The offseason leaves many wondering whether to race on mountain bikes, road bikes or both. © Cyclocross Magazine

The offseason leaves many wondering whether to race on mountain bikes, road bikes or both. © Cyclocross Magazine

Several weeks ago, Michael van den Ham talked to Cycle-Smart’s Shaun Adamson and Elliston Coaching’s Bill Elliston about whether or not dedicated cyclocross athletes should be racing during the summer months.While the first article argued for spending the summer racing, this week’s article will help you decide whether you want to spend your summer on the tarmac, in the trails, or some combination of the two. (And for those looking to incorporate running training into their summer, don’t miss last week’s Technique Tuesday (Preparing for the Run) by Kenneth Lundgren).

by Michael van den Ham

Between criteriums, time trials, gravel grinders, cross-country races and XC marathons, there is no shortage of summer racing options for athletes to build their form before the cyclocross season. To complicate matters, there is also no shortage of high-level athletes who have raced one of more of the above and come into the Fall fitter than ever before.

One of those athletes is German-based Canadian cyclocross pro, Aaron Schooler. Over the past half-dozen years, Schooler has raced full road seasons and, more recently, a mountain bike season on route to cyclocross success. He has generously provided us with some of his personal insights into the advantages and disadvantages of each sport.

Before moving to Germany, Schooler spent six road seasons with the Canadian-based H&R Block team. Given the relatively short season available for Canadian roadies, managing a road and North American cyclocross season was never too difficult. “It meant that I’ve be flying at the beginning of the cyclocross season from all the criterium and road racing in July,” he reported.

However, even with this short season, the quantity of racing that road provides can be overwhelming. “I’ve always found on the West Coast, with BC Superweek immediately followed by the Cascade Cycling Classic, I’d end up getting a bit burnt out from all the travel and top-end racing. If any little thing went wrong, I would end up paying for it greatly later in the fall.”

After moving to Germany in 2014, Aaron broke from his regular road preparation and took up cross-country racing. While he experienced some technical benefits from all the off-road racing, Schooler cautions that mountain biking doesn’t provide “enough of the top-end suffering that you get from road racing or criteriums.”

“Last season I felt a bit flat going into the season. I always ended up starting really slow in cyclocross races and found I needed a few laps to really get my legs into the game. However, after a few laps the cyclocross race is already half over.”

This season, Schooler will use this knowledge to reap the benefits from both summer disciplines with the newly formed Will ProCycling Team. Aaron feels that a combination of the two will set him up better than ever for the fall: “The technical practice from MTB combined with the top end from road racing makes for a great prep for the cyclocross season.”

Both Cycle-Smart’s Shaun Adamson and Elliston Coaching’s Bill Elliston agree with much of what Schooler’s personal experience has taught him. Like Schooler, both Adamson and Elliston note the training benefits of racing primarily on the tarmac. Adamson explains, “I would race variety of road events, mostly because you can get the most training stress for the least amount of unwanted or unneeded additional physical stress. Road racing is less taxing on your body, but still gives you the training stress that you need for the cyclocross season.”

In the United States and Canada, Elliston notes that the transition from road to cyclocross is even more beneficial. In North America “where courses can tend to be a bit faster, road has a better transfer. Within that, I think technical criteriums and punchy, dynamic short-course circuit races are best. Courses that serve up repetitive terrain and speed changes while also necessitating the need to focus mentally offer the best transfer.”

However, both Adamson and Elliston are quick to add that this can change from athlete to athlete. Shaun explains that ultimately, for the cyclocross racer, summer racing should be about building fitness in the most manageable way possible. “Depending on location, what races you have access to, what the rest of your life looks like, and what you like to do, there is a place for just about everything. All the different types of racing could offer benefits.”

What about the technical aspect? Schooler felt his technical skills improved after a season of mountain biking. On this front, Adamson and Elliston differ slightly. Elliston advocates for the technical advantages of mountain biking. He notes, “Many riders who focus solely on road all season can tend to lack some of the handling and skills that mountain biking clearly offers. So try your hand at a few cross country races to help sharpen skills. It’s a great way to prepare.”

On the other hand, Adamson is hesitant to equate mountain biking with good technical skills. “Cyclocross,” he explains, “is a unique discipline and I would avoid a generalization like saying that mountain biking improves cornering.”

Despite this, he agrees that sticking solely to the tarmac throughout the summer could leave your cyclocross skills lacking in the fall. “Ideally, it would be good to ride your ’cross bike throughout the year, but I never seem to find the time for it. The biggest thing is to get your ’cross bike out in August, get training on it, and practice your skills at speed before the season starts. There are an abundance of ’cross camps, and seeking out an expert to hone your craft would be hugely helpful.”

At the end of the day, as each of these three individuals have shown, no single discipline provides the perfect transition to cyclocross. Part of what makes cyclocross special is the full set of skills that it requires. While there is no universal answer, racing a road season and mixing in select mountain bike events or cyclocross specific training appears to offer a winning strategy.