We’re fast approaching autumn which means only one thing in the cycling world, the slowing down of the road season and the beginning of our favourite winter pursuit, cyclocross. Blending the aspects of pretty much every other two-wheeled discipline, cyclocross is arguably the most accessible form of them all, and with races held over an hour on closed circuits with a lapped format, it’s safer than other forms of racing. Truly a battle of rider versus machine versus course versus opponent, if you’re partial to a bit of mud and rough and tumble, this might just be the perfect venture for you.
What is cyclocross?
Mixing road, mud and gravel, cyclocross combines the best of all types of cycling until the moment, amusingly, at which it feels like you’re never quite on the right bike. With knobbly tyres across an assault course of a route with man-made obstacles to contend with, it’s quite unique.
A race is typically an hour long, although some categories are shorter, with field sizes reaching the high 90s in some instances. Bike handling is important but, quite unlike any other discipline, a lot of emphasis is put into various off-bike sections. You might have to dismount your bike in certain places to vault a hurdle, run up some steps or trudge through a particularly muddy section, for instance.
By the end of an hour of all this, your legs will no doubt be screaming with lactate, and you will have put yourself through one of your most intense workouts ever. Crucially though, this fast-paced competitive racing is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and give you an almighty buzz, no matter where you are in the field.
How to start
The first thing to do is get a cyclocross specific bike. They may seem like your average road bike, but look closer and you will notice wider, off-road specific tyres, lower gearings, more clearance and disc brakes. These features are all utilised to help a rider cut through the mud without slowing them down.
You will also need to dress for the conditions. This means that you will not only need a helmet, jersey and a pair of shorts as standard, but also some to kit to keep you warm. Think base layers, winter cycling jacket, thick gloves, winter socks, and arm and leg warmers. When it comes to racing in the winter, warm up in all the gear but try and shed as much as possible before the off, bar the important extremity protecting pieces, to avoid the risk of overheating.
Cyclocross makes you a better all-round cyclist
A cyclocross bike is the Swiss army knife of the sport – it’s not just the perfect race bike, it can be used to train and as a winter commuter too. The skills and confidence you obtain and develop on the CX bike are also transferrable to other disciplines. Just look at Tom Pidcock descending Alpe d’Huez, Mathieu van der Poel flying up cobbled climbs or Wout van Aert conquering pretty much every type of terrain he possibly could, it all began with cyclocross.
How to train
If you are already an off-road rider you will already know how it feels to ride on the rough stuff, but there is an intensity to CX that is quite unlike anything else, and the relative lack of suspension on a cross bike will seem ghastly at first. If you’re a road rider, it’s the legs and stamina that you’ll already have dialled in, but you may be shocked by how technically challenging ‘cross action can be. This is where training comes in, to get familiar with the feel of a bike and how it changes off-road. Of course, stamina is important and long road rides will help in this regard, but in autumn it might be time to think about altering your training schedule to improve this intensity. This can be done in the form of interval training, going up in a pyramid style on your rides and working at or above threshold for periods of time. This form of training can also be done on a home trainer.
Skills to master
As well as aerobic improvement, there are a few on-bike skills to master too. Mainly how to corner on loose surfaces and how to dismount. The internet is your friend here, and there is a wealth of how-to videos to take you through the crucial skills step by step. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can start finessing the fun stuff like bunny-hopping obstacles and technical elements like running with your bike.
Head to the off-road section of the British Cycling website and find your local clubs and leagues to get into racing. The majority of local events will allow you to race on a mountain bike so you don’t have to invest in a race-specific bike just as you’re getting started. You will want to arrive an hour or two ahead of the start just so that you can sign on, have a pre-race snack, practise on the course, get your bike ready and socialise with the other riders. Then when it’s time, head to the start line and prepare for the off.
The starts are the most intense part of the race and will quickly sweep you up into why so many of us love this discipline. Once the adrenaline of the start dies down after a few laps, you will be pushed into your own personal battle. This is the glory of cyclocross as unlike road riding there is always someone to either catch or stay ahead of. Over time your confidence will build, and before you know it, you will become a better rider. You’ll be combing through the calendar for the next race in no time.
Let’s make 2022 your winter of cyclocross. Grab your off-road bike, helmet and kit, sign up for your nearest race, get muddy and have some of the best fun you can have on two wheels.
Don’t forget, cyclocross racing is covered as standard on listed bikes with our bundled home and bike insurance, so what are you waiting for?!