What Is Cyclocross?
Cyclocross racing was developed in Europe in the early 1900’s as a way for road racers to remain fit during the fall and winter. This intense event helped athletes maintain and improve their racing fitness as well as better their bike-handling skills. As the sport grew, some riders abandoned the road-racing scene to become cyclocross specialists. Today, there are cyclists who focus solely on cross while many professional road and mountain bike riders also race cross to keep their engines finely tuned in the off season.
Typical cyclocross courses are 1.5- to 2-mile loops on a mix of paved and off-road surfaces over flat-to-rolling terrain. Elite races generally last an hour and other categories race for 30 to 45 minutes. But, what makes cross such a unique and challenging sport is that courses always include obstacles or difficult sections that force riders to dismount and run while carrying their bikes.
You can expect to come across short, steep (often muddy) pitches, which are nearly impossible to ride. There can be intimidating drop-offs, river crossings and technical singletrack, too. And, many courses include one or several series of man-made barriers scattered about that require riders to carry their bikes over or, if they're really talented, to jump their bikes over the obstacles (called "bunny-hopping"). It's this combination of cycling, carrying, running and scrambling over obstacles that makes cyclocross so exciting, such a phenomenal workout and so much fun!
Why Should I Race?
Cyclocross is hugely popular throughout Europe, especially in Belgium, and it's growing by leaps and bounds every year in North America. Why? Because it's one of the most exhilirating things you can do on a bike! It’s also technically challenging and physically demanding. The effort and skill required to compete elevates your overall racing fitness and leads to great improvement when the spring races roll around.
It Makes You Better
If you’ve raced consistently throughout the spring and summer, take a two- to three-week rest after your last race to allow your body to recuperate from a long, hard season. But, don't make the common mistake of letting your lungs and legs collect dust by resting too long. That'll only make it a real struggle to get in shape come spring.
Instead, grab your rig and take on some cross competition. Keep in mind that you can race mainly for fun and general fitness. You don't have to take it too seriously. And even riding without the goal of world domination, cross will help you a lot. It improves bike handling, boosts your power output and builds your cardiovascular system. You'll be amazed how great you feel and how much more confidence you have on your bike when the race season arrives.
If you're not a racer, you'll still love the way cross improves your skills. Trails that once worried you will seem tame and you'll be able to ride sections you had to walk before.
What Kind Of Bike Do I Need?
The Three Options:
- a cyclocross bike
- a modified mountain bike
- a modified road bike
- Note: To race in the Elite class in UCI-sanctioned races, you must have a bike with drop handlebars, 700c wheels and tires no wider than 35mm
A cyclocross bike is essentially a road bike with some slight frame and component modifications. It features the drop bars and 700c wheels of traditional road bikes, but has cantilever brakes for better stopping power and additional clearance for wide, knobby tires as well as any mud the tires may pick up. The frame boasts widely spaced stays for mud-covered tires to spin freely without jamming and the bottom bracket (where the crankset is mounted) is higher for additional chainring clearance over obstacles, and pedaling through corners.
Gearing is usually easier than on traditional road bikes and selected according to personal preference. Most racers opt to use compact cranks with 34- to 39-tooth inner chainrings and 44- to 50-tooth outers. Some even use a single ring up front in combination with a chainguide for maximum simplicity. And, rear cassettes are typically 12-27s or 13-27s. Tires have tread patterns that hook up in the dirt and mud, while offering low rolling resistance on pavement. Dual-sided mountain-bike clipless pedals are better suited to cross racing than road pedals. They're easy to enter and exit, shed mud well, and work with off-road shoes which boast treads on the outsole for better traction when running.
Benefits: Cyclocross bikes are light, easy to carry, fast, handle beautifully and offer heaps of mud clearance. Plus, these bikes can be used for road riding, commuting and touring just by changing tires and gearing.
Many people use their off-road rigs for cyclocross racing. If you have bar-ends on your bike, take ‘em off because, for safety reasons, USA Cycling strictly forbids their use. Also, take off the frame pump, seat bag, water-bottle cages and any other epic-ride accouterments you may have slapped on your knobby-tired friend. These are unnecessary and will only weigh you down. You’ll also want to throw on narrower, semi-slick tires, which are easier to pedal and faster than fatter knobbies. Plus, narrow tires offer more clearance on muddy race days. Although it’s not necessary, you can save weight and improve efficiency by removing your front shock and installing a rigid fork. Suspension is not necessary for cross because courses are fairly smooth.
Benefits: If you're on a tight budget and you have a good mountain bike, converting it to be more cross-friendly is a good way to go. Plus, after a season of racing cross on a mountain bike you’ll acquire the handling skills of a pro. But remember, if you want to race in the Elite class in UCI-sanctioned races, you must have a bike with road-style handlebars, 700c wheels and tires no wider than 35mm.
You can use a road bike for cyclocross, but only in dry, non-technical conditions. On muddy courses, the brakes and stays will get clogged with mud, jamming the wheels and forcing you to run the entire race or drop out. That's no fun at all! And, almost all road bikes do not have the clearance needed to run knobby tires. Turning in slick grass on narrow, smooth road tires is a daring endeavor. But, if you live in a predictably dry climate and your road bike can accept wider tires, go for it. However, you can improve your cross experience by modifying your bike's gearing as described in the Cyclocross Bike section above, removing your water-bottle cages and swapping your road pedals for dual-sided mountain bike ones.
Benefits: This is a decent option for experiencing the thrill of cross without spending a lot of dough. And, you’ll be able to race in an Elite-level, UCI-sanctioned event without any worries. But, remember that this option doesn't work well in muddy or technical conditions. Also, if you've got an expensive road bike, keep in mind that cross racing is very hard on equipment. Expect paint chips, bent wheels, broken parts, etc.
What Makes Cyclocross So Unique?
Cyclocross races range from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your category. Although you’ll need to train hard to be competitive, you won’t need to log nearly the amount of saddle time required to compete in road- or mountain-bike races.
Road racers are supported by a team car or teammates if they have mechanical problems. Mountain bike racers are mostly self-sufficient (new rules allow racers to make repairs in technical zones on the course). Cyclocross racers, however, have what’s known as a pit, where they can exchange complete bikes or wheels should they have a mechanical problem. Of course, you need two bikes and/or spare wheels in order to take advantage of the pit. Most top riders have two (sometimes three) bikes for an important cross race. The majority of racers usually just have a pair of wheels for back-up in case they flat.
If you've got the luxury of mechanical support and the conditions are muddy, you can hand off your filthy rig to your mechanic, who hands you a clean one. Then, while you're racing, your wrench is frantically cleaning and lubing the bike in case you need it again. In a complete mudfest, you might actually exchange bikes every lap. You also exchange bikes if you have a mechanical problem or a flat tire.
Make no mistake about it, running is an integral part of cyclocross. In fact, cross is the one cycling discipline where strong runners occasionally excel. Running sections are usually short, steep and difficult. And they offer a unique element you won’t find in typical road or off-road races. In fact, knowing when to run can change the race outcome. For example, if you try to ride through a bad muddy section and get bogged down and have to stop, the racer who chose to run it, will leave you in the dust. Also, narrow parts of the course sometimes become bottlenecks where running can be faster than riding and you can sprint past struggling riders who would otherwise slow you down.
How Do I Join The Fun?
Swing by the shop and we'll show you some awesome cross rigs from our favorite brands or we can even help you modify your current steed so you can get in on the scene. And we'll give you the scoop on local races and training rides, too.