On the face of it, cyclo-cross can seem a bit strange to those who have never seen the sport. Why would you race what is essentially a normal bicycle around a field that is often very muddy and do all this in the freezing temperatures that come with winter in Northern Hemisphere. However, there are cyclists who take delight in doing just that, and race against like-minded individuals in competitions and contests around the globe.
Racing on a mountain biking on similar terrain seems so much easier, but cyclo-cross has a certain pull. To some it is a mixture of the best elements of road bike racing, mountain biking and just a touch of cross-country running in one sport. Despite what appears to be a tough mental and physical challenge, the general consensus is the sport is fun to do.
So what exactly is cyclo-cross?
It’s sort of like a steeplechase in horse racing. But with a bike. At its most simple level cyclo-cross is an offroad form of bike racing that will see racers encounter barriers or obstacles on the course. Typically a modified road race bike rather than a mountain bike is used by competitors to race. Terrain raced on can be grass, dirt, gravel, meadowland, woodland or even sand. Due to the seasonal weather, it’s mostly mud on the ground!
Obstacles can mostly be ridden over, but if a rider can’t they will have to get off their bike and carry the bike around or over the obstacle. Similarly if a part of the course is unrideable, then the rider can dismount and run with his bike on his shoulders. This is a common occurrence.
The French dreamed it up
Cyclo-cross, also known as CX, dates back to cycle racing in France in the early 1900s. In those days, there were very few roads so riders would more often then not go offroad to get to a finish line. This often meant riding through farmers’ fields, forests and up hills. On these routes riders would have to clamber over fences and other obstacles to try and get the better of their competitors. Wading through river streams wasn’t uncommon!
By the 1950s, races became more organised and simplified with courses becoming much shorter and being based on circuit racing. Cyclo-cross was also starting to be seen as a autumn or winter sport. The UCI got involved in 1950 with the racing of the first World Championship and since than it has set the parametres and rules for cyclo-cross.
Everyone loves cyclo-cross because it is so accessible
Cyclo-cross is a big sport in northern Europe but is beginning to make inroads in the United States in terms of grass-root participation and competition. Belgium and the Netherlands are the heartlands of the sport. TV audiences for cyclo-cross events are on par with football in these countries. It’s the perfect spectator sport given its length and the wacky races nature of it. As with mountain biking races cyclo-cross is renowned for its lively atmosphere at events. Heckling is encouraged!
In terms of participation, cyclo-cross can often be the introduction for kids to go into other forms of cycle sport. At grassroots level, you can enter races on a mountain bike or a BMX if you want. For adults and children alike cyclo-cross appeals to a sense of fun. Who wouldn’t want to ride their bike through mud! For those who already road cycle, cyclo-cross is perfect off-season training.
You ride on a road bike. Same same, but different
From it’s early origins to now, very little has changed in terms of the bicycle used to ride cyclo-cross. A road bike with drop handlebars is most commonly used in top level racing but you can enter some grass-root races on a mountain bike. There are modifications of course to the sort of road bike you’d use on the road. The bike geometry is slightly different, you race on knobbly tyres to gain grip on non-road surfaces and you use lower gear ratios throughout as you don’t need to go too fast during a cyclo-cross race.
The geometry of a cyclo-cross bike takes into account the specific conditions you would encounter if out riding offroad. So for instance, there is a slacker head angle on the handlebars for better offroad handling, an increased clearance between the tyres and frame and a higher bottom bracket to avoid obstacles/terrain. There is no outward suspension on a cyclo-cross bike but manufacturers build technology into their bikes to try absorbs shocks and vibrations.
Cyclo-cross bikes have to be fairly light so they can be carried so anything that helps that comes into the design of the bicycle. You’ll see most bikes have flattened top tubes. Brakes are now typically disc brakes, while another element taken from mountain biking is that the pedals used are double-sided clipless pedals. Cycling shoes for cyclo-cross tend to be less rigid than road shoes and have some form of grip on them allowing you to run on them.
Helmets are always required when racing. Lyrca cycling kit is the kit of choice at top level racing. Many cyclo-cross races are organised outside the normal UCI rules, and for those anything goes. Courses can be as imaginative as you want and you can wear what you want. Fancy dress cyclo-cross has to be seen to be believed.
It isn’t totally wacky racers, there are rules
Modern day cyclo-cross races are mainly offroad but the UCI also regulates for road sections to be included for its World Cup and World Championship races. The regulations state a course should have terrain that alternates in such a way as to encourage changes in the pace of the race. Courses are typically between 2.5km and 3.5km in length.
Obstacles continue to be a part of modern cyclo-cross. UCI races can’t have more than six artificial obstacles on the course. Planks and steps are allowed, as are non-natural sand pits. Races are generally based on a set time. For the UCI World Cup this is about 60 minutes. Laps are calculated during a race by officials and then announced.
There’s an UCI World Cup every year
A UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup competition consisting of eight to nine rounds takes place every season with the season starting in September and ending in January. The UCI also organises an annual World Championship. This season’s races started in the USA in September with World Cup’s in Iowa City and Waterloo, while racing came to Europe in October in Bern, Switzerland. Six rounds remain. Click below to watch a replay of the races from Bern.
November 16 – Tabor, Czech Republic
November 24 – Koksijde, Belgium
December 22 – Namur, Belgium
December 26 – Heusden-Zolder, Belgium
January 19 – Nommay-Pays de Montbéliard, France
January 26 – Hoogerheide-Provincie Noord-Brabant, Netherlands
February 1-2 – UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Dübendorf, Switzerland
Apart from the UCI World Cup there are two other main cyclo-cross series that take place during the season. These have huge profile worldwide. They are the Cyclo-cross Superprestige and the DVV Trophy. The former races exclusively in just Belgium and the Netherlands, the latter just in Belgium. Riders tend to participate across all three of these major series.
These riders are worth following
Every sport needs it heroes and cyclo-cross is no different. The most successful racer of all time is Belgian male rider Sven Nys with 140 victories. He’s now retired but the sport is in still rude health. Wout Van Art and Mathieu Van der Poel are the stand out men’s racers in the sport. For the women, Belgium’s Sanne Cant and Dutch racer Denise Betsema are the big stars.
There is quite a lot of crossover of cycling disciplines for those who ride in cyclo-cross. Van Aert races on the road and Van der Poel in both road and mountain biking. MTBers Jolanda Neff, Eva Lechner and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot are regulars on the women’s cycle-cross circuit when their schedules allow. US rider Ellen Noble is doing her best to raise the profile of the sport in her country.
In terms of talent for the future Britain’s Tom Pidcock is heavily tipped to step up from U23 level and make a mark in the seniors as is fellow Britain Evie Richards in the women’s.