Cyclocross racing is a really pure form of off-road racing. Possibly the purest. That’s not to say the ‘best’ etc. – this is a broad church and all the road, track and MTB disciplines are very cool – but cyclocross has an absolute simplicity about it. It’s also complex, so listen up.
Most guides will tell us that it was ‘invented’ by road riders to stay fit in the winter. I buy that, a bit, but it was always a sport destined to happen, as soon as bikes were invented.
The early days of bike racing blended running athletes with cycling athletes anyway, and the first race challenges back then (early 1900s) in France were known as steeplechases – where people would race each other from town to town across fields and heathland.
Cyclocross stuck around but saw a bit of a renaissance in the late 80s and early 90s when mountain bikes came onto the scene. The wake-up call was for technology, too, and it has grown in popularity now beyond recognition.
Cyclocross is predominantly a winter sport. Stoics please step forward. Riding round muddy fields is for tough women, men, girls and boys only.
Essentially aside from muddy (and icy, sandy, leafy, gravelly) races, the only other big defining factor is that the races are held on short, closed courses of 1.5 to 2 miles in length, and held over a fixed time, rather than a distance. The norm is 1 hour.
That makes it a good spectator sport, and spectators can see a lot of the action from a single spot, and get to watch the race unfold and develop, just like they can in velodromes. It also shares a family-friendliness with track and BMX racing, where young (very young) children.
Courses and Gear
It’s normally parkland or publicly owned land. The beauty of the courses is often in the diversity. Simple or complex, they’re always tough. Hills are almost always very short. There’s little or no single track encouraged on a course although it’s normal to have a narrow ‘preferred race line’. It’s important that there’s plenty of room for overtaking. Especially with so many lapped riders in larger fields (see race format below)
As a winter sport, the terrain is often (if nor always?) filthy for at least some of the course. Bikes get muddy, clogged with leaves, grass, and generally stuck together, so at the top end of race fields you’ll expect riders to swap bikes in the pit area as their helpers deal with cleaning the dirty bike.
If you don’t have mates or know anyone, find out about local events here on British Cycling’s site calendar here
I guarantee they are friendly, and you will not come last. The fields are normally pretty big and you’ll have fun. Try to get there a couple of times before your event start time.
You can hone your training and prep by watching the skills videos below.
Traditionally races for Elite men last for roughly one hour, and Elite Women and Juniors 40 minutes, with Men’s under 23s races sandwiched in between at 50 minutes.
After the start, judges note lap times and work out how many laps the leader of the race will fit in to meet the time slot. Then a ‘laps to go’ board comes out, and when the leading rider crosses the finish line, all the riders stop as and when they cross the finish line. This means that lapped riders all get a finish position, but that is based on the number of laps as well as the order over the line. Chaos can sometimes ensue for judges but they somehow seem to get it right even though the minor placings can take a few hours to fully calculate.
In reality, only the really large events (UCI International and National level) have so many dedicated events, and at your regular local UK Cyclocross race, you’re more likely to see a separate Womens and Veterans race, where Junior men will race with senior men
There’s also a number of younger people’s races on a traditional race day, and in the North West league, where I normally race, we’d see five separate events for Under 10s, Under 12s, Youth (u16), Women / Vet and Senior / Juniors.
It is always, always about the bike. People who say it’s not about the bike must be on drugs. However, the beauty is, the bike needn’t cost you an arm and a leg – there are some great bikes (here!) that top-level riders ride and the playing field from all the suppliers on quality is pretty even. The ‘it looks like a road bike’ thing is soon gotten over once you’re ridden a ‘cross bike. Wider tyres, better brakes, more clearance and a higher bottom bracket may sound like minor tweaks, but this will ride very differently.
Generally, if you’re new, I’d say Disc Brakes are the best option – they’re here to stay and cantilevers are generally more and more for the obsessive and those who can afford to replace their rims. There’s a world of debate still on the various merits – I personally am lucky enough to have both options but if I rode one bike it’d have disc brakes. Once you get going in filthy mud and leaves, brakes will be the last of your worries, believe me. There have been races where they are touched once or twice per lap.
Gears are a step down from road bikes and single chainring systems are gradually becoming more popular as the technology improves. Losing a front shifter and its associated cables and clamps is valuable on a bike that rides on muddy, cloggy courses. You don’t need and won’t use a large gear. 46 / 38 front rings have been the norm for most pros for years and even they are switching slowly to 44 and even some 42 rings.
There’s nothing quite like watching the pro riders do it. Here’s a full race if you have time. Great to watch the different lines chosen, strenghts and weaknesses of each rider, and basically the whole thing unfold.
How races pan out
Cyclocross is less overtly tactical than track or road racing. The nature of what goes on under your tyres means it’s harder to get any benefit from drafting or even take any decent pace at all from other riders. Add to that the slow speed of some corners and the need to kick hard out of them, and from a rider physiology point, cyclocross is probably a nearer cousin to criterium racing than it is to Mountainbike racing.
There’s a lasting image of cyclocross riders dismounting and carrying bikes. Whilst it’s rare to have running sections of more than a few seconds (hurdles, steps, muddy banks), they do still help set cyclocross aside from other cycle sports and like many aspects of a race, they can play to strengths or weaknesses.
The first laps are always fast. There’s no bunch mentality here, it’s a game of getting ahead of anything that can slow you down, and trying to stick there, whether you’re in 1st, 51st or 101st position – there’s always a race to be had and that race goes on the gun.
Fitness, Skills and Prep
Cyclocross favours the strong and fit, like any sport, but riders who work on technique get payback, as seconds saved here and there all add up over the course of an hour. This is one of the reasons that cyclocross breeds obsession amongst racers. It’s feasible to get better and better even during the course of a race because it’s natural as a rider to learn by riding the same course multiple times. That’s part of the reward, really.
On that hard camber, tricky, fast corner, or slippy climb, you’ll need to and start to work out the best ways for you to get through. I say ‘you’ because it’s not always the same for all the riders. The heavier, lighter, more or less powerful, the more or less confident… there’s a right way for you and you can work it out. That’s one of the many reasons it’s normal for a cyclocross rider to pre-ride a course quite a bit and get used to it.
If you’re really intimidated and can’t stand the idea of a race with nobody to help you through,then the best thing to do is get someone to help. British Cycling have local clubs who can help (look in their club directory) or you can find experts online who will give specific coaching. Seek out a local coach or ask at a local bike club.
Hungry for more?
The world wide web, eh? We’re all at it! Many say that the huge growth in cycle sport across the board is down to the web and there is plenty of mileage in that. Here’s the pick of the bunch. for you… no money has changed hands: these are all good places!
Known to many as Crossjunkie, rider Alan Dorrington teams up with cycling coach Mark Turner to give some great advice, niche know-how and reviews. Skills training and race prep courses are also available
The governing body for cycling sport on our shores and the go-to place for races and grass-roots results as well as lots of official documentation and the technical rule book
Brit Konrad Manning upped sticks and went to live in Belgium, heartland of cyclocross, he loved it so much. Konrad’s website is full of reporting and in-depth knowledge and insight into the pro continental scene
The UK’s only official cyclocross magazine started out as an app-only offering, but in 2015 it has matured into a printed delight to adorn any coffee table. Editor Jeff Smallwood is on Euro soil but contributors are usually the UK CX cognoscenti