Races typically take place in the autumn and winter (the international or “World Cup” season is October–February), and consist of many laps of a short (2.5–3.5 km or 1.5–2 mile) course featuring pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and remount.
Races for senior categories are generally between 30 minutes and an hour long, with the distance varying depending on the ground conditions. The sport is strongest in the traditional road cycling countries such as Belgium (Flanders in particular), France and the Netherlands.
Cyclo-cross has parallels with mountain bike racing, cross-country cycling and criterium racing. Many of the best cyclo-cross riders cross train in other cycling disciplines; however, cyclo-cross has reached such size and popularity that some racers are specialists, and many prioritize cyclo-cross races over other disciplines.
A cyclo-cross rider is allowed to change bicycles and receive mechanical assistance during a race. While the rider is on the course on one bike, their pit crew can clean, repair and oil a spare.
Endurance & Bike-Handling
Compared with other forms of cycle racing, tactics are fairly straightforward, and the emphasis is on the rider’s aerobic endurance and bike-handling skills. Drafting, where cyclists form a line with the lead cyclist pedalling harder while reducing the wind resistance for other riders, is of much less importance than in road racing where average speeds are much higher than in cyclo-cross.
Cyclo-cross bicycles are similar to road racing bicycles: lightweight, with somewhat narrow tyres and drop handlebars. They are typically differentiated by their greater tyre clearances, lower gearing, stronger frames, cantilever brakes or disc brakes and more upright riding position. They also share characteristics with mountain bicycles in that they use knobbly tread tyres for traction and, increasingly, disc brakes.
They have to be lightweight because competitors need to carry their bicycle to overcome barriers or slopes too steep to climb in the saddle. The sight of competitors struggling up a muddy slope with bicycles on their shoulders is the classic image of the sport, although unrideable sections are generally a very small fraction of the race distance.
A few pointers...
- Get a bike. OK, you don’t really need a specific CX bike to try it out. Mountain bikes will work fine, just take off the bar ends and add some air to the shocks to stiffen them up a bit. Once you are hooked and decide to get a real CX bike, like any bike, a proper fit is critical. Compared to your road bike, your handlebar position will be a little higher and closer to you. In most cases, you will get the same size bike as your road bike. CX bikes tend to already come with slightly shorter top tubes.
- Practise skills. Cyclocross is filled with elements not typically encountered on your average road or mountain bike ride. Getting off/on your bike efficiently, running over the little barriers with your bike, running up steep embankments, tons of low-speed tight turns, transitions to/from different surface types are all unique to cross. Learning how to do these skills efficiently and effectively will help you conquer the bike driving side of cross, a significant piece of the overall puzzle of cross racing. Even for more experienced cross racers, intentional practise of these skills will help dust off those cobwebs from last season and develop greater proficiency and speed.
- Experiment with tyres and pressures. There is a reason why pros show up to CX races with a quiver of tyre choices. Tyres make the biggest difference when it comes to sticking like Velcro or sliding on your rear end. For the beginner, choose an all-purpose tyre and experiment with different tyre pressures in different conditions. It needs to be firm enough to not pinch flat, but soft enough to conform to the ground for best traction. Different courses require different pressures.
- Play in the mud. The cyclocross cult is perhaps the only discipline of bike racing where people actually get excited when the conditions turn poor. Embrace your dirty soul, get out there in the rain and the snow and race your bike. You know you wouldn’t be riding at all on that day if you weren’t in a cross race.
- Just do it. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve been riding your bike, how dirty your bike is from the last time you rode it, or how scared you are of the sand pit in turn 2, just do the race and have fun!