Cyclocross is an inherently humorous genre in our two-wheeled sports world. A friend and pro CX racer once summed it up as “a bunch of people riding around public parks in their underwear getting covered in mud. The bikes are terrible for mountain biking and make sub-par road machines. It’s ridiculous, and I love it.” The fundamental jest of sliding around in the mud and sand on skinny tires for 45-60 minutes opens cyclocross up to a measure of fun and folly that some other racing genres lack. Mid lap beer hand-ups and regular costume races are a few of the many ways ‘cross balances competition with celebration.
Cyclocross is fundamentally a racing genre. You can’t truly go for a “cyclocross ride” in the same way you might roll out for a trail or road ride. The genre is directly tied to competition, requiring race tape, squirrel-like dismounts, and running sections in order to differentiate it from the road criteriums and short-track mountain bike races it otherwise resembles. For riders who want to add variety to their cycling story, ‘cross is decidedly different.
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Whether you set up a course to race your buddies in a nearby park, or sign up for an official UCI event, cyclocross can benefit your winter mountain biking experience in some significant ways.
The most evident benefit of racing cyclocross during the fall and early winter is to maintain some of the fitness you gained over the summer months. ‘Cross races are short, and for most amateurs, training consumes a fraction of the saddle-time needed to compete in cross-country events. If your trails are too wet to ride through the fall, or you simply can’t self-motivate to go pedal in colder weather, a few short and sharp rides per week can be enough to prepare you for a fully pinned effort in your local weekend CX races. The retained fitness should help you feel a bit better on subsequent winter and spring rides than you would if you had opted to ride the couch, and you might have better luck keeping the “winter weight” in check.
Racing cyclocross offers a fantastic chance to hone your skills in loose sand and mud, and to grow a real appreciation for drifting tires. Proper cross races take place under a dense cloud cover, with flurries and downpours added in for flavor. Racers quickly learn how to carry momentum into the sloppier sections, as pedaling alone won’t always propel their bike to the other side. When your bike’s original weight is doubled with mud you learn to locate deep puddles that will wash some of the heavier muck away. The traditionally slick courses make proper body weight distribution a key factor in keeping your bike upright, and the dance for balance and traction will put all of your stabilizer muscles on alert.
Apart from skills forced on you via inclement weather, bunny hopping barriers to maximize pedaling time, and roots to save your skinny 33mm max-width tires from punctures are some worthwhile techniques to master throughout the season. As CX is often interlaced with a proper party, learning to ride with a beer in one hand might just push your bike-handling prowess toward a new peak.
Lacking suspension and any real need for leaping engineering innovations, cyclocross bikes can be reasonably inexpensive. You can pick up a decent cyclocross bike for around $1,000, and race that same whip for many years to come. Apart from the addition of disc brakes, ‘cross bike frames have not changed all that much over the past fifteen years, so there is no need to swap them out like you might a full-suspension mountain bike. Furthermore, with fewer moving parts, you can typically learn to work on every bit of your CX bike by yourself. Wet conditions call for frequent wheel bearing, bottom bracket, headset bearing, and brake pad replacement, which are skills you can learn fairly quickly.
A side benefit of owning a cyclocross bike is that they make versatile training tools. The frames almost always have space for full fenders and two bottle cages, making them ideal for winter road riding. They can also work well as an adventure or light bikepacking rig, gravel bike, or a quasi mountain bike if the trails are flowy enough. While you can certainly race CX on your mountain bike, and loads of people do, the weight difference is significant. If you genuinely want to give cyclocross a go, a proper CX bike will be worth the investment.
Lastly, there is almost always a party associated with ‘cross events. You might meet new folks to ride with or make new friends who you can introduce to mountain biking. At the very least you can have a slippery laugh with a group of fun-loving cyclists while the weather might otherwise have you all locked indoors.
Have you raced cyclocross in the past, or do you plan to this season? What are some of the benefits that CX racing brings to your mountain bike experience?