OK so the title of my post is quite strange, but I don’t really know how to summarise this issue I have, and I’m new to watching Cyclocross.
I’ve watched Mountain Biking for many years, and recently some of the worlds best women have started racing in Cyclocross after the MTB season comes to an end. It seems it’s not only some of the worlds best MTB women but also those that finish the MTB season ranked lower than 45.
What I cant seem to understand is how a woman who finishes the MTB season with ranking of lower than 45 can so thoroughly beat (at Cyclocross) the other MTB women who finished the MTB season ranked in the top 5.
Is is this Normal? On the surface, to me it seems inexplicable. If someone can win UCI Elite races (+-2 hours of clImbing) beating another woman by more than 30-40 places, how is it possible (and it’s more than one woman) how can they be so thoroughly beaten (at Cyclocross) by an athlete that didn’t even finish in the top 45 in the MTB rankings?
To me, they are two totally different class riders.
The answer might actually be pretty simple: Genetics & training. Let's assume the top 100 women in the world are pretty much equally driven, and train the same amount. With good coaching, most of the glitches and difference between athletes will be ironed out. So let's say the differences between the top 10 in any given race are pretty much down to minute differences on that day... but the differences between the top 10 and the 40th-to-50th group are probably genetic.
Thus, the women who can win races that last two or more hours are definitely genetically gifted in ways that get them to the top ten, and the 40th - 50th group aren't. But the 40th-50th group have trained for world class level competition, and - move them over to cyclocross - some of them are suddenly in a competition for which they have ideal genetics.
While there is skill overlap between endurance MTB (judging by what I see in videos) and cyclocross, XC MTB is an endurance race, CX isn't. CX, is, overall, a sprint. The reality is closer to a series of very short sprints interrupted by manhandling the bike through technical stuff, followed say 60 seconds of plowing the bike through sand/ mud, followed by a 20 second descent that amounts to aiming at a tree and trying to miss, followed by winding the gears up to sprint the timing straightaway to shave a few seconds off the lap time, which might be followed by getting off the bike and running. If you want genetic differences, a gifted sprint runner isn't a gifted endurance rider. (And there's an odd difference between CX and XC - running. Find the video of the race where Sanne Cant & Katie Compton battle it out. Compton, massive power, plows the bike up the hills; Cant runs them. The results of the race are unexpected)
Assuming you've got the capacity, CX is a ride just within the edge of control, and often well into a blurry gray area called loss of control (remember, a CX bike has skinny tires... a CX bike is no- suspension hardtail with 32mm tires. It lends itself to people with enough muscle to control it more precisely than a front suspension 2.5" tire will ever need). Weirdly, I found grass courses to be mental torture; In CX, the bad parts repeat; in point to point races, they don't. The spine-jarring beating from crabgrass was something I would dread as I rolled up to it.
In- season CX races last an hour or less (for CAT 5/ group C/ beginners the race can be as short as 30 minutes), and only the men's elite finals go one lap beyond an hour. There is really no point during a CX race when the most committed racers aren't pushing the lactate threshold. Every turn, every barrier hop, every descent is at the bare edge of control... Put it this way, in my first season of racing, I realized I had to "rest" on the uphill runs in order to gain oxygen for better line choices on the descents. I have a background as a XC runner, so that worked for me.
My coach, racing CX for 35 years, came across the line in one end of season race and I asked how he felt - "I'm a little dizzy" he said, and almost fell over. Severe oxygen debt seems to be normal in CX. If it isn't normal in XC MTB, there's your answer about how the lower 50% of MTB can become the upper 50% in CX - the racers with the least aerobic capacity probably have the most anaerobic capacity, and thus wind up doing lots better in CX.