Serena Bishop Gordon on Cyclocross 101: Roll Your Road and Mountain Biking Fitness into Cross


Serena takes a win in her first cross race of the season on Sept. 12, 2013. Photo: Jill Rosell Photography.

Cyclocross season is just getting started around the country. With the sick taste for suffering that we cyclists have, cyclocross remains the fourth dimension – the last frontier. To learn exactly what it takes to extend our two-wheeled season into the cross realm, Ibex went to our resident badass, queen of dirt and sponsored athlete, Serena Bishop Gordon.

Ibex Question (IQ): What is the biggest physical challenge when you’re transitioning from mountain bike racing to the first cyclocross event of the season?

Serena Bishop Gordon (SBG): During the mountain bike season, I focus on endurance events lasting from 3-5 hours in length. The transition to cyclocross season, and 45-60 minute events is a shock to the system. The speed and intensity of the start is much higher than in a 50-mile mountain bike race and there is no opportunity to make up from a mistake. You have to know every bit of the course; where you are going to brake, accelerate, dismount, shift. You have to plan every piece of the course before the gun goes off. Saving a second or two at three points during a race by riding smoothly can save you half a minute over the course of the race, against someone who is equally strong.

IQ: What’s the biggest mental challenge in your first few events of the year? 

SBG: Knowing how much I am going to suffer for the next hour, and acknowledging the complete focus and concentration I must sustain for the duration of the race. Most cross races last between 45-60 minutes and at the most critical moments every fiber of every muscle is going to be screaming to stop. But you keep going. Keep pushing.

The other mental challenge, for me personally, is starting the cross season a bit later than some of my competitors. Because the mountain bike season can continue into late summer, I don’t focus on cross-specific fitness until at least September; when other folks are already racing. Having the confidence to know my mountain bike skills and fitness will transfer over into cross is a challenge, but it only takes one race, one victory to overcome this.

IQ: After four years of competing, have those challenges changed or evolved?

SBG: Challenges began with finishing the race, working on technique, making it over the barriers and up the hills, and racing clean. Now the challenge is to race with and win against the best women in Oregon and across the country. In order to be successful, specified training, skills practice, and tubular tires with just the right amount of air pressure are all important ingredients.

IQ: What will hurt the most after someone’s first cross event?


IQ: Ha! What is the resolution most likely to be overheard in the parking lot after someone’s first event? 

SBG: After the initial pain subsides, the feeling comes back into your legs and you stop coughing… “Next week I’m going to beat that guy. I can’t wait.”

imageCourtesy: Serena Bishop Gordon

IQ: Most people who decide to try cyclocross are already experienced road or mountain bikers, and they likely already have solid cycling fitness coming into the season. What are a few things they can incorporate into their regular cycling training in order to have a better/more fun/more successful first cross experience?

SBG: Short bits of running. Just 10-15 minutes once or twice a week will really help – try sprinting up a short hill near your house, finding some stairs and doing repeats, run on grass, trail, anything that isn’t smooth and flat (because you won’t be running on anything smooth or flat in a cross race).

Practice. Don’t show up to your first cross expecting to just “figure it out” on the fly. Find some friends, go to a park or grassy field and practice dismounting, remounting, running over barriers (laying a large stick in the grass will work if you don’t have portable barriers), shouldering your bike on run-ups, and starts. If you spend just 30 minutes a week practicing these skills you reap huge benefit.

Slow down and be systematic. When you are learning or practicing cross skills, it is important to start slowly. Practice on-offs at a walking speed. Get it right and then speed up. I start every skills session with very slow on-offs. This will allow your muscles to learn the right motions and hopefully, when you are in complete oxygen debt, your muscle memory will kick in. Run over the barriers without your bike, get it right and then add the bike. This will allow you to learn to use the least amount of energy possible to clear the barriers.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you aren’t having fun racing cross, you shouldn’t be racing cross.

IQ: What’s the one tip you know now that you wish you knew when you first starting racing?

SBG: Be sure to apply chamois cream before you apply embrocation.

IQ: Ouch. As we all know, cyclocross tends to set a pretty strong grip ~ some may say obsessive grip ~ on its converts. When this inevitably happens to someone new to the sport, do you have any tips for how they can involve or otherwise explain the new addiction to their loved ones?

SBG: Like any addiction, admitting you have a problem is difficult. Those around you will see it before you do. You will be racing every weekend, i.e., riding around in circles.  You will spend all your money at the bike shop. You will train in the most ridiculous weather. And you will smile, a lot. The smile is contagious. Bring your family to races; buy them cowbells and tall rubber boots. And beer. And if you have kids, sign them up for kiddie cross. Who doesn’t love kiddie cross? And after a day at the races, take them all to dinner!

IQ: What are you most looking forward to for your personal season? 

SBG: This year, I am focusing on Oregon Races, defending the overall Cross Crusade title, and winning the Oregon State tile. I am looking forward to spending more time in Oregon, racing among good friends and fierce competitors and enjoying the culture of cyclocross. And watching my two nephews race kiddie cross. There is nothing cuter.

Good luck to you and your nephews, Serena! Thanks for the advice and we’ll be cheering for you from Vermont. 

imageCourtesy: Serena Bishop Gordon