Johnson cheers during hot laps. © Neil Schirmer

Johnson cheers during hot laps. © Neil Schirmer

by Neil Schirmer

Our annual vacation to visit family and friends in and around Boulder was inadvertently blessed by the cycling gods this year.  The USA Pro Challenge is winding its way through the state around us, and Pete Webber scheduled the first stop of a national clinic tour with Tim Johnson at Valmont Bike Park in Boulder on the Saturday after we arrived.

After attending a similar pre-season, all-day clinic a few years back, I know that this is a great way to kickstart the season: blow the dust off of the dismount/remount, get my mind back into cyclocross racing mode, and in this case, learn a thing or two from several current and former national champions.

This year’s expectations are different from previous years.  After settling into local masters racing for a few years, I’ve noticed that the fields are relatively deep and strong, with a large number of guys having similar engines and skill. The differences between fifth place and 20th place don’t feel that large, so the little things seem to matter more. This year I’m trying to narrow my focus and practice some of those little things with more purpose. With this clinic, I was looking to come away with a specific idea or ideas to help me focus, a cyclocross mantra to help when the going gets tough.

Valmont Bike Park—I could go on at length about this outstanding resource, but I’ll spare you. (Make sure you’re subscribed to CXM for Issue 22’s feature on Valmont.) Go look it up, and if you ever get the chance to ride there, don’t pass it up.  Let’s just say that the venue for the clinic is perfectly suited for a day of cyclocross instruction with purpose-built stairs, flowing single-track, and pump tracks (among other features) scattered throughout a property dedicated to bikes.

After self-selection into A, B, and C groups by ability level, everyone scattered and began specific instructional sessions with different coaches in smaller groups with their peers. After a good hour or more of instruction in a given topic, the groups would rotate and work with a different coach or coaches. With several years of racing experience, I put myself into the advanced group and went off to practice dismounts and re-mounts with clinic coach Greg Keller.

Greg spent a nice amount of time breaking down the entire sequence and explaining why he was teaching it. As most people practice these days, step-through dismount technique was discouraged, and he gave some nice thoughts to remember as we take what we learned to practice on our own, like “popping” off the pedal when stepping off the bike, and trying to visualize staying “buttery” smooth throughout the sequence.

The groups continued to rotate to different coaches, and my group hit cornering and handling with Pete Webber next. This is where being at Valmont was really special! After getting some basic instruction, we got to roll around the park playing follow-the-leader on some really fun terrain.  We hit a bunch of excellent, flowing single-track with optional built-in features like drop-offs, berms, and “whoop-de-do” sections, then got to roll around a pump track to really hammer the lessons home.

The highlight of the clinic was the sand session.  This is where my group happened to rotate into the coaching duo of Michael Robson and Tim Johnson.  Sand continues to be a weakness that I don’t get to work on much, so having a whole chunk of time dedicated to learning and practicing this skill had me giddy.  Again, Valmont shined as we headed over to The Sand Pit – a 50-75 meter long area which can be used for practice and incorporated into races held at the park. The Colorado “sand” was not what I was used to, it looked and felt closer to pea gravel, but all of the lessons still applied.  After some more basic instruction, we spent some quality time putting the skills to use, and seeing Tim power through the stuff effortlessly was a nice firsthand demonstration, leaving a nice picture in my mind to try and emulate.  We were regaled with stories (or in my case, nightmares) of Koksijde races through endless sand in between drills.  Good times were had by all!

The end of the day included some start practice, some hot laps, and finally some Q&A.  I was really lucky to find my way into this clinic, because it ended up giving me just what I happened to be looking for this pre-season. The teaching style that Pete and company were using was a series of bullet point fundamentals that could be easily remembered, even under pressure.  As a matter of fact, one of the coaches even described one of the ideas as a “mantra” we should employ for particular skill.  I’d love to provide some useful criticism to give the coaches or folks who are considering this clinic in the next few weeks, but I’m honestly hard-pressed to find fault. The learning style may not be suited for everyone as well as it was suited for me, and I don’t think one necessarily needs to spend money to get a lot out of a clinic near you.  Almost everyone should have free clinics going on near them if there’s any kind of cyclocross racing in your area, and I encourage folks to attend those, especially if you’re new to the sport.In fact, check out CXM’s piece on planning your own clinic here.

If you can afford the cost and time to attend one of the clinics being conducted with the pros, you should go for it!  If nothing else, it’s a memorable experience, and seeing the best doing their thing in person can’t be replicated. And you never know, you may come away with a race-winning mantra stuck in your head.