Very. But not as tough as the race itself—is the short answer. The levels of intensity that you will achieve during a cyclocross race are some of the highest you will experience on a bike, unless you are a regular mountain bike racer. A cyclocross race is one hour in a world of pain. So your training should get you ready for that. And then there’s bike handling skills to sharpen—and running. Running? Yep.
Tips from an average old guy
Cyclocross racing is really intense, but the races are relatively short. Also, the cyclocross racing season starts just after the road racing season ends, so if you are a regular club racer you should go into the cyclocross season with a decent level of fitness. But you would be well advised to do some specific exercises to prepare body, mind, and skills for cyclocross racing, at whatever level you choose.
Below are a few personal tips that have helped me (average old guy) get further in my very modest cyclocross ambitions. There are roughly three areas to concentrate on: training intensity, riding skills, and running.
Perhaps the safest place to train the levels of intensity that you need to get used to in cyclocross racing is on the home trainer in your pain cave. There you are free from having to think about other road users, and from steering the bike. You can just concentrate on the pain. And the most painful intervals we think are suitable for cyclocross are Tabatas.
Dr Izumi Tabata is a Japanese sports scientist who developed the world-famous Tabata Protocol in the late 1990s to train Olympic speed skaters. He is the founding father of the high intensity interval training (HITT) method that is so popular today. He is currently dean of Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Sport and Health Science in Kyoto. And his intervals, if done properly, will have you screaming for Mama.
In the most basic version, Tabatas consist of four rounds of eight set of ultra-high intensity, full-gas, 20s intervals, with 10s recovery, followed by a rest period of a couple of minutes between sets, then repeat. If you make it to the end of a half-hour training session without giving up on the final couple of intervals, you are probably not going hard enough. They are hell. But the plus side is that Tabatas really hit the intensity/rest levels often encountered in cyclocross as you sprint ahead, then slow to deal with technical sections, then punch on again. Warm up well before attempting these!
Bike-handling training should be done on the bike upon that you are going to race with. Go to the local woods, gravel track, fields, or mountain bike course and practice riding, dismounting, shouldering the bike, and remounting. Again and again. Bunny hops should certainly be practiced too, if you are planning to try to be a hero on race day. But be warned: this is often how broken bones happen. Practice on as many varieties of surface as you can: sand, mud, ascents, and descents. The more you get the hang of riding these, the better you will feel about doing it at full-speed on race day.
Yes, we’re cyclists. And unless we are triathlon people, we chose the bike for a reason. One of those was not to have to run. But for cyclocross, it certainly helps to practice a bit of running, even if it’s while doing your bike-handling training, with your bike on your shoulder. Serious cyclocrossers’ training includes high-intensity running and this can pay off on race day.
Cyclocross is a really interesting combination of high-intensity racing, skilful bike-craft and, yeah, some running. At times it can feel like the toughest hour you have raced, but for some reason, even if you are not among the top riders, it is great fun and worth all the training pain! So go for it.