The best-laid plans…

2020 has been a difficult year for many, for much more serious reasons than its effect on the build up to the CX race season. But after so much disruption to life, families, work, schooling and sport, we suspect that there are a lot of people who are coming into this season with over ambitious expectations of their physical and mental condition. The lack of racing in the lead up to the first National Trophy weekend and the proper cross conditions made for a tough start.

We asked Alex Forrester, author of The Cyclocross Bible and specialist Cyclocross and Three Peaks Coachto share his thoughts on how to handle things when best-laid plans go wrong... 

The first race of the season is done and social media is buzzing with all those cock-a-hoop about their wonderful day (more misery/disaster stories please people!). Hidden beneath the surface though are many frustrated souls for whom it didn’t quite go to plan. Clearly time for a sage Churchill quotation! 

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm" 


In the build-up to a race season or individual race, you might have the hope/aim of winning a particular race but, with so many unknowns, how can this really be a valid objective on race day? As an example, I often race in a different region the week before Christmas where, typically, there would be fewer fast riders. I’d get excited about the prospect of a potential win. Three years in a row Liam Killeen turned up on the line and thrashed me! I still give it my best shot and should hardly go home upset because someone faster than me turned up. This may be the catalyst for a complete life/training strategy overhaul and try to come back next year faster, but that’s a different article! 

You never know who might turn up on the start line! Try not to let it screw with your mind. 

Don’t for a second think I’m saying you can only ride your own race and should always ride the course and ignore the other riders. Yes, make sure others don’t force you to make a mistake, but there’s nothing more gratifying than luring others into making mistakes (strayed into a different article again!) 

The point is you can only do (and base your post-race feelings on) what you can during the race: e.g. full-gas up the climb each time, dismount right and left side appropriately for running sections, don’t give up… Once the race has started it is also ok to set/evaluate objectives with respect to other riders (e.g. hold Liam’s wheel for just one more lap!) 

Churchill’s notion of success can (and should) be applied directly to within cyclocross race goal setting. You shouldn't be so focussed on getting it right that you can’t cope if it goes wrong. What if you miss your pedal off the start? That is not the end of your race, rather the beginning of a slightly different race (one of just how many of these riders can I pass?).

Every time something goes wrong, it should be like a switch has been flicked to select a different objective: you decided to attack through a corner, you fall, now your objective is to sit in the wheels for a lap to recover, more stuff happens, more things change, …. It’s the process and not the outcome that you need to focus on. 

Sometimes things just go wrong

Mathieu van der Poel got a bit of stick when it seemed his head fell off following a tangle with Wout van Aert in the Zolder World Championships. Since then he has become the epitome of how to pick yourself up after a fall. 

But you did everything right and it all went wrong! 

After a summer of hard training, it’s tough to get the proverbial handed to you by someone you hoped to beat. If you clearly get licked by a rider who seems to have come out of the off-season with a motor installed in their bike, you are going to have to cope with that (after checking for motors). 

Be happy for them, stop following them on Instagram, and be prepared (though not fully accept) that you may need to add one to your race positions for a little while. 

Be pleased if you beat them, rather than disappointed when you don’t. I sometimes find solace in overhearing people who were overjoyed to beat me. It sounds odd but, if it was such an achievement to beat me, I shouldn’t be unhappy with myself as a rider. It also indicates that it was as much a good ride for them as it may have been a bad ride for you. 

It may be that you just didn’t have the right sensations in your legs, and truly feel you can go better.  Learning from your errors is what allows you to evolve and improve - all part of the joy of competitive sport.  

Have you got too enthusiastic with your training and are actually risking being burnt-out at the beginning of the season? If in doubt, miss it out: rest, have a technique focussed week, and try again next time.  

Do you have a coach? Maybe think about talking to one and/or take a good look at your training and race preparation. This isn’t an article about sugar-coating it. Common signs of profuse hot air blowing that signal you have work to do are:

  • "I never go well on that course"
  • "I was beaten by a ‘roadie’ ‘cause I’m a proper cross rider and better on more technical courses"
  • "I couldn’t get my power down on that annoying twisty course"
  • "Those barriers weren’t regulation height"
  • "I wasn’t gridded properly"
  • "MTBs shouldn’t be allowed in cross races"
  • “The conditions weren’t right for me”
  • "He/she’s younger than me"**
  • If you’re actually writing down the excuses for your poor performance on social media so more hot air can be gathered!

**Age is an interesting one. Just because you’re 39 and they’re 28 doesn’t mean they should be faster than you. However, if they have no kids and a very flexible job whereas you have five kids and a nightmare boss, naturally things might be different. Never give in to age though. Even though you are taking a knife to a gun fight, keep it sharp and throw it when they least expect it!

She said “Sam’s much younger than you and Adrian is really good”. I don’t think that helped much! [copyright 2017 Bob Barber] 


There are good reasons why we don’t use words like ‘fail’ nowadays. Exams are ‘referred’ instead. It really doesn’t help to hit anyone while they are down. If you’re struggling, that doesn’t mean you’re failing. 

I’m sure Yoda must have said something like “Feelings of failure lead to feelings of guilt, and guilt leads to shame. This is the path to the dark side”. Everyone ‘gives up’ sometimes though and it’s good to try to avoid this happening. 

Usually not finishing a race means that it probably wasn’t a good idea to start it. I sometimes hear riders who haven’t finished a race tell me that they didn’t have good sensations and so it was best to pull out so they can then go better in a future race. 

Surely it would have been better to go out training instead? Or ease up a bit in the race and practice some skills, or maybe help a teammate close down a gap, etc? Going home having not finished a race is not a great feeling and not a habit I suggest one develops. 

There are (at least) two ways of looking at this.  

1) Don’t set yourself up to ‘fail’. Think you might not be able to finish a race? Don’t start!  

2) Use the race to conquer any negativity. Once you’ve got going you’ll feel better. Start the race!  

Hopefully you’ll figure out which one applies on a given day. Or, after a race, reflect on if maybe you chose the wrong one that day. 

Having an honest chat with a friend or coach can help you decide if 1 or 2 applies. 

Ok, so there may be the occasional reason why you really can’t finish a race... 


It is so frustrating to have something go wrong with your bike. It’s not always a luck thing though. How many races did van der Poel lose last year due to mechanicals? I can’t think of one.

However, we all know a rider (maybe it’s you?) who would have done so much better week-after-week if bad luck hadn’t befallen them again. It does of course require some resources to maintain a bike. Not too much though to make it mechanically sound. Don’t be afraid to ask an old-hand to have a quick look at your bike to see what they think are its weak points. 

Finally, what does success actually look like?

It’s easy to feel that there’s only one successful rider in each race: the winner. Actually all riders aspire to do well in some respect and all will have achieved their aspirations to varying degrees in their own eyes. 

I can guarantee that many riders who finish first will be inwardly chastising themselves about how they should have somehow done better. Further down the field, the more balanced fellow aspirant will take on board their mistakes while basking in their achievements.    

Try to be that rider!

Sanne Cant finally beats Marianne Vos to win the World Championships. [Source:The Cyclocross Bible, copyright 2017 Balint Hamvas] 

Alex has a wealth of personal experience in local, national and international cyclocross racing. Take a look at for more information about his coaching options. 

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