Europeans like Martin Bina and Sven Nys hit the road and trails during the summer. © Jo Croonenberghs

Europeans like Martin Bina and Sven Nys hit the road and trails during the summer. © Jo Croonenberghs

In Issue 27, Michael van den Ham looked inward to strike the balance that we must all find before cycling begins to feel more like work than fun. Because only the very few of us have the time/motivation/genes to spend over forty hours a week on our bikes, those looking to excel for the cyclocross season might look to maximize their gains this summer by making every hour count. Van den Ham reaches out to coaches in North America to answer the question: Is it better to spend your weekends training for cyclocross, or should riders hunt out different disciplines for racing?

by Michael van den Ham

Historically, almost all of the top cyclocross racers in North America have balanced a road or mountain bike season with their muddy exploits later in the fall. However, this trend seems to be changing. Just this past year, National Champion Jeremy Powers (Aspire Racing) and Pro CX Series Champion Jamey Driscoll (Raleigh-Clement) stepped back from their professional road contracts to focus on their respective cyclocross careers. Similarly, at the top end of the Women’s field Meredith Miller (Noosa Professional Cyclocross) and Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) have both opted to focus almost exclusively on ’cross over the past number of seasons.

While the luxury of racing only cyclocross evades most other professional athletes in the Elite field, the amateur cyclist usually doesn’t face this same challenge. Thus my question: If you are solely focused on cyclocross in the fall, should you spend time racing a road or mountain bike in the summer?

To help me answer this question, I’ve sat down with Shaun Adamson of Cycle-Smart Solutions for Cycling and Bill Elliston of Elliston Coaching. Both Elliston and Adamson coach a variety of cyclocross, road, and mountain-bikers, both have raced cyclocross at a high level and both have established themselves as two of the top cyclocross coaches in North America.

The short answer, they both agree, is a resounding yes. You should race in the summer. Almost all cyclocross athletes, including the European superstars living across the pond, do some form of road or mountain bike racing: Sven Nys always races a handful of road and mountain races in the summer; Powers’ schedule included the Transylvania Epic and Catamount Pro XCT on the knobbies and the Tulsa Tough and NorthStar Grand Prix on the skinnies; Driscoll raced on XC circuit throughout the season; Katie Compton has been known to race mountain bike marathons throughout the summer; and  Meredith Miller still races on the tarmac from time to time after her professional road retirement.

OK, so we should race in the summer. The questions remain: Why and how should we race? Both Elliston and Adamson explain that road or mountain bike racing in the summer is an integral part of getting ready for the ’cross season. Elliston explains, “while being able to train specifically is a huge benefit, I am a fan of the [idea that] the best training is racing. Doing some racing before your priority season helps in get you into the proper mindset, and pushes yourself physically in ways you sometimes can’t achieve in training.”

“It can even help with the seemingly simple, mundane, or forgotten parts of racing; like double checking your equipment to ensure its reliability, or having your race bag packed with all the necessities.”

Adamson adds, “Most people need something to focus on. [You need] stepping stones in your build for the season.” Racing throughout the summer provides those continual incentives we need to stay on top of training and diet throughout the off-season.

Just because you are racing in the summer doesn’t mean you need to be at top speed during that time span. Adamson elaborates, “I probably wouldn’t be trying to peak during the road season. Depending on how my preparation was going, I would start racing sometime in May with the bulk of my racing in July before I start my final prep for ’cross season.”

What about those of us who are required or choose to race a full road or mountain bike season that extends into late summer? The unfortunate reality is that our ’cross season will be negatively affected.

A long race season can compromise an athlete’s recovery and motivation. Elliston explains that recovery and motivation “are linked pretty directly to each other: without periods of recovery — both shorter periods, in terms of single days off per week, to longer periods of a week or more from time to time — there is no way to keep the motivation fresh. Without motivation, recovery takes longer, and each deficit fuels the other.”

On top of that, Cyclocross requires a specific build period that can become impossible if you are always racing. Adamson tells us that athletes who race into August or September are “likely to either be missing base or be too tired because they are either worn out from racing or haven’t been able to train because they have been racing or travelling.”

Elliston adds, “without the time to step back and take a bit of a break and recover, followed by the opportunity to train and rebuild some of what’s been ignored since spring, as well as work actual specifics for ’cross, the season will definitely be affected for the worse.   That’s not to say the cyclocross season can’t be managed to a degree with a ‘Band-Aid’ approach, but it will still keep you from realizing your full potential.”

Do you race in the summer if you are looking to peak for ’cross? The short answer is “yes,” the long answer is more along the lines of “only as a part of your season plan.” Ultimately, racing in the summer should be structured to contribute to your fall fitness, not detracts from it. This varies a lot from person to person. It comes down to how your body reacts to different training stress and where your strengths and weaknesses as a cyclist lie.

In other words, if you are serious about being the best you can for ’cross, you should be planning out your racing schedule this summer in preparation for fall, or better yet, if it’s within this year’s racing budget, plan it alongside your coach. For more information about coaching, you can find details of two of the many cyclocross coaching programs at Cycle-Smart Solutions for Cycling and Elliston Coaching.