AFTER A SINGLE CHASTENING CYCLO-CROSS EXPERIENCE, EDITOR ROB ASKED A FORMER WORLD CHAMPION FOR ADVICE... AND GOT MORE THAN HE BARGAINED FOR
Fooling about on the cyclo-cross bike this winter will give you new skills for the road in 2019.
Rob, I think it would be most sensible for you to put these on.” I’ve just returned from the changing room in my CyclingPlus Lycra when Mike Kluge presents me with a set of mountain-biking arm and knee pads. Photographer Steve Behr is smiling conspiratorially. I’m confused.
The three of us are at Redbridge Cycling Centre – or Hog Hill as it’s also known – on the north-east edge of London for, what I at least thought was going to be, a reasonably chilled-out, low-risk, Sunday morning of cyclo-cross tuition. Mike, the founder of Focus bikes and a former CX world champion, seems to have other ideas. And, judging by the look on his face, Steve is complicit. Reluctantly I pull on the knee and elbow pads and we wheel our Focus Mares bikes out onto the circuit.
This is the first time Mike and I have met, so I don’t think he’s making me dress up like an off-duty Iron Man because he’s heard that my one and only foray into cyclo-cross was, well, disappointing. It came in autumn 2017 and I finished second to last and the only thing that got hurt was my pride. So, why am I padded up? “It’s like a second brake system, so that you don’t stop with your knees and elbows,” laughs Mike. “Seriously, though, wearing pads helps you find the limits of your bike and tyres.”
Basically, Mike’s saying that if you’re experimenting, wear protection. Go past the limits of bike, tyres and, let’s face it, talent and you hit the ground. Complementing your helmet with knee and elbow pads means that you’re more likely to be able, and willing, to get back on your bike and go again. “Also, it means that you won’t be stuck to your sheets when you get up for the toilet in the night…”
Mike even suggests that riders new to road riding should think about investing in pads. “For sure, people might smile at you,” he says, “but it can boost your confidence and, if you do fall, you won’t have to spend time away from your new hobby.”
It doesn’t take long for me to appreciate the extra padding. As we spin along Redbridge’s asphalt track for what I assume will be a gentle warm-up, Mike calls me over to
if you’re experimenting, wear protection. go past the limits of bike, tyres and, let’s face it, talent and you hit the ground
ride by his side. The wisdom he’s looking to impart is, surprisingly, aggressively delivered. “Get closer. No closer. No, even closer. Right, now lean against me and try to push me over…”
Okaaay… Next thing Mike and I are barging shoulders, clashing elbows and leaning our bikes in like Cavendish and Sagan at the end of a sprint. Needless to say, Mike’s an expert and has little trouble sending me veering off my line. It’s fun but I’m not 100 per cent sure what it’s achieving. “In a race there can be lot of contact,” he explains, “so learning how to stay on your bike, hold your position and not crash is vital. Also, this is a good way of reassuring yourself that bikes, tyres and riders can cope with a lot of rough treatment.”
He’s right. Maybe it was the crash pads, but at no point during the argybargy session did I think the bike was going to slide from under me. It’s not something to try with an unsuspecting riding buddy or someone you’re passing on your commute, though…
Endo the world as I know it…
Straight after the rough and tumble I discover why Mike and Steve had been sniggering earlier. As Steve lines up a shot, Mike grabs the back of my saddle. “Okay, I’ve got you so clip both feet in and grab your front brake hard.” I do as I’m told and all of sudden Mike hoists up the back of the bike. I find myself nose down and screaming just a little bit. “Now, let go of the brake.” I do, Mike lets go of the saddle and the rear of the Mares clunks back to earth. Once I stop crying Mike explains, “If you lock your front wheel and the bike tips forwards, you have more time than you think to prevent a crash.”
The point Mike’s making is that if you find yourself heading over the bars because you’ve locked up, the best thing you can do to avoid arriving at the scene of the accident is, actually, to relax and release the front brake. If you haven’t flipped too far forward and you’ve still got weight over the rear, the bike and gravity can still save you. “Don’t panic, release your brakes and you might save your arse,” says Mike. I’ll try and remember this nugget of advice the next time I’m heading for a broken collarbone…
Brake the habit
Of course, not sending yourself arseover-tit in the first place is probably the best form of injury prevention so brushing up on your braking technique is a great idea. “The best way to stop
if you find yourself heading over the bars, just relax and release the front brake
quickly is to keep in contact with the saddle,” says Mike. “Place as much of your bodyweight as possible on the last quarter of your saddle and stretch your arms so that you’re sitting as far back as possible.” This is so that both wheels stay in contact with the ground for as long as possible to help you control your emergency stop.
