Cyclocross Basics: A Beginner’s Guide

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Cyclocross Basics: A Beginner’s Guide

Even though the sport of cyclocross has been around in Europe since the early 1900s, it remains a relatively new discipline to most cyclists in the U.S. The good news is, more and more events are popping up around the country, and make for an excellent way to continue building fitness and improving bike-handling skills.

With short, looped courses featuring a mix of obstacles on paved and off-road terrain, cyclocross events usually only last 30 minutes to one hour, making them ideal for beginners and expert cyclists alike. While the party-like atmosphere of these events are guaranteed to provide about as much fun as you can have on a bike, the mud and other obstacles you’ll encounter require you to have a different set of skills from what you might be used to with road cycling or even mountain biking.

From perfecting the running dismount to tackling muddy corners correctly, this series provides you with everything you need to know to jump into the thrilling sport of cyclocross.

WHAT IS CYCLOCROSS?

In countries like Belgium, France, Italy and the Netherlands, cyclocross is one of the most popular cycling disciplines. Luckily, more and more areas in the U.K. and U.S. are seeing a boom in popularity, and races can be found across the globe from September through the world championships, which normally take place during the first week of February.

Like the steeplechase in track and field or cross-country running, cyclocross requires cyclists to clear obstacles as they cover a variety of terrain. This can include road, grass, dirt, mud, sand and even things like man-made wooden obstacles. The atmosphere at most races is usually wild and party-like, with fans around the course tooting horns or ringing bells while consuming plenty of adult beverages.

The distance of each race can vary, with most routes being held on a loop course that’s about 5K or less. Total time for races is commonly set between 30 minutes and an hour. Once the time limit has expired, race organizers allow the leaders of the race to ride one final lap to determine the winner, while the others who are further behind are forced to pull out once time has expired.

Because of the obstacles and shorter distance, races are usually stop-and-go and ridden at a blistering pace. During an event, cyclists may be forced to run, carry their bikes for short distances, and complete BMX-style maneuvers like bunny hops to clear some of the barriers. This forces cyclists to use a variety of bike-handling skills, including mounting and dismounting quickly, navigating terrain like mud that makes it hard to steer and brake, and make quick decisions to stay upright. But despite all of the complications, cyclocross is known for fun above all else, with most competitors outside of the pro circuit caring little about place and instead focus on enjoying the wild and crazy atmosphere.

THE GEAR YOU NEED

One of the cool things about cyclocross is you can use whatever you have. Whether it’s a mountain bike or road bike, a lot of amateur competitors make modifications to bikes they already own to make it work. This might include knobby tires in the 30c to 40c width range, v-style or disc brakes, and forks with additional clearance to keep the wheels spinning in the mud.

The ideal cyclocross bike is somewhere between a mountain and road bike. The geometry is normally aggressive like a road bike since they are built to go as fast as possible. The frames are also light, forgoing things like bottle cages and mudguards. Drop handlebars are normally used, while mountain bike adaptations such as disc brakes, shock-absorbing technology (a front shock, in some cases), and additional clearance in the rear stays, bottom bracket and front fork are often used. Gearing is usually limited too to save weight, with one-by drivetrains becoming more popular on dedicated cyclocross bikes and a limited range on rear cassettes.

As for your other gear, cyclocross pedals and shoes are more like mountain bike offerings than they are road. This is because you’ll be mounting and dismounting frequently, and you’ll need pedals with dual-side entry and shoes you can run in. Other than that, you can wear whatever cycling kit and helmet you already have — the wilder the better.

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START

The learning curve can seem steep at first, but in reality, you’ll only need to make a few adjustments before you sign up for an event. Once you’ve got a bike setup, going to watch a cyclocross race or two before you decide to ride one is usually a good idea. This helps you get a good idea of what will be required of your bike-handling skills and the terrain you’ll have to navigate.

As for your fitness, interval training can closely mimic what you’ll be forced to do on a cyclocross course. In some cases, it can feel a lot like sprinting from obstacle to obstacle with some short punchy hills in between, then dismounting to clear the obstacle. As you get more confident in your bike-handling and the type of obstacles you can manage while staying on the bike, you’ll need to dismount less and less and rely on your skills more.

Of course, you’ll need to practice your bike-handling to get good at cyclocross, which is one of the reasons you should give the sport a try. Heading to a park or other area to practice in a safe environment is definitely recommended. Bunny hops, mounting and dismounting, riding through mud and over tree roots, and carrying your bike correctly are all skills you’ll need to master.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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