One of the many things I love about Cyclocross is the continuous problem solving that is required for competitive success. On the road you have tactics and training. In road racing equipment counts for something (and setting aside tactics) but the person with the stronger legs nearly always prevails.
Cyclocross has a nearly infinite number of inputs. Fitness matters but bike handling skills, equipment selection and preparation and experience play a more important role than perhaps any other cycling discipline. When you add in the literally infinite combination of courses and conditions the equation enters the realm of calculus.
Go to a track or road race and you will see nearly all of the riders on trainers warming up while sipping their chosen drink mix from a water bottle. At a cross race you may see riders some riders on trainers while others are spraying their bike frames with PAM cooking spray and their drive trains with de-icer before heading to the start line.
In Cyclocross the topic of tire tread patterns and tire pressure stirs strong emotions and sparks endless debate. The skill set for bike handling on dry grass corners is separate from the skills required to pilot your rig through muddy turns. Knowing when and how to dismount can mean the difference between finishing on the podium and finishing in the pack.
Each race adds to the saddle bag of knowledge. It is only through an accumulation of countless, “Whoa, THAT didn’t work” experiences that you begin to gain valuable Cyclocross wisdom. Sometimes the learning relates to equipment, other times the subject of the lesson is clothing, bike handling, tactics, training or even nutrition.
Much of the learning is counter-intuitive and must be actively implemented to become habit. Shifting your weight on the bike to corner faster only comes with practice and time. Trusting your tires to stick takes a faith that does not come naturally. Continuing to pedal as you approach a corner even though you know you will be braking in a fraction of a second seems pointless until you do it in a race.
When the pros are racing I try to watch and learn from every aspect of the event. I’ll talk to the pro mechanics before the race to gain some equipment tips. I will watch what the pros are wearing when they warm up as well as when they race and take note of all the little things. Watching a pro ride with a rear fender during warm up laps to keep the wet mud off his butt inspired me to drop $13 on a clip on fender.
I’ll use a different lube on my chain for early season races when the courses are dry and a thicker lube when the conditions turn muddy. I’ll try and anticipate the conditions and bring the proper tires. I study the photos of the pro bikes to spot things like using a section of old inner tube to keep water from entering my frame at the seat collar.
I am generally happy to dispense what I have learned with friends and teammates. A couple years ago I had another rider dismiss my suggestions. He was convinced running his tires at 65-75 psi was the way to be fast. I thought back on the price I had paid to gain my knowledge. The races where the bumps had almost knocked my teeth loose and the off camber at Evergreen Elementary where anyone running over 34psi in their tires slid out. I knew I was right but he didn’t want to listen.
I looked at the newbie and his dangerous combination of enthusiasm and over confidence. I couldn’t deny him the learning experience that was waiting for him.