My main learning from stopping practice is the importance of the front brake. As you slow quickly, your weight naturally moves forward no matter how hard you try and keep your butt clamped to the saddle – to the point that it can quickly end up doing 100% of the retardation – so getting used to trusting my front brake has made a big difference to my stopping confidence. And, of course, I now know, theoretically at least, what to do if the front brake works too well…
Once I’ve got better at stopping, Mike decides it’s time to improve my cornering. In a typical cyclo-cross race, says Mike, you need to nail the tight turns without sacrificing speed. We head onto the grass and Mike starts whizzing around in tighter and tighter circles, at extreme lean angles and with his inside pedal virtually clipping the ground. I try to follow but struggle to match Mike’s compact rotations. “Push your weight onto the handlebar, choose a bigger gear and listen to the grass!”
By loading up the bar, you’re doing the opposite of the braking drill – the rear wheel lightens and can, in theory, slide gracefully, speedway-style as you turn. Selecting a bigger gear lets you hold speed through the corner and accelerate out of it.
And the listening? “If you hear that the tyres are starting to tear out the grass, then you need to become a little more sensitive as you’re at the limit of grip.” It’s a dizzying, and surprisingly tiring, exercise but if you can find a flat expanse of grass it’s a lot of fun. Oh, and make sure that you don’t just go in one direction. As Mike says we all have a “Schokoladenseite”… a chocolate, or favourite, side where we’ll find it that bit easier.
“key is getting on and off the bike while losing as little speed as possible,” shouts mike
To navigate small obstacles on a CX course, or out on the road, the bunny hop is an essential skill. I have to admit at being the master of the lazy bunny hop – basically pulling the bike into the air using my clipped-in feet. This isn’t how you’re supposed to do it and the occasions where one, or both, of my cleats have unclipped show why.
“It’s quite simple to learn if you start slowly,” says Mike. Drill one sees us riding along and repeatedly popping small wheelies; drill two standing up and shifting our weight forward to lift the back wheel; and drill three combining the actions as we clear a log placed on the road. Jeopardy increases slightly with the addition of small cones under the log and an increase in pace. I fault a couple of times but come away happier with my hopping skills.
On and off switch…
“The key is getting on and off the bike while losing as little speed as possible,” shouts Mike as he manages to dismount and ‘resaddle’ his moving Mares in what seems to be a blink of an eye. In a cyclo-cross race – or upon arrival at the station – being able to gracefully and quickly leap from your moving bike is a key skill. And it’s one
that I feel the pads could come in useful for when I try it.
As Mike explains the dismount technique I’m certain I’ll end up on the ground, twisted among the spokes. “At the last moment, as you approach an obstacle swing one leg behind the saddle,” he says. “You keep the foot you usually unclip first on the pedal and swing the other leg between the frame and that leg. Then put your foot down close to the front wheel, take your other foot out of the pedal and run!” Easy, right? Actually, it’s not as hard as it sounds, especially if you do it in slow motion at first and cheat a little by unclipping your ‘pedalling’ foot before starting the dismount.
Getting back on is an art as well. “Get it wrong and it can be painful,” laughs Mike. “You don’t want to land on what in German we call the sacknut!” Quite. So, he says, the secret is to run, jump and rather than land, erm, plumb in the centre of the saddle, aim to contact the saddle thigh first. And use the swing of the leg to get you back on the bike without hopping along on your trailing leg. The knee and elbow pads are no use and I wish I’d worn a cricket box as it takes several attempts before finding success. After a few attempts, though, I was managing to, if not seamlessly, at least gracelessly get off and on in one movement.
Shouldering the burden
The last move Mike wanted to show me was shouldering the bike. In theory, this is the easiest skill – just pick it up and put in on your shoulder, surely? It turns out that there’s more than one way to pick up and run with a Mares… The simplest method is to grab the bike by the top tube, hoist it onto your shoulder, wrap your arm around the head tube and grip the bar close to your chest. Mike, though, prefers to lift the bike by the downtube and onto his shoulder in one move. He then places his arm under the downtube and reaches around to grab the bar. Finally, he explains that you can simply slam on the front brake so that the bike flips forwards and you slide your shoulder through the frame. Apparently this is useful when you’re tired…
it turns out that there’s more than one way to pick up and run with a focus mares ’cross bike
Above A bit of argy bargy’s good practice for the rough and tumble of racing
Left At a theatre near you, the Rod Hull and Emu of cycling
Below right Bunny hopping’s a key CX skill
Right Editor Rob, under Mike’s guidance, hones his cornering skills
Left Mounting at speed’s needed in the pacechanging world of CX
Above Whatever your ability, CX is simply great fun