Words by Oskar Scarsbrook
To the uninitiated, cyclocross is that one where riders tackle off-road courses and obstacles atop skinny, knobbly tyres on what looks like a road bike. All this is true, and it’s also arguably the most accessible form of racing.
There is no one way to ride or race cyclocross as the course is as much a rival as your fellow competitors are. The races are usually held on closed circuits with a lapped format and a duration of just an hour. This makes cyclocross fast, often very muddy, safer than road riding and fun for all ages. Perhaps this is why the discipline has created some incredible champions in the world of cycling, not least Tokyo 2020 MTB gold medallist Tom Pidcock. There is no better time to get involved, and with that in mind, this article will take you from your first purchase to the start line.
Where to start
First things first, you’ll want to check out what clubs and leagues there are in your local area – the off-road section of the British Cycling website has a wealth of info and advice to help you get going.
Actually getting started on the bike depends on what background you are coming from. If you are a mountain biker, you will already know the benefits and essentials of off-road riding, but you may not be prepared for the intensity of cross. That and the lack of cushioning suspension. If you’re a road rider you are sure to have the legs and stamina already dialled in but you may be shocked by how technically challenging ’cross action can be. This is why it is well worth hiring a test model from your local bike shop and trying out the discipline before committing. Get the feel of the bike, how your handling changes off-road and the way it makes you feel. Focus on the pure enjoyment of it before worrying about technique and pace, and you will quickly get the cyclocross bug.
What you need
Like any cycling discipline, the equipment options can be quite overwhelming. We’re going to keep it simple though – you need a cyclocross specific bike. They may seem like your average road bike, but look closer and you will notice wider off-road-ready tyres with more clearance to accommodate them, lower gearings and disc brakes. These features are all designed to help a rider cut through the mud without slowing them down.
The ’cross season takes place in autumn and winter, so it’s also vital to dress for the deteriorating conditions. This means that you will not only need a helmet, jersey and a pair of shorts as standard, but also some kit to keep you warm. For training and warm-ups, it’s well worth wearing a base layer, winter cycling jacket, thick gloves, winter socks, and arm and leg warmers. This may seem crazy, but even in the dead of winter, riders still often strip down to just their jersey and shorts. This is because cyclocross is an intense workout and you will quickly warm up after the whistle goes. Too much clothing will lead to overheating.
Before getting into the thick of the action, it’s well worth heading out on your cyclocross bike and finding somewhere to train. This could be a local park, woodland, or an interconnected network of bridleways to form a training route.
Unlike some other disciplines like road riding, which is more about endurance, cyclocross is all in the technique. Before racing it is well worth learning the basics that you will call on in any race scenario. Focus your training on nailing the dismount and remount for obstacles, shouldering your bike to get up steep banks, and developing the skills to handle on different surfaces in changeable conditions. Sometimes, you’ll have to contend with four seasons in one ride or race, so it’s important to learn how to position yourself on the bike. Practise certainly makes perfect, so get out on the trails, ride through the thick mud, over roots and off cambers regularly and your handling will steadily improve. Remember, having the technique is more important than having the best equipment.
Time to race
You have the bike, you’ve found a league and you’ve trained your off-road skills, it’s now time for the baptism of fire that is your first race. You’ll 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. When it’s time, head to the start line when called up for gridding and prepare for the off. The starts are the most intense part of the race and the adrenaline rush will quickly propel you into loving this discipline.
There is nothing quite like a mass of riders hurtling towards a muddy singletrack in some woods. Once the intensity of the start dies down, you will be pushed into your own personal battle. This is the thrill of cyclocross as unlike road riding there is always someone to either catch or stay ahead of. You will be working well above your threshold for most of the hour so focus on the techniques you’ve learned rather than concentrating on your metrics. Over time your confidence will build, and you’ll be a better rider before you know it. When eventually you get the final lap bell, it’s time to exert all the energy you have left in the tank. When you get to the finish exhausted but elated, you will be thrust into the post-race debrief with your rival racers and venue permitting, chat the night away over some food and a beer.
That in a nutshell, is the beauty of cyclocross.
Now you have the tools to search out the perfect route into ’cross, there’s nothing more holding you back. Grab your off-road bike, helmet and map app, and let’s get muddy. As well as covering you and your bike, here at Pedal Cover we also protect you while racing, so all you have to think about is enjoying the ride.