At the highest level of cyclocross, technique becomes less of a matter of right and wrong, and more of a matter of risk vs. reward. While amateurs and faux pros might be able to benefit from unsolicited advice, the world caliber riders are intentionally choosing to practice and implement a personal technique. Kathryn Cumming examines the World Championships and the reactions in light of a dominant 2018-2019 season by Lucinda Brand.
by Kathryn Cumming
If you watched the Women’s Cyclocross World Championships over the weekend, you probably gasped along with the rest of the cycling community when Lucinda Brand hit the ground during a bike exchange in the pits. Brand was riding at the front of the race and the botched exchange allowed a group to pass her and sent her on the chase. A pre-race favorite, Brand finished in second. If you have not watched the race, the entire duration is worth checking out. The women put on a show!
Predictably, following Brand’s crash, social media blew up with opinions. Some were quick to say that Brand would not have crashed if she had used a different dismount technique, that she should have unclipped her left foot and rested it on the pedal before dismounting. As you can imagine, the Brand incident provided a good opportunity for racers and coaches who use this method to highlight a worst case scenario at the front of the world stage.
Watching the replays over and over was a good reminder technique is personal. While unclipping your left foot early works for many racers, the majority of the top cyclocross racers in the world choose to dismount differently. Most unclip their left foot as they are dismounting. Presumably they feel confident they can unclip in time and consider this to be a faster way of dismounting.
As the top racers come into the pits, many dismount and hand off their bikes with different styles. Katie Compton unweights herself from her left pedal by pushing off of her right arm on her top tube while dismounting. Marianne Vos often steps-thru during races, placing her right foot in front of her left as she dismounts (making the unweighting process even more vital). And Lucinda Brand, as we saw, keeps both hands on the hoods as she prepares to unclip the left foot.
I am certain Compton, Vos, and Brand all know about the option to unclip their left foot and rest it on the pedal prior to dismounting. They still choose not to. At the top of the sport, each second makes a massive difference. Elite racers will often weigh risk versus reward in a different way than a local racer. These women were all racing to win, not just to ensure they stayed upright. Vos can win a World Cup by attacking the barriers with her step-thru speed. If the goal is to win, this is working for her.
I also have a feeling these women crash less than the majority of racers. Saturday’s fall just came at a high profile time.
Andrew and I choose to dismount differently from each other. I actually first learned to step-thru, but after several unnecessary crashes, realized it was not for me. Vos, on the other hand, can clearly execute the step-thru under pressure. I now dismount with both hands on my hoods. I am more confident approaching an obstacle at speed in this stance rather than with my right hand on my top tube. Andrew opts to use his top tube to unweight himself, and will often risk stepping-thru when the barriers are designed with a high speed approach.
Our household has attended clinics with Jeremy Powers and Tim Johnson, and each taught dismounting. Both men choose to unclip their left foot as they are dismounting rather than ahead of time. While some may find this to be risky, it is worth noting they have each won several Elite National Championships with the technique, so it can be considered effective.
To go along with our different dismounts, Andrew and I also use different pedals. Andrew rides Crank Brothers Candy pedals, while I ride the Ritchey WCS XC pedals which use a cleat nearly identical to a Shimano SPD. He appreciates how easy it is to unclip from the Crank Brothers in any condition, while I feel more stable when pedaling on an SPD-style pedal. I agree with Andrew’s assessment for himself, but we have chosen different priorities.
This is my long-winded way to explain that there is no right or wrong, but a preference combined with a tolerance to accept certain risks. The best racers in the world spend ridiculous amounts of time riding their bikes and working with experts in the field. Most likely, they have chosen their technique and riding style for a reason.
My biggest takeaway from the race was Brand’s on-course response to the crash. She reacted with unbelievable composure as she immediately popped up, grabbed a fresh bike, and began chasing. There was no pity party during the race. She was pure focus and this is one of the reasons she is at the top of the sport. It is a reminder to all of us that mistakes happen. Once the mishap has occurred, you can only control your response. Brand’s response showed a mental strength to which we can all aspire. Plus she has an insane number of watts on the straightaways!
Sanne Cant rode a flawless race and deserved to win the rainbow stripes, but I was okay with seeing Brand take a few tumbles. On a slick course with changing corners, Brand pushed the limits rather than focusing on just reducing risk. It came with the consequence of second place, but I appreciate that she raced for first rather than just accepting second.
Riding smooth is definitely fast, but do not let the risk of a slip-up hold you back. A bobble in a corner is far different than an epic, bike-breaking spill. Mathieu van der Poel had to put a foot out several times early in Sunday’s men’s race, but he was much smoother after he attacked. He found the traction limits early, pushed when needed, and was rewarded with the win.
I love cheering for people who are willing to go all in, who are willing to risk vulnerability and exposing weakness for success. We can all sit on our couches and talk about their mistakes, but their full commitment to a result is one of the reasons we are at home on the internet while they are racing.
In the heat of the moment when excitement and heart rates are high, mistakes happen from racers and mechanics. The incredible depth of the elite women’s field is allowing us to see riders push their speed and bike handling to the extreme.
Personally, after getting dropped by so many of these women at the Bern World Cup, I am taking notes for next season.