XC racing has come into the public spotlight with Tom Pidcott’s Olympic gold at the end of July 2021. It’s undeniable that the 21-year-old has an incredible level of fitness and outstanding bike handling skills.
But it takes more than optimum fitness to succeed at XC racing. There are some more nuanced skills that riders need to master XC racing.
I raced XC from 2010-2015, competing in most of the National Cross Country Series in the Expert category, with a few podiums at that level. I learnt a lot from watching the best elite riders in the UK and from that I’ve drawn out 5 of the most important skills for mastering this discipline.
Rhythm and flow
In a few national XC and cyclocross races I’ve been lapped by the lead rider. As embarrassing as it is at the time, it’s a good opportunity to observe how they ride. Despite knowing that they are riding at least 10% quicker than me, the smooth, seemingly effortless riding style gives the impression I’d be able to keep up (which I couldn’t!).
In order to ride a race like this, we can aspire to a state of flow, (an idea which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularised). This is the feeling of being relaxed, while immersed in the experience, despite the physical and mental demands. For every rider the experience will be different, but the outcome will be the same. You will feel connected with the result of the race.
In order to relax while riding at a very hard intensity, you need to train for the specific demands of XC racing. If you have an area of weakness (for me it was short punchy climbs), then you need to train this specifically so you are mentally and physically prepared.
With multiple laps and plenty of opportunities to practise, you can memorise the course and find a rhythm which will make you feel like every pedal stroke, every feature, is leading you to the finish. You can then structure the race tactically, helping you to feel connected with the result. Personally, I like to have a beat in my head, maybe a song I’ve been listening to. For others it may be focussing on breathing or the sound of your tyres.
Focus is something you can control in an XC race. Being able to switch your attention from one area to another will help you to negotiate specific technical and physical challenges. Again, helping you to feel connected and in control of the result.
The start of an XC race can make or break your finish. Particularly with large fields.
You need a good starting technique: selecting the right gear, clipping in quickly then responding to the start pistol instantly. In some races there may only be a few hundred metres before the first section of singletrack where overtaking is problematic, if not impossible.
When I started racing I had good muscle power, so I could comfortably get in the top 10 in the first few hundred metres. But I struggled to hold that position in the first technical section, as I would be working far too hard and was prone to making mistakes. Instead of going all out for the first 1-2mins, I would target the position I was aiming for at the end of the first lap, allowing me more time to make up places.
Pedal with your arms and legs!
This might sound strange, but in XC racing you need to use your whole body to maintain momentum through rough uphill or flat sections.
While it’s normally most efficient to pedal from a seated position, there will be sections of trail where you need to be more dynamic. Floating slightly above the bike, somewhere between a sitting and standing position. By using both your arms and legs to support your body, the bike will be able to move more freely and roll over obstacles more easily.
This movement will also allow you to pedal through short sections of loose ground or step up features without losing traction. Sometimes, it will be the only way of negotiating uphill technical features without dismounting.
In order to learn how to do this, you may need to use a harder gear, which will help to support your body weight, maintain smooth pedalling and avoid the wheels slipping when pedalling hard.
However, it’s important to be measured with this technique, in some instances it can save energy by reducing rolling resistance, but using your whole body like this will expend more energy than seated pedalling and quickly drive your heart rate up.
XC has moved on over the last few years and some of the descending sections in the UCI XCO World Series races don’t look too dissimilar from enduro races in terms of technical demands of the course:
But with the endurance demand of a continuous effort at close to your aerobic limit for over 1.5hrs, XC requires a very different approach to descending.
Total energy expenditure over the race duration is a key factor. Descents are usually short, interspersed with sections of very hard pedalling efforts on climbs or flat sections. So you need to descend at a pace where you don’t lose your position in the race but you can also recover.
What I learnt from riding with elite riders is that I could descend at a similar pace in training, where the overall pace over 5-10 mins was relatively easy. But when it came to descending in a race I was struggling to maintain the same pace without making mistakes. To improve on this, I trained in a way that replicated the race descending effort, by riding all out uphill then descending straight away.
Compared to road and track bunch races, there’s much less in the way of group tactics in XC racing. But you still have to have a strategy for getting the finishing position you are aiming for, considering your strengths and weaknesses relative to other riders.
Are you hanging onto the rider in front on climbs? Do you feel like other riders are holding you up on descents? Or maybe you are good at maintaining a faster rhythm through flat ground?
I was relatively strong on gradual smooth climbs and flat sections, and technical/steep/rough sections of downhill trail. I was less confident on climbs which required short, punchy efforts and longer, faster exposed descents. So one way I’d try to use this to my advantage was by ‘stretching the elastic’ with the rider behind on the longer, steadier sections, with the aim of tiring them out before the next descent.
There are various other tactics you can use to your advantage or against your opponents. A hard attack may be essential in the last lap of a race but being patient and measured in your effort over the entire race is key.