As winter approaches and everything not tarmacked starts turning to mud, so the bike racer’s thoughts turn to cyclocross. This formerly niche discipline is now phenomenally popular. Helped in no small part by the fact that many of today’s most exciting roadies, including Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock and Marianne Vos are devotees of the discipline, amateur interest is also booming.
But what is cyclocross? Involving competing for an hour around short, off-road courses littered with obstacles like sandpits, stairs, and hurdles, it’s basically a kind of cycling steeplechase. Very popular in the Low Countries it’s also a fantastic spectator sport as riders repeat the same laps multiple times.
As a rider, besides being fun in its own right, cyclocross also makes for an ideal introduction to racing. There’s no bunch to get dropped by, the competitors are more generous, and crashes are more likely to be comic rather than crunching.
With local leagues dotted around the country, it’s also cheap and accessible. If you’re thinking of giving it a try we’ve collected ten bits of advice from around the office to help you succeed come the bell lap.
10 top tips for starting out in cyclocross
1. Practise running up hills and stairs
If you thought cycling was tough on your calves, be prepared to think again. You’ll need all your fell running skills to get yourself and bike up the short, sharp hills included in most cyclocross courses.
Practising this can avoid pain and humiliation come race day. Extra stretches will also help build flexibility and prevent injuries.
2. Warm-up before
Being just an hour in length cyclocross is raced furiously from the off. This makes warming up essential. Many riders will bring a turbo trainer or rollers and sit on them for half an hour before their race.
If you can’t manage this try and keep your legs moving after your course recce and wear something warm that you can remove just before the gun.
3. Recce the course
Even more than in a road race it pays to familiarise yourself with the course. Finding spots where you can carry speed, bunny hop obstacles, or take a sneaky inside line will help you move up the rankings.
Turn up early, because although you’ll normally get a little time before your race, extra laps practising will pay dividends later.
4. Skills drills
You don’t just have to be fit to excel at cyclocross, you have to master all the strange skills unique to the discipline. These include hopping off the bike and remounting to cross the barriers, riding on sand, and shouldering the bike to run up hills.
Find a bit of open ground and create a circuit to practise ahead of race day. Better still, find a club. Many run training sessions on local football pitches or scrub ground.
5. Stay warm after
Cyclocross racing is so ferocious that even in the depths of winter you’ll find yourself sweating. After the race, you’ll be so exhausted you’ll freeze just as quickly.
Bring a puffer jacket or tracksuit to change into and avoid shivering on the train home and getting ill later.
6. Get stuck in
Compared to road riding cyclocross is a bit more knockabout. It’s still not a contact sport, but while most of the regular rules and norms of decent conduct apply, you’re under no obligation to yield the racing line unless someone is charging past to lap you.
You can dive for the better line in a corner, or take a straight route through tricky sections. Just don’t be a jerk, and avoid holding up faster riders.
7. Manage the mud
Mud is heavy and makes you slow. To combat this pro racers will normally have two bikes and a pit crew. Once one bike is laden down with gunk they’ll switch for a few laps, giving their mechanic a chance to hose down the other, ready to be switched back in.
The best most amateurs can hope for is that a spray of silicone or baking spray might stop the mud from sticking to their sole machine in the first place.
Shouldering the bike can also provide a good opportunity to pick off mud that’s accumulated by the brakes or around the bottom bracket.
Cheeky, and not technically very nice, when riders shoulder their bikes they’ll usually hold them horizontally to the slope of the hill.
This is both comfortable and makes it harder for following riders to get past you. Well irritating when you’re stuck behind though.
9. On and off
Getting on and off your bike is crucial to cyclocross success. Jumping off and remounting is a key skill and one that takes practice to achieve smoothly and without a loss of speed and energy.
Also knowing when to get off and push can win or lose races. Watch the pros: An ill-advised attempt to ride a section that would have been quicker to