By Jim Merrett
Cyclocross is one of Britain’s fastest growing sports. It also boasts the highest participant levels for competing cyclists in the country. A cross between mountain biking and It’s a Knockout, with an Ibiza foam party thrown in for good measure, it might just be the most fun you can have on (or off) a bike.
Here, UK champion Ian Field and US champion Jeremy Powers break down the 10 things you need to know about cyclocross.
1 | It’s sort of like a steeplechase. But with a bike.
“Cyclocross is a one hour race that takes place around a circuit which is normally 2-3km long,” says UK champion Ian Field, who rides for Hargroves Cycles. “The course can take in any sort of surface, from tarmac to sand to mud and grass. It is a massed start event and first across the line wins.”
“One ‘what-the-heck-are-those-guys-doing?’ factor unique to cyclocross is carrying the bicycle while running,” says US champion Jeremy Powers, who rides for Team Rapha-Focus. “A good cross course should be about 90 per cent rideable with barriers — stairs, steep run-ups and other obstacles (natural or man-made) requiring riders to dismount.
“For short obstacles riders will push their bikes by the handlebars while running along side, but for the long runs riders will carry their bikes over their right shoulders using a very specific technique. It seems oxymoronic to run with a bicycle in a cycling race, but there are times when it is the fastest way forward.”
2 | It began in Belgium. Or maybe France. Or possibly Switzerland.
“It dates back to the 1900s when a French army private decided to ride a bike instead of a horse as transport,” Field says.
Powers says that championships were soon held across Europe, hence the Alpine slant to the sport (frites and cowbells feature heavily). “Early events were held in winter,” he says, explaining why it has more recently been adopted by road cyclists in their off-season.
“The first US cyclocross race was held in New England in 1975 and the region remains one of the domestic hotbeds. The San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Northwest also caught on in the Seventies.”
3 | It’s a spectators’ sport.
“Think about the Tour de France and how fans will stand roadside for hours just to catch a glimpse of the riders as they speed by,” Powers says. “Cross gives a very close connection for the fans — they can see so much of the course and they can see the riders a number of times each lap.”
4 | But it’s also very much a participants’ sport.
“The sport is growing really fast,” Field says. “In terms of regular participation levels it must be one of the highest for any racing discipline in the UK. So many people are taking up the sport or getting into cycling through cyclocross because it is such a safe accessible discipline.”
“The challenge of the sport and the surrounding lifestyle of camaraderie are drawing women and juniors in large numbers,” Powers adds. “Trust me, you never have to work hard to get kids to ride bikes in mud.
“It’s quite common to see entire families racing throughout the day and then picnicking with friends as they watch the elite men and women race.”
5 | Want to take part? All you need is a bike.
“A mountain bike would be absolutely ready to go for any local cyclocross,” Field says. “No modifications would be needed until things started to get a bit more serious — thinner, faster tyres could be fitted but apart from that you could compete quite happily.
“A specific cyclocross bike would be required for national events. It is very similar to a road bike, but with some very important changes: the brakes are designed to allow for wider tyres and frames and forks have more clearance for this same reason. Gearing is lower than a standard road bike as well to allow for the lower speeds off road.”
6 | Next, learn the basics.
“The dismounting and remounting of the bike being one of the main skills required,” Field says. “It sounds easy but to get right it takes quite a bit of time. Apart from that the sport is so easy to literally turn up to and have a go at the best bit of advice would be to just turn up to a local event and give it a go.”
“It feels awesome to nail a dismount smoothly or ride up a tough section,” Powers says. “Get some friends together and practice. Find a skills clinic — there everywhere these days — and go out. Make mistakes, ask questions, keep practicing.
“I recommend a little bit of running training, too. For more help, see my Jeremy Powers Cross Camp video tutorial series.”
7 | Dress appropriately.
“If you’re warm at the start line of a race, you’re overdressed,” Powers says. “After one lap of max effort your body heats up so it’s likely you’re best dressed with fewer items on that you might think at first.
“As temperatures gets colder a good set of legwarmers and neoprene gloves are vital. Base layers are important and nothing beats wool for base layers. Wool keeps you warm even when wet and you will get wet racing cross. A good set of gloves will definitely go a long way.”
“In the US, we really appreciate riders going outside the norms of cycling apparel."
8 | Watch your food and drink intake before a race.
“We eat a lot of easily digestible snacks before the events,” Powers says. “Sometimes even liquid-based because if you're eating too much food just before the start of a cyclocross race and it's very bumpy, you typically get an upset stomach.
“Water bottles are not advised for racing because their placement on the bike interferes with carrying the bike. It’s also very likely that the course difficulty and race speed will require hands on the bars at all times. Races are short and as you learn the process you’ll learn how to prepare for a race effort without taking food and water.”
9 | Pack a Thermos.
“I’d say it’s essential to have warm fluids on a cold training day,” Powers says. “Cross is an autumn/winter sport, so you're going to have to have some stuff to keep yourself warm.”
10 | There will be mud. And cowbells.
"The cowbells are a big part of Swiss heritage," Powers says. "They've stuck, especially in the US. We've really adopted the cowbell as a good, fun way to cheer on and make noise on the sidelines."
Resource: Esquire Magazine UK