Cyclocross

Training Tuesday: Chris McGovern on ‘Cross-Specific Coaching, #crossiscoming – Cyclocross Magazine

When California’s Chris McGovern is not working on one bike-related thing full time, there is another he is equally fully invested in.

McGovern’s “day job” is running Cycleution Coaching, a service focused on providing cyclocross-specific training. When he is not working on coaching duties, he switches his focus to the shop where he builds custom carbon bikes to order.

“I am basically on 24/7 for my athletes, but there is plenty of time to go out in the shop and build bikes. Hustle is basically how I make it all happen,” he said about his busy life in cycling.

McGovern does some riding of his own. He was a road professional back in the day who also raced some cyclocross, and these days, his focus as a coach has shifted primarily to cyclocross these days. He now counts Tobin Ortenblad among his athletes—and has a bike frame called the McTubbin as well.

Chris McGovern, center, coaches and builds bikes. © C. Fegan-Kim / Cyclocross Magazine

The big news for McGovern recently is that he joining the Forever Endurance coaching company to work with Grant Holicky of Colorado. Holicky is a mainstay on the U.S. Masters cyclocross circuit, racing across the country and at Nationals each year. “Grant is a really good coach, but a very good cyclocross coach in my opinion. We both are driven to get the best out of our athletes and that takes a lot of time, thought and effort,” McGovern said about the new partnership.

Since we are getting oh-so-close to legit #crossiscoming season, with the two cyclocross coaches joining forces and McGovern’s background coaching cyclocross athletes up to the professional level, we thought it would be a good time for a Q and A about hiring a cyclocross-specific coach and what you can/should be doing this time of year to get ready for cyclocross season.

Our conversation with McGovern is below. You can follow McGovern on social at @Chris_McGovern on Twitter and @mcgoverncycles on Instagram.

Cyclocross Magazine: How do you balance running McGovern Cycles with coaching?

Chris McGovern: I am basically on 24/7 for my athletes, but there is plenty of time to go out in the shop and build bikes. Hustle is basically how I make it all happen.

CXM: How does your deep background in racing impact your approach as a coach? 

CM: I rely on my experiences as an athlete to help guide training, racing and recovery strategies. I try not to get into the “Back in my day…” but sometimes that is appropriate. I try to keep myself in the present time and not anchored by the past or anxious about the future.

I am toying with racing some ’cross this year. Grant still does and we compare notes after his Masters races before the Pro races. We’ve done this even before we officially teamed up, and now it will be even more streamlined. Dialed in, that beta can be very important. At World Cups, it’s very normal to see coaches pre-riding with the athletes helping to sift through the options of a course. The fact that Grant does this at races was one of the things that drew us together.

CXM: What is the split by discipline for your athletes?

CM: I would say most of my athletes are “’cross-specific” these days, but I find doing more than one discipline to be very helpful in the big picture. The only trick to this is keeping folks focused on the big picture, not dwelling on the small picture and not comparing every result to other riders. “I beat so and so in ’cross and how is it possible they beat me so badly at mountain biking?” for example. Someone wise once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

CXM: We’ve seen riders like Tobin, Sarah Sturm, Michael van den Ham, Curtis White and many others embrace gravel as offseason cyclocross training. Is that something you’re having cyclocross athletes do more of? Why or why not?

CM: I say embrace gravel with a big ole hug and a kiss. You can shape an entire cyclocross offseason around gravel races almost entirely. It cracks me up the bike industry keeps saying “Cyclocross is dead. We need to move to gravel.” They need to pan out a bit and look at the whole picture.

The two complement each other very well for both the serious athlete and the participation-based crowd. It’s very easy to ride a gravel race on a ’cross bike or vice versa. The gravel racing can be used to reach any aspect of training that our athletes need and it can be a lot of fun.

CXM: Is it important to seek out a coach who focuses on your specific discipline? 

CM: Cyclocross has some unique challenges and having a coach who understands those challenges mapping things out for you can be a big help. The key to a good ’cross coach, in my opinion, is “we” are always thinking of creative ways to find great adaptation for ’cross-specific elements for our athletes. Whether it’s running sessions or bike session geared around the techniques of cyclocross, the specificity breeds results.

CXM: What should an athlete look for in a coach?  

CM: All too often when I talk with a new athlete and I look at their past training what I see, by and large, is “traditional” training for a road cyclist. What we try to focus on are the particular rigors of cyclocross and not all coaches are doing that.

Athletes should look for a coach who is creating a program specifically built to their needs. For example, the available time to train, racing background and technical skill set required all should influence the program being delivered. Each coach will have their own style and approach, but be sure that your needs as an athlete are being met.

Coaches who know cyclocross can provide valuable insight. 2017 Jingle Cross World Cup © D. Mable / Cyclocross Magazine

CXM: Tobin is obviously one of your more high-profile athletes; is there overlap between the programs you give pros like him and amateurs? 

CM: For sure there is overlap. Basically there are key workouts everyone will do. There is, of course, build up to everything. Be it endurance, running, number of reps, increase of percentage of FTP, etc. I typically have to drive home the importance of rest to the amatuer. More isn’t always better.

CXM: If you gave an amateur a pro’s training plan, what would they be most surprised by?

