Ride It or Run It? The Cyclocrosser's Dilemma
Last weekend, Von Hof Cycles-equipped rider Kathryn Cumming organized and led a clinic at BubbleCross, where she discussed cornering, body position, dismounts and remounts. Choosing whether to run or ride a section, however, can be a more complicated topic, and can be considered an art form in cyclocross. Every rider has a different skill set, and each one has a different approach when riding a complicated section such as a rooty run-up, the sand pits or even the barriers. Cumming dives into the aspects every rider should consider when approaching these near-ride-able, certainly run-able obstacles.
by Kathryn Cumming
Cyclocross is known for its iconic run-ups, filling coffee table books with images of tired racers crawling up hillsides. Races, however, are more often decided on the seemingly less significant obstacles - the sections you are unsure if you should run or ride. During a race, it is not uncommon to see two competitors side-by-side with one riding and one running. While not limited to certain terrain features, this is most frequently seen on a steep climb, through a sand or mud pit or in an off-camber section.
These course features force racers to not only utilize power and skill, but also to make tactical decisions. Believe me, racing smart may sound simple, but when your heart rate is at 190 beats per minute mid-race, thinking can be nearly impossible. While it is not always easy to tackle this terrain, a thorough pre-ride and course analysis can simplify the decision making process come race time.
Approaching a course feature can be separated into two important factors: 1) Maintaining forward momentum and 2) Risk vs. reward. The more consistently you can clean an obstacle while carrying speed, the better you are going to race.
Consider the following four topics pre-race in order to make smart race decisions:
1) Can you consistently ride the obstacle?
If you are unable to cleanly clear a section during your pre-ride at least 90% of the time, it is probably not a good idea to attempt to ride it during the race. I see so many riders wait for the perfect conditions during their pre-ride, struggle with an obstacle, and still attempt to ride it during the chaos of a race. My guess is that many of these riders make the last-minute decision to give a section another go simply because they saw the leaders able to ride up the section. Don't worry about whether or not your competitors can ride the same feature. It's easy to get wrapped up in what others are doing, but if you ride within your limits, you will be surprised with how much energy you can save for other parts of the course.
Cyclocross decisions come down to risk vs. reward, and bobbling may lead to a total loss of forward momentum, costing you time and energy as you look to recover.
2) Where will bobbles and bottlenecks occur?
With the growth of cyclocross, many of us our consistently racing in fields of more than 50 competitors. This means more traffic on the course, particularly during the first lap.
During your pre-ride, look for sections that will most likely be backed up on lap one - difficult course features and tight corners are two examples. Rather than slowing down and waiting for others to take the best line, it is often a good idea to mentally commit to running these sections on the first lap. You can avoid an unexpected, last-second dismount and can easily adjust line choice on foot as traffic moves in front of you.
On subsequent laps, take survey of your competitors before entering the technical section. If you can ride it and they can't, look to make a pass ahead of time so you can take a clean line into the section. Similarly, if you cannot cleanly ride a section and are at risk of being gapped, it may be ideal to hit the section first, slowing your competitors as you dictate the pace. The takeaway here is that no matter what your ability is, the best places to burn your matches is usually the areas that force the run/ride decision making.
If you are sitting behind a competitor, give them some space heading into the corner. If you are right on their wheel, you will have no where to go in the event of a bobble, however, with a bike length or so of space you will be able to choose another line or smoothly dismount if need be.
3) What are your line options?
Technical course sections often have only one rideable line. Knowing this, you can decide to ride a section if you are alone on course, but can be prepared to run if you are in a group. Similarly, if you are unable to ride a section consistently, you may want to be the first to it so you can run the only rideable line. If you are the first to a feature, you get to pick your line - do not feel compelled to cede the line to another racer. Let me be as clear as I can with this: Cyclocross is not mountain biking or road racing, yet there are many riders who will treat it as such.
Phrases like "Hold your line" are shouted every so often. This can be amusing, especially when you know you have dialed a line in a corner, and the person behind you is unintentionally admitting to taking an inferior line choice, or one that might be better in a crit than a cyclocross race. In a similar vein, a runner never needs to give way to a chasing rider. The reality in the Elite races is quite the opposite, with racers turning their bikes sideways when running through the sand or holding the bike out as far as possible when jumping the barriers to stifle the sand-riders and bunny-hoppers behind.
You will also want to look at upcoming course sections. Is there a climb right after you exit the sandpit? Will you only be able to ride this if you're already clipped in? If so, your best bet is to stay on the bike when possible and carry your forward momentum into the next obstacle.
4) What are your personal strengths?
Do you hate running and struggle to get back up to speed on the remount? If so, you may want to consider staying on the bike as much as possible.
I tend to benefit from a course which includes running. I find my legs feel less heavy after a run than following a steep, low cadence climb. Because of this, I favor running a tricky section and have more energy in my legs to accelerate after I remount.
Listen to your body and race to your strengths, but also keep your weaknesses in mind and train these to expand your skillset and options.
Most importantly, remember, cyclocross is a race! When deciding how to tackle a course feature, keep in mind that you are rewarded for how quickly you complete it relative to your competitors. Riding the run-up may look cool, but if you can run it faster, you are going to have better results in the end.