Cyclo-cross isn’t your average type of bike race. The off-road, drop-bar bike pursuit can take place on a number of different landscapes – from the dry early-season grass through to the deep bogs of mid-winter – and you’ll often come across a variety of different riding surfaces in the same course.
But before you dive headfirst (literally in some cases) into the action, there are a couple of things you can focus on that will change depending on which terrain you’re tackling: tyre choice and technique. Getting both right can be the difference between an hour-long slog and a race-winning ride.
Fortunately, former pro-turned-coach James Spragg of Spragg Cycle Coaching has shared his insights into how to nail your rubber selection and riding style for all the terrains a CX course could throw at you.
1. Release the (tyre) pressure
Before discussing tyres and technique, it’s important to talk about the amount of pressure you’re putting into your tubs in the first place. If you’re coming from a road background, your instinct is probably to run something between 80-100 PSI (5.5-7 Bar). But do this on a ‘cross bike and you’ll end up going nowhere.
“People generally run their tyres too hard,” says Spragg. “Contrary to what most people think, running your tyres slightly softer will normally make you faster, especially on a non-perfect surface. If there are deviations on the surface the whole time, what you want is a tyre that can deform and take into account those small deviations in the ground.”
He points to the Wyman Methods – a calculation devised by Stefan Wyman, mechanic and husband to double European and 10-times British national champion Helen Wyman – that uses your weight and tyre choice to determine a starting point for your tyre pressure in PSI:
For tubular tyres: (Rider’s weight in lbs/10) + 5 = Starting PSI
For clincher tyres: (Rider’s weight in lbs/10) + 10 = Starting PSI
Spragg claims that, for him, this was still slightly too high, and would try to find the lowest highest pressure where he could still get grip. “That’s when that flow and unweighting the bike becomes really important,” he adds. “It’s a cyclocross-specific skill and is something you have to learn how to do. When you first jump on a ‘cross bike with low pressures, you feel like you’re going to crash at every corner, but you get used to the feeling and how much more grip you get and ultimately you can go faster.”
2. Getting to grips with grass and gravel
A lot of early-season UK-based courses predominantly take place on grass and gravel. Depending on conditions, these could vary from bone dry tracks to something a bit slippier if there’s a bit of dew on the ground.
“Dry grass courses are normally pretty fast so you want a tyre that’s going to roll relatively fast,” says Spragg. “You also want something that, because the courses are so fast, you don’t want to be slowing down for the corners too much – every time you slow down for the corners too much, you’re going to end up having to accelerate on the other side of the corner and that’s going to cost energy.”
He recommends opting for a file tyre (it looks like a nail file in its centre) – “something like the Challenge Dune or Dugast Pipistrello” – if it’s dry and the corners have a lot of flow to them, as these will offer fast-rolling and a round profile that it’s possible to lean on like you would a road tyre. If it’s a bit wetter, you’re better off choosing an intermediate – ”something like a Challenge Grifo, FMB Slalom or Dugast Typhoon” – as these are still relatively fast and offer a bit more grip than a file tyre.
When it comes to your technique for grass, the big thing is the aforementioned exit speed, but there are a few other things to look out for. “In those fast crosses, your skills of being able to hop barriers really come into their own, as you can carry a lot more speed if you’re good at that than having to dismount,” he says. “You can also really get punished in those races if you’re not in a group because they’re so fast that there is a bit of drafting going on. If you’re having bits where you’re slowing down that’s really going to affect your race.”
3. What to choose for woodland
A woodland course can vary depending on where in the world it’s taking place. In the UK, it generally translates to something muddy without being too deep, while in Europe and further afield you’ll often find a bit of sand too.
For this, Spragg again recommends an intermediate tyre: “They’ve generally got some knobs towards the edge that give you a bit of grip in the corners, and then they’ve got relatively flat grip in the middle that’s perpendicular to the way that you’re travelling. What that means is, you’ve got good traction if it is a bit loose, but unlike with deep mud, you’ve got some paddles there that will allow you to get some traction and power down.”
When it comes to riding a woodland route, the big thing, wherever you are, is being careful of roots. To do so, Spragg says you should focus on trying to ‘flow’ over the course by constantly unweighting the bike, picking up the front wheel, picking up the rear wheel and bunny hopping.
“What you don’t want to be doing is smashing the rim into roots all the way around because that’s just going to slow you down.”
4. How to smash sand sections
“Ideally, in a sand course, you’re going to go with a file tread,” explains Spragg. “The Challenge Dune and Dugast Pipistrello are pure sand tyres that have no grip on the sides, while the FMB Grippo works quite well in sand because it hasn’t got too big a knobs on the side – likewise, something like a Challenge Koksijde or a Dugast Small Bird. When you get into real mud tyres, they’re horrible to ride on sand as they just catch on the edges of the ruts the whole time and pull you out.”
And that’s the big factor of a sand course – the ruts. While instinctively it might seem like a good idea to avoid them – there’s the phrase ‘stuck in a rut’ after all – the best technique is to hit them fast and stay in them as long as possible.
“[The rut] is where the sand is compact and it’s only in that compact sand where you’re going to keep going,” explains Spragg. “If you come out of that rut, your front wheel is going to stop and you’re going to end up over the handlebars.”
He adds that in sand especially (but this is applicable to the rest of cyclo-cross too) dismounting before you come to a complete standstill is key and can help you gain precious time, while the same can be said for remounting while your bike is rolling too.
“Go in fast, get off before you stop, keep that speed – as soon as you drop below running speed, you may as well be running, especially on longer sandy sections.”
5. Dealing with deep mud
Mud can come in many different forms. On the one hand, it can ride similar to sand and include deep ruts, while it can also just be one big mess where it’s all about your balance.
In terms of tyres, most brands have a couple on the market depending on the conditions: ”There’s the Challenge Baby Linus, which is something between an intermediate and a mud tyre, and then its full mud tyre is the Linus – it’s just there for the grip and think of a tractor tyre. Dugast-wise you’ve got the Rhino, which is its classic tyre that’s been around for years and years, while FMB’s is called a Super Mud.”
Riding a rut is the same whether it’s made of mud or sand, but what’s the best technique if what you’re riding through resembles a bog? Spragg recommends keeping your weight back over your rear wheel as this will keep your traction and will stop your front end digging in. “It’s about letting that front wheel go where it wants to go, and teasing it in the right direction rather than forcing, then just try and get the power out through the rear.”
6. Surviving snow and ice
“Snow and ice is pretty much about staying upright and trusting how quick you can actually go,” says Spragg. “You’ll see mixed approaches to snow and ice in terms of tyre choice. Some will go with almost a sand tyre and run it really low – the idea of that is to get as much rubber on the ground as possible. Other riders will go with a mud tyre and almost use the knobs as fins that will drag along the ground and provide traction.” His favourite choice is the Challenge Baby Linus though, with its big side knobs and less traction in the middle.
When it comes to racing on snow and ice, he adds that the focus should be more on finessing your bike around the course rather than laying down the power. “You can’t be too brutal as every time you are, your rear wheel, you or your front wheel slips. It’s about not ever putting too much input into the bike, but always keeping it in the right direction.”