CM: For a ’cross racer, probably surprised by the number of hours the pros are on the bike—folks always think they need more. It is more about the work that’s being done than the total time. Additionally, they’re spending a good deal of time doing off-the-bike training as well. There’s a good deal (for a cyclist) of running in the plan and strength work as well.

Finally, there are sessions that are focused on the skill sets needed for ’cross. Cornering, mounts and dismounts, bunny hops and other skills need to be practiced to be maintained and honed.

CXM: Tobin didn’t have his best season last year. He changed up a few things, like trying the keto diet and more endurance riding. What were your thoughts at the time regarding this change in approach? How is this offseason different besides diet and broken collarbones? 

CM: Well let’s clarify a few things. First, Tobin didn’t take the advice given on when to stop keto. I don’t know why he didn’t, but he didn’t add carbs back in correctly or in a timely manner. Lesson learned for him.

Second, more endurance riding? I would say that the progression of endurance was appropriate in the big picture of his riding. I would say the lack of road racing last year was really what was lacking come ’cross season. The nutrition bit was a part of it, but his mental state was not in the right place, and we weren’t able to re-direct that during the season.

This year’s offseason hasn’t really been too much different with the exception of nutritional approach and working on Tobin’s “why?” The second collarbone break actually was perfect timing for a rest and switch in the training. Luckily, it was a non-serious injury so it worked out. We have a solid map of base, intensity, running, racing, skills work, altitude, rest, speedwork and fun headed toward the new season

CXM: We’re in mid-June right now; what part of the training cycle is most important for ’cross success? (eg: spring “base,” August intervals, winter trainer riding) 

CM: I would say you have to look at the whole picture. There isn’t one block that is going to set you apart if you haven’t done all the work. For example, you can’t really stand up solid walls for a house without a great foundation being laid.

Right now, I like to have my ’cross folks doing weekly intervals that are getting a little sharper and shorter, but we still have the strength and endurance with some racing days too. No matter the block, the most important thing needs to stay the most important thing. If you’re racing cyclocross, become a better rider of the cyclocross bike. Whether it be handling, seated power, mounts/dismounts, focus the training on improving both strengths and weaknesses to become a better all-around racer.

CXM: What is the one thing you would recommend amateur ’cross racers do right now that they’re probably not doing? 

CM: They’re not specifically training for their discipline. Whether that be a lack of running, intensity or skill work, most athletes are trying to go longer, harder and push more watts. The athletes that succeed in cyclocross aren’t merely the strongest. They’ve developed a myriad of skills and learn how to use those skills to succeed on race day.

CXM: You’ve coached athletes at Geoff Proctor’s Montana Cross Camp, which features a lot of running, hill sprints and soccer-like exercises. How much emphasis do you put on these off-bike workouts?

CM: We have a lot of running (for a cyclist) pretty much year round. There are exceptions, but running and other weight-bearing workouts are super important to the overall fitness of the athlete and to injury prevention.

Running drills similar to what athletes do at Montana Cross Camp are a big part of McGovern’s coaching. Montana Cross Camp, Women, 2017. © Tom Robertson

CXM: How much harder is it to work with an athlete who doesn’t use heart rate monitors or power meters? 

CM: Power meters and heart rate monitors do give a great deal of information to help us coach and help athletes achieve. That being said, cyclocross is a discipline that lives outside normal ranges of power and TSS. Very often athletes comment on how much a race took out of them in ways that are not reflected in their data. We will often use the perceived amount of exertion to define the difficulty of a race or a workout because cyclocross can leave athletes sore and beat up.

Therefore, perceived scale of effort is very useful as well, so if the cost of electronics is an issue, we can defer. PSE is also used to correlate “data” to sensations, and often, sensations are more of the key in a cyclocross setting.

CXM: You’re obviously a bike guy, to what extent do you have athletes train on the bike they will be riding in their races?

CM: Depends on the time of year and the other commitments that rider might have. But I do like the athletes to spend as much time as possible on the ’cross bike.

CXM: You’re teaming up with Grant Holicky of Forever Endurance; what aspects of his coaching are you hoping complement yours? What’s the motivation behind merging your two coaching companies? 

CM: Grant and I met in Luxemburg at Worlds in 2017 and realized that we were personally coaching a chunk of that year’s team between the two of us. We spent a lot of time there—and for several seasons after—comparing notes and talking about finding ways to work together.

Grant and I now are each other’s sounding boards on all things ’cross. Besides all the dorking out on the minutiae of cyclocross, we figure out great ways to train certain things. Whether it is an interval set or skills drill, there are a lot of ideas going back and forth. It also will make for some epic collections of athletes at his group sessions in Boulder and in the trenches at courses.

CXM: Which disciplines are you targeting?

CM: Forever Endurance coaches all disciplines from triathlon and cycling to swimming and running. What Grant and I are hoping to do is create a knowledge base for cyclocross athletes that’s as good as any out there. The two of us are focused primarily on cyclocross and its development in the U.S. We feel that we can offer a great deal to our athletes not only with training plans but with group sessions, camps and boots on the ground at some of the biggest races on the calendar.

CXM: Awesome. Best luck at the new job!

CM: Thank you. I’m excited.