It’s one of the best pieces of riding advice I’ve ever been given and it’s a strategy that plays out any time things get hard: 'keep your head up'. Whether that’s mastering the sand of the cyclo-cross World Championships or getting through the grimmest time of the riding year both physically and mentally. Keeping your head up sometimes isn’t easy but it’s almost always the best idea.
Let’s start with that cyclocross sand and what you can learn by watching how different riders attack it and how successful they are. Actually, I should rephrase that. Watch how some riders attack the sand and how others are on the defensive straight away. You’d think a ton of wattage might be all you need to churn a rear wheel through the speed-killing substance but it’s far from that simple. Bigger riders sometimes struggle more than lighter riders because talent always beats torque when life’s being a beach.
It's all about looking ahead
So rather than looking at their legs, look at the whole body. Riders who lock themselves rigidly against the almost liquid ground rarely get far before front wheels fold round and/or feet unclip. Those who stay almost comically loose and let the bike snake and swerve underneath them, following the fluctuating, cross-threaded ruts save energy and get further. Now look at their heads and you’ll see the real difference. The riders who let their attention be dragged down towards their front wheel are basically doomed. Those who keep forcing their focus up and ahead are the ones who get furthest.
The reason is simple. If you’re looking at the problem, trying to work it out consciously you’re immediately adding a significant delay between stimulus (the effect of the sand on your wheel) and response (your steering movements and bodyweight shifts). Your conscious reaction will therefore often be too slow or out of phase with what needs to happen. Keep your head up, and your body will react instantly and subconsciously, shifting weight and tweaking steering as you concentrate on the end goal.
From a technique point of view that works in nearly every riding situation too. Stare at the cassette of the rider in front on a road ride/race and you’re just hanging in there. Praying for the chain you’re watching to shift onto a larger, easier sprocket that signals a slowing of relentless pace. Dreading that it’ll snick down onto a smaller sprocket, ready to increase the pace or launch an attack. Look up past the rider you’re following and you’re instantly in a more positive place. Scanning the road to see opportunities, sizing up the rest of the group, getting ready to make your own gear shifts and attacks, and not just slavishly following. Off-road I know when I’m clawing my way up a technical climb that as soon as I watch a rock, step or log's journey all the way into my front wheel that’s when I’ll just thump into it, lose momentum and stop. It’s a constant fight to keep my head a few meters up the trail, choosing the best line, gauging when to change gear or dig deep with remaining energy. Staying positive and pushing on as my body responds to obstacles noted and memorized but not hypnotized by.
It’s the same downhill. Nervous riders might be surviving meter by meter from rock to root to drop, taking each corner as it comes, but watch a skilled pilot and it’s a totally different approach. It’s not that their trail assessment filter doesn’t see those rocks and roots, they just don’t register as significant negatives because they know their suspension and reactions will remove any risk. Instead, they see them as chances to launch over other obstacles and focus on the way backsides can drive the bike forwards - if they’re landed on or pumped right. Corners are linked into sequences, cutting one to rail the next one better, head up, hunting for advantage whether that’s speed or steeze. The lesson is simple and clear, the further you look ahead, the less your head trips you up and the better the flow goes.
These parallels are easy to pull out wider than the paceline or racing line too. If you’re in winter at the moment like we are in the UK, then it’s the hardest time to ride even in a normal year. Trails are a slow wet slog and everything is slippery. Roads are cold, wet, dark and unforgiving. Even a short ride means a long clean of bike and kit before they get ruined by rust and ground-in grit. The mortuary vibe of a cold garage straight from a cozy couch can send a shiver down your spine before you even get your hands into your gloves and onto the bars.
Embrace the hardship
But wait, that’s the staring at the cassette, hypnotized by the tree until you hit it, go over the bars into deep Belgian sand attitude. Get your head up and smile. Even if that gets you a gobful of grit from the wheel in front or your own fishtailing front end. Embrace the days you’re sat on the ground more than in the saddle as nothing breeds skill faster than winter riding. Learn who your real mates are by seeing who still turns up to ride and who furtively uploads a Zwift session to Strava while you’re hopping from one frozen foot to another in the shower to stop your numb toes bursting. Remind yourself that a hot drink after a freezing ride feels even better than a cold beer after a roasting one and it’s almost certainly more earned. Grab escape inspiration from the fact that getting out now delivers double* in terms of fitness compared to waiting to come out of hibernation at Easter.
*OK so that’s not actually a scientific fact, but keeping the pedals turning and the pounds off through winter will definitely make you feel springier when spring eventually arrives. Plus it means you get to buy a bunch of new kit to reward your heroism and make conditions a little less hideous in the process.
Because they’re rare right now, make the most of the few breaks you get. Set the alarm early enough so you can thrum over frozen singletrack at dawn and really appreciate how great that feels compared to axle-deep slop. Suck in air cold enough to shatter your teeth as low sun strobes through skeletal trees and you feel the slightest hint of solar warmth across your shoulders. Hey, it might even remind you what it’s like when back-to-back days without rain are more common than those with, and the fact that every short night that passes gets us closer to those endless glory days. Now things are really looking up!
To stick to the inevitable, all-pervasive 2020/21 Covid twist on things: if your lungs or lockdown situation let you even think of riding right now, then you’re pretty damn lucky, whatever the weather. So stop focusing on problems, set your sights on solutions and get your head up. After all, if you did watch the literally titanic, sea-rinsed battle between Van Aert and Van der Poel at the ‘Cross World Champs last weekend you’ll know that picking yourself up out of the sand and pressing on always gets better results than letting your head drop.