Yesterday I raced my first cyclocross race of the season. The field was pretty good sized for a weeknight race in the mud, with some tough competition from Tim Allen. We fought it out for the first two laps of the short 35 minute, 4 lap race and I took home the Win! There isn’t much more of a race report beyond that, but I’ll use this race for examples of cyclocross racing in the mud.
Mud isn’t too common here in Colorado, so around here a muddy race calls for “plan B” style preparation. Depending on where you live, you may want to be more prepared for muddy races. I took this opportunity to race, despite having to clean my equipment in the dark back at home on a weeknight. Last year’s first muddy race was when the USGP came to town, and I’ll be glad to be more prepared for the next mudder.
The key here is tire selection. Most important is tread pattern. I saw a lot of riders out yesterday with their tubulars with intermediate treads. These work great in Colorado most of the time but it is essential to have tall, widely spaced knobs when it is slippery.
Another key equipment choice are pedals. I use eggbeaters. They absolutely suck for almost everything except mud. Unfortunately, they feel like you’re standing on a pair of ice cubes and I go through pedal bearings on a regular basis. However, the four-sided pedals are easy to clip into and they almost always work flawlessly in mud.
It is important to stay warm and dry during warmup. I bring my backup helmet and shoes to inspect the course (although it wasn’t quite messy enough to require this yesterday). I’ll pin my numbers to my skinsuit and then put a jacket and tights over my skinsuit. I’ll wear my backup shoes and helmet as I preride the course. It only takes a few seconds to change socks, shoes and helmet, then I’ll remove the jacket and tights and I’m ready to race.
Many rider’s habits during offroad riding are based on rules of polite trail use: staying on the trail. Often during a muddy race this is exactly what not to do. The lower portion of the course yesterday featured classic conditions: a well worn trail from the summer’s short track races surrounded by mowed native grass. The trail was soft, and you’d feel your tires squirm and hear mud hitting the downtube as you rode. The grass was much firmer (although bumpier) and as long as you rode a bit off the saddle to negate the bumps, was much faster.
This advice goes equally for the corners. The obvious (burned in) line around the corners was quite slippery. Each corner must be approached differently depending on where the slippery line is in relation to the course tape and other potential obstacles. But for example, consider entering the turn early and exiting late as a way to approach a corner without using the slippery surface.
There was a short section of mud bog on the course as well. Although the course was not taped, riding at the limit of the course is a very good technique in this situation. Riding the tape means riding right along the very edge of the course where the ground hasn’t been disturbed and there may be firmer ground and more traction.
There was also a run-up with very sticky mud and railroad ties. In dry conditions, I would step on the dirt portion of the steps for more stability, rather than on the ties with my stiff carbon shoes. However, in the mud I was sure to step on the small railroad ties as to not foul my shoes with additional mud. Also, the top of the run-up had a lot more sticky mud. I made sure to remount as quickly as possible to regain my momentum and keep from bogging down.
For my last point, I’ll describe a sketchy descent with deep, soft mud and a few ruts. In this type of situation you need to let your bike steer a little bit for you. The bike will slip on the descent, but you need to relax and let it slide a little bit. Letting the bike get sideways with almost no traction and 33mm tires seems crazy, but if you fight it you’re more likely to go down.
Racing line summary
The more experience you can gain in varied conditions, the better. You’ll be better able to see where it is likely best to ride on a given course. You shouldn’t be panicing and zig-zagging across the course, but it can be helpful to try different lines and surfaces to see which is fastest throughout the race. Also keep in mind that conditions can change very quickly between inspection and the race, and even during the race, so don’t forget to keep your eyes open for opportunities for an easier ride.
It is easy to see how folks become so equipped for cyclocross, with two bikes, stationary trainer, their own pressure washer, two sets of kit/shoes/helmets/glasses, multiple sets of tubular wheels and tires, etc, etc, etc. For those with less commitment and budget, the key is practice and arriving for the race prepared for muddy conditions with warm clothes and mud tires. If you have to choose your tread pattern before you leave the house, always err on the side of more tread.