to ride through, dismount and run by them, if possible. It's not uncommon if a large group comes flying in from a faster section to a slower section for a bottleneck to be created. This happens often in deep sand or mud sections; it may be time to perform a high-speed dismount and run past the people who are stalling out in the section and make them regret trying to ride it.
Sometimes it's faster to run a hill than to ride it, especially if it has sketchy traction form roots, rocks, etc. On steep hills where you're running out of gears and just grinding away, running may not be a bad option. If you're part-way up the hill and stall out or lose traction and end up running anyway, you may waste more time getting off the bike to start running than you would have if you started running from the start.
Special situations are something cyclocross brings to the game like no other cycling discipline. There will be times you may find it better or easier to run than to ride. Trial and error and experience come into play here. If there's been a low-speed crash, sometimes it's easier to dismount and run through the pile than to wait for the course to open back up. Let people know if you plan to hurdle them; you wouldn't want them standing up as you plan to leap over them.
If you ride a single speed, you should plan to run a little more since you'll stall out more often than someone who has many gears to choose from. If you race a fixie, you should plan to have mad running skills and to get many cheers for riding a fixie; you're out of your mind.
Practice a little running if you plan to be a person who's not afraid to get off the bike. It never hurts to be prepared in case you go to a race where you're unable to ride a lot of the course, like during a muddy race where you've forgotten the mud tires at home.