Why Triathletes Should Try Cyclocross

Fellow triathletes, we need to have a talk about our cycling.

When we transition out of the peak of triathlon racing season, lots of athletes turn to single-sport racing or focused blocks. We here have our 100/100 Run Challenge. We also do swim blocks and focuses. But more often than not, when we talk about what we’re going to do for a cycling block or focus, we see a gravitational pull toward Zwift, TrainerRoad, or otherwise solitary endeavors.

It’s time for that to change.

We as athletes have gotten good at cracking the code behind training ourselves to improve power. We’ve gotten really good at figuring out bike fit and optimizing positions on board. And there’s, of course, equipment choice optimization: what’s the best saddle, tire, wheel, etc. combination to deliver you to your best bike split. But there’s a few bike skills that we simply can’t work on indoors – bike handling, accelerations and decelerations out of corners, technical descending, quickly mounting and dismounting your bike, and more.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t want to ride with my local road group.” Although most of them are friendlier than the old tropes would suggest, I also understand your hesitation. Whether it’s the rise of distracted driving, or the overall risk of injury of riding in a group on asphalt, there’s always risk associated with going on a group ride. And you have to assess whether that risk is worth it to you. But, what if I told you that you could develop some of these skills in a less risky environment? You’d jump at it, right?

It’s time to talk about cyclocross.

The phrase “‘cross is boss” exists for a reason. It’s stupid fun. Speeds are significantly slower than riding on the road. Falling hurts less. Trust me. I speak from experience.

ou can be as competitive or non-competitive within a race as you desire. Races typically last somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes (unless you’re in one of the higher categories). You can often race multiple times in the same day. And it’s very grassroots, connected community – the way many long-time athletes remember triathlon being like.

Don’t just take my word for it, though: many high performance triathlon coaches talk about the benefits of cyclocross. Kurt Perham, a USAT Level III certified coach and owner of Personal Best Multisport, says, “Cyclocross is perfect for the aspiring triathlete as it combines a lot of things that we don't practice in our normal training: sprinting, high speed cornering in varying terrain, flying mounts and dismounts and lastly ‘pain tolerance.’ There is a reason it’s called ‘pure sweet hell’ for a reason. Lastly, if you only raced 3-5 triathlons all summer, it delays the onset of loss of overall fitness until well into the fall. If I had my choice, all of my athletes would race cyclocross.”

Professional triathletes are also likely to turn up at a cyclocross event, too – look out here at this video from a local (to me) event, Secret Squirrel CX.

From an equipment standpoint, ‘cross is also less likely to punish your wallet. If you’re willing to ride an older cantilever style braked bike, you’re in the game for under $1500. If you’re like me and want disc brakes, The Pro’s Closet has a great selection of bikes in-stock currently that go from $1800 to $2500 (and well beyond, if that fits your fancy). For myself, I wound up pinking out a very pink Trek Crockett with a single-speed chainring. This has become my go-to ride outside this fall – whether commuting, training rides on the road, or ‘cross specific work on the trail I’ve cut in the yard.

The other real investment comes in shoes and pedals. You ride a mountain bike style shoe and pedal for cyclocross, and that shoe also needs to be comfortable enough for you to do run-ups and barrier hopping. I go slightly off the wall, preferring a Shimano XC shoe but a Crank Brothers Candy pedal. The Candy offers clip-in on both sides of the pedal, and also rides well in the event that you simply can’t find the cleat. Meanwhile, Shimano shoes simply fit my feet well, regardless of application.

And that’s pretty much it! You then simply go find yourself some races (either unsanctioned or buy a USAC license at that point), and go to town. It’s some of the most fun you’ve ever had on a bike, and will make you infinitely more confident as a bike handler when it comes back to triathlon season next year.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1, Kelly Burns Gallagher
Photo 2, Katie Busick
Photo 3, The Pro's Closet