The word “cyclocross” invokes a unique blend of images and sounds. Mud-splattered cyclists running up hills with bikes flung over their shoulders. Riders smoothly dismounting, leaping over barriers, then jumping back on. Loud cheers, the clanging of cowbells, camaraderie and fun. Indeed, ’cross is arguably the most approachable bike racing discipline. Most amateur races last just 45 minutes, and the wide array of ability-based categories make it beginner friendly.
Never heard of cyclocross, you say? Here’s a quick primer. The sport traces its roots to Europe, where it developed as a way for road racers to stay fit during the winter. Cyclocross courses are typically 1.5-2 miles in length, usually consisting of pavement, dirt trail, grass, and if Mother Nature is acting up, a little mud or even snow. Courses also include obstacles such as barriers, steep hills and sand sections, which force racers to dismount their bikes, negotiate the obstacle, then get back on and start pedaling again. Expect to do 5-7 laps of the course during a race.
The cyclocross season runs mid-September to mid-January. And while the sport’s epicenter is central Europe, there’s a thriving and rapidly growing ’cross scene in North America. Hotspots such as Oregon, Colorado, the Carolinas and New England boast at least two races per weekend throughout the fall and early winter months. Entry fees typically run $25-$35, and there are almost always beginner races for those new to the sport.
Cyclocross bikes look similar to road bikes, save for a few modifications. Tires are slightly wider and have a small amount of tread for better traction on dirt and mud. Cantilever style brakes are used to provide better clearance in muddy conditions, but disc brakes are becoming increasingly popular. And the frames are generally a little sturdier to better absorb the rougher riding conditions. But if you don’t have a cyclocross bike, don’t fret. Most races permit the use of mountain bikes as long as they don’t have bar-ends.
Because cyclocross races are held on muddy fields, they require a few extra pieces of equipment, as discussed below.
- Mountain bike shoes are necessary because they have lugged outsoles which give you traction and make it easier to run
- Mountain bike pedals provide superior mud clearing abilities, making it easier to clip back in after running through a muddy field
- Warm riding clothing, such as long sleeve jerseys, skin suits, or knee warmers may be necessary since most ‘cross races take place during the colder months
Before you sign up for a race, it's best to practice a few basic skills. The most iconic, and intimidating, of these is the flying dismount-remount. To practice, head over to your local park, find an open patch of grass, and try dismounting your bike, running while carrying it, and then getting back on at speed. This will seem awkward at first, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it.
- Make sure both hands are secure on your handlebars
- Unclip your right foot and swing it behind the bike over to your left side
- As your right foot hits the ground on the left side, unclip your left foot
- Start running
Depending on the obstacle, you’ll likely want to pick your bike up either by shouldering it, or employing the “suitcase” method where you simply carry the bike out to your side. Shouldering is more ideal for running up steep slopes or negotiating lengthy obstacles, whereas the “suitcase” method is preferable for small, immediate obstacles.
- To shoulder your bike, grab your down tube with your right hand, then snake your arm through the frame, and lift it to your shoulder
- Secure your bike in place by reaching around the front of the frame and grabbing your handlebars on the opposite side
- For the “suitcase” method, simply grab your bike securely by the handlebars with your left hand, and by the top tube with your right hand
- Lift it as high as needed to clear the obstacle.
- Set your bike down smoothly so it doesn’t bounce around
- Place both hands back on the bars
- Hop back on by swinging your right leg over your saddle and landing your foot back on the right pedal
Don’t worry if you’re clumsy at first. It takes a little practice to perfect these unique skills.
Once you get a few races under your belt, you’ll see and feel the difference in your on-road and off-road riding. Bike handling skills will improve, and you’ll be able to maintain fitness in the off-season without spending all your time indoors on the stationary trainer.