I’m a mountain bike racer who trains on the road. I do a few crits in the spring for training and usually get spanked.
My first ever cross race is this weekend.
What approach should I plan on using on Sunday? Attempt to hang with the leaders through the whole race or keep mid pack and work toward the front in the last few laps?
what category are you going to race? if you've got your mounts/dismounts down and think you'll be competitive, starting at the front is always better than working your way up. but if it's your first race and you think you have a lot to learn, maybe avoid getting some faster folks flustered by them having to get around you and maybe start further back.
most importantly, i think the strategy should be go out and have a blast. talk to your fellow racers, try to learn all you can, meet more of the cx community, and make sure you save a little bit for cheering afterwards!
If you are a mtn bike racer you shouldn't have a problem w/ the fast starts. Unlike road races, cross races start w/ a full-on sprint from the gun.
I ususally go full out for the first lap to lap and a half or so. Then it usually settles down and you can see if you want to try and move up, or if you are in damage control just staying where you are. It is very important to be nice and warm for the start.
Go as hard as you can from the gun and see where you are after a lap.
Don't be afraid to pass people, lots of roadies out there w/ minimal bike handling skills in the dirt. The mtn bike to cross transition is usually more successfull than mtn bike to road.
From my experience the starts are the most crucial for establishing position. Also, if you crash, drop a chain or mess up on your dismounts and mounts, then it is hard to make up any ground unless you are super strong. Being that it is your first race, be sure that during the race you are reminding yourself on proper technique. If you look at photos and videos of races you will see that many people are doing things wrong, in the long run costing them time and extra energy.
Like someone else said, make sure you have a really good warm up, get a good place on the line and see what happens form there. For me that is what I do and then see whether I am defending a position or working to pass people, hopefully the latter. You also have to be careful to ride within your means so you don't give up a bunch of postions. The main thing though is that you will have a blast and then cant wait to do it again.
Approach it like a short mtn bike race. You don't do yourself any favors by staying with the leaders for the first couple laps if you subsequently blow up. On the other hand, if there are significant stretches of flat/smooth, then it's hard to catch a group if you are by yourself.
It helps to look at lap times when all is done. Ideally, they should be pretty steady. First lap will be fast, but if subsequent laps continue to slide, that's a sign you went out too fast.
As everyone says, the start is the most important part. Get a good start - line up in the first two rows if you can and stay in the top 1/3rd of the race. The first 1 or 2 laps will be extremely fast - after that it will start to take shape. But, if it's your first race, then your first priority should be having fun and learning. This is a great sport with a a great culture. It's amazing what the sound of a cowbell will do for your legs. Get out there and give it your all. Stay clear of riders who are sketchy (just like on the road) and take note of lines - key is to be smooth and efficient - through the barriers and along the terrain. Have a blast - you'll be smiling at the end :-)