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Trainer Road

januari 03, 2024


Why Do Pro Roadies Choose to Race Cyclocross? For the Suffering.

Why are Wout van Aert, Tom Pidcock, and a bunch more roadies battling the muddy bikes and frozen fingers of the cyclocross winter when they’re not targeting a tilt at CX worlds?

Just one look at their glazed eyes and spittle-covered faces at the finish of a ‘cross says it all.

Cyclocross suffering is a whole new level of suffering.

“When I’m fresh I can easily achieve an average heart rate of 190 beats for an hour in a ‘cross,” Van Aert told Het Laatste Nieuws after he won Superprestige Zolder last week.

“In principle you can imitate that in training – just ride at full speed for an hour. But the intensity of ‘cross is unique.”

Also read: How did MVDP get so good this CX season?

Van Aert, Pidcock, Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Dstny), Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step), Quinten Hermans (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and many more road riders are getting cold ‘n’ mucky predominantly in pursuit of CX pain rather than CX podiums this winter.

While Mathieu van der Poel is racing his way toward a possible sixth elite cyclocross world title, the rest of this cross-discipline crew don’t have a hope of leaving Tábor next February with a set of rainbows.

In fact, many of them won’t even arrive to take the start.

For mid-pack ‘crossers like Hermans and Vermeersch, the hour-long hurt-fest of cyclocross is an antidote to the winter blues, an interval session more evil than any trainer could ever concoct, and the ultimate catapult into the spring’s biggest classics.

“If I didn’t race now, I would have to do interval training along the canal. It’s much more fun on a ‘cross bike and among the public,” said Hermans, who is typically seen blasting along Beringen’s Albert Canal in road’s off-season.

“If I had to go through this very long winter period without competition, I would become uneasy.”

An hour in the hurtbox

Pidcock has trimmed his cyclocross program for 2023-24.
Tom Pidcock suffers in Namur, CX style. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Few riders use a power meter for cyclocross races, and only a handful share their heart rate data in public.

But Strava can still illustrate the lactate hell endured during a lung-busting hour of bunny-hopping, mud-running, core-wrenching ‘cross racing.

How many sprints? Florian Vermeersch digs deep for 25th in Diegem.

The absolute numbers on the estimated power profiles of Hermans’ and Vermeersch’s CX Strava data won’t be accurate, but the spikes will be relative and reasonably reflective.

As the razor-tooth charts show, cyclocross is the most severe sprint workout available to a pro cyclist.

Quinten Hermans enters the pain cave for an hour at Superprestige Zolder.

And what were the teammates of Hermans, Vermeersch, Van Aert, and Co. up to while their buddies buried themselves in Belgium?

Jumbo-Visma, Lotto-Dstny, Alpecin-Deceuninck et al were camped out in sunny Spain tapping out long easy rides, enduring the occasional lactate test or over-geared effort, and otherwise avoiding the highest-intensity intervals.

Also read: What happens at winter training camps? We investigate

“I can never imitate this intensity in training,” Van Aert said at the Zolder ‘cross.

“You’re suffering for an hour and riding through the pain. You constantly have the feeling that you want to ride easier, but that is not possible, because then another rider will accelerate. You are constantly pushing the limit.”

From ‘cross to the classics

There cyclocross kings also clash in spring.
Van Aert and Van der Poel make mayhem at CX Mol, and will do so again in the spring classics of 2024. (Photo: DAVID PINTENS/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s no coincidence that many of the roadies racing ‘cross are the riders that you’ll see munching pavé at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the rest of their northern cousins.

The gut-buster climbs and endless accelerations of cyclocross imitate the hardest selections of one-day racing and give riders a head-start on their classics training schedule.

Van Aert is currently dovetailing a stripped-back CX program with tempo runs and structured motorpacing sessions on the road as he prepares to chase his elusive cobblestone monument.

“This is a training block with a lot of high intensity. Compared to the traditional build-up towards spring of the other road cyclists, I’m doing it early. They are still base training and will only add that intensity later. My body is used to doing these workouts already,” Van Aert said last week.

“I think this is the best training for me.”

Road and indoor training can tune a rider’s physiology to the half-watt and produce a power-to-weight machine.

But it won’t help them much when they’re shoulder-barging and bar-banging with Mads Pedersen and Filippo Ganna on the pot-holed roads into Roubaix’s Arenberg or Flanders’ Oude Kwarement.

“You ride ‘with the knife between your teeth’ at the start of a ‘cross race, you have to fight for every position. You also have to do this in the spring on the way to every climb,” Vermeersch said. “It’s good to refresh that feeling.”

For the love of ‘cross

Hermans, Van Aert, and the speicalists slog up some steps in front of raucous crowds in Zolder. (Photo: Luc Classaen / Getty Images)

And let’s face it, pro cyclists are good at racing bikes because they love racing bikes.

That’s why road stars like Pidcock, Van Aert, and Van der Poel continue to return to their cyclocross roots, road priorities permitting.

But not one grubby cyclocross rut works for every rider.

Van Aert and Pidcock think there can be “too much of a good thing” and have condensed their ‘cross calendars to find freshness for the classics.

Van der Poel – who raced 15 times and won the world title last CX winter before he won Milan-San Remo and Roubaix in the spring – thinks otherwise.

“I know what Wout means, but cyclocross is still a good way of preparing for the road classics, and for me, the cyclocross worlds are still an objective,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport of his rival’s decision to ditch CX worlds.

“I don’t know how I’ll think about that in the years to come,” Van der Poel continued. “Things will perhaps change.”

One hour of cyclocross or one hour of intervals on the trainer?

We know what we’d choose.

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