Tackling national-level cyclo-cross events: a guide for youth riders & parents
16 January 2014
The 2014 National Cyclo-Cross Championships were held at Derby over the weekend of the 11th and 12th January.
Youth Cycle Sport’s Training & Development Editor Mark Wyer, also a cyclo-cross coach & commissaire, went along to report back on the challenges facing youth riders competing at this level.
Read about race preparation, equipment, pit duties, and what to do at every stage of the day.
The event was held at the Moorways Stadium and the well-designed course snaked over the grassy banks around the edge of the athletics track.
The non-UCI (world governing body for cycling) registered events for youth and veterans were held on the Saturday with the UCI recognised titles for Juniors, Under 23 men and Senior men & women being held on the Sunday. In the non-UCI registered events riders only have to conform to British Cycling bike regulations for cyclo-cross, meaning that mountain bikes can be used. However, I saw only one mountain bike being used the whole day, as a spare by one of the Under 14s.
The Under 14s race separately from the Under 16s at the National Championship with the boys being started first and the girls having a separate start a couple of minutes later in both categories. Both races were as close to 30 minutes long as possible for the winning rider, as in local and regional events. Lapped riders are not usually stopped when lapped (as they are in UCI events) in the youth races but are allowed to finish, and their finishing position is still recorded.
After a walk round the course and a look at the bikes being prepared I decided to consider the challenges facing youth riders competing at this event and their helpers (mainly parents).
Many of the youth riders would not have ridden at the Derby course before. There was a National Trophy round there last season but some would have been too young to compete in that. In this Internet age, riders can get a feel for a course by checking out YouTube videos of previous races. This provides clues to the type of challenges faced, which tyres to use, and what to practice in the preceding weeks. It’s useful to keep an eye on the weather forecast in the days beforehand, to help predict which tyres to use and which clothing will be required for both riders and helpers. The conditions for early races can be very different than for afternoon ones. At Derby the course froze over during Saturday night and the Under 23s starting early at 10:15am on Sunday had the fastest conditions of the whole weekend.
The Derby Championships had its own website with a map for parking and a map of the course itself. This is useful for planning logistics and helpers’ movements.
The layout of the course meant the pits were handily placed next to the main event car park. This allowed for cleaning equipment and jet washes to be transported into and out of the pits easily. However, the signing-on, changing rooms and start line were at the opposite side of the course. This meant the choice of either lugging a kit bag a long distance or changing in the family car. Riders should avoid changing into their kit too early as they can get cold standing around in it.
A rider competing at national level should have enough kit to be able to change between checking the course and racing. Ideally they should have two pairs of shoes and two helmets in case of one breaking – it would be a shame to have the biggest target race of the season ruined due to a shoe strap breaking. Where funds are limited, club-mates are often prepared to lend spare kit for major events. The Derby course required two bikes for a rider to be competitive. Many riders in the senior race were swapping bikes every half lap. I saw some youth riders competing with just one bike and many struggled when it clogged with mud, and they had to resort to pulling it off by hand during the race. Again spare bikes can be borrowed from team mates.
Choosing the time for checking the course out is tricky at a national level event. There are set times when you can get on the course: too early and you risk the course cutting up and changing in nature before the race; too late and you have no time to warm up properly, clean the bike or change kit before the start. The best advice is to walk round at least some of the course first to look at the more technical sections and the state of the ground. The best time for the Under 14s to try out the course was probably at 10:10 a.m. after the Veteran Women’s race when there was time for one or maybe one and a half laps. Riders who got to the venue early were able to get in a couple of laps at 8:30 a.m. although the conditions changed considerably during the morning. A third lap at 10:10 a.m. would have helped to get a feel for the changed conditions.
Riding round at 10:10 to 10:30 a.m. gave plenty of time to get the bike clean and for a change of kit. I saw some youth riders on the start line with a dirty bike or dirty shoes and kit – a dirty bike already weighs more than a rival’s, and the tyres will not grip as well on the crucial first corner. Dirty kit will cause a rider to get cold when waiting for the start. Some youth riders went out on the course in the slot before their race which meant there was limited time for bike cleaning and no time for a kit change. There would have been no time for a structured warm up either.
There was little space for warming up at the Moorways venue. I didn’t check out the car park before their race but I suspect many youth riders were using rollers or turbo trainers there. Cyclo-Cross tyres don’t work well on turbos or rollers so spare wheels with road tyres are useful. The best equipped teams had pop-up tents for their riders to shelter under whilst warming up. I did see a couple of riders using rollers next to the start line. This is convenient for being ready to line up whilst still warm but does mean lugging warm up kit a long way.
Youth riders should develop a standard warm up that works for them. It can be practiced at league races ready for the big events. This should include their hydration strategy and mental preparation as well.
Start Line Procedure
The commissaires (i.e. race referees) were calling riders to the start line roughly fifteen minutes before their race. Experienced riders were using the start line to roll up and down to keep their legs warm and perhaps to practice lines into the first corner. A problem with that was their tyres were picking up mud from the course and they were also risking a puncture. I would normally recommend that a helper takes a spare bike with the rider to the start line in case of a puncture. In this case the pits were so far from the start it would have taken too long for the helper to get the spare back to the pits before the riders would have reached there on the first lap. A no expense spared solution would have been a third bike or at least another set of wheels.
Once the whistle had blown to assemble riders they had to wait to be gridded. Some of the less experienced riders took this opportunity to take off their jackets so they were ready in their race kit. The more experienced riders waited until they had been gridded. In fact riders can get away with waiting until the two minute warning to throw their jacket out to a helper adjacent to the start line. The better kitted out riders had tights or over-trousers that can be zipped off quickly allowing legs to be kept warm before the start.
Riders were then called up to the start line in order, much like local league racing but a little more formally. At this level there is very little briefing on the start line by the commissaries – riders are expected to know how the race will work.
At national-level events pit helpers are issued with passes (usually wrist bands) to gain access to the pits. The rider usually picks these up when they sign on. The best equipped pit crews had two people and a jet wash: one person to hand up the bike and the other to wash it with the jet wash. However, many coped with just a bucket of water and a stiff brush. In addition, a pit helper should have allen keys, a track pump, a can of spray oil and spare inner tubes & tyre levers if the bikes have clincher tyres. At national level events pit helpers are not normally allowed to clean the bikes in the pits, even with a bucket and brush, but have to use the designated jet wash area instead.
Water at Derby was supplied via bowsers towed to the pits. This did run out at times and apparently some unhelpful pit crews emptied their water containers onto the already soaked ground rather than letting other teams use it. A solution to ensure you have a consistent water supply would be to use a container transported on a two wheeled sack trolley.
The pit helpers should wear waterproof boots and clothing. The jet washers spray mud and water everywhere. Strong rubber gloves are good to wear when cleaning bikes as they are waterproof and don’t hinder movement. A cold and wet helper can’t concentrate and do their best for their rider.
Post Race Clean-Up
Experienced riders would have had a podium bag ready at the finish with their helper on hand. This would have contained a towel to clean their face with, a jacket in team colours to keep them warm, maybe a bottle of water and perhaps a sponsor’s cap to wear on the podium if they had done well enough to be invited up. Even those not finishing in the podium positions should put a jacket on as soon as possible after the race, and then shower and change at the earliest opportunity. This avoids them getting cold standing around afterwards and it’s more hygienic than standing around in sweat- and mud-caked clothing.
On the whole I was very impressed by the standard of preparation by the youth riders and the huge amount of work put in by parents and supporters to look after them on the day. I hope the riders thanked their helpers afterwards – always a good plan if they want future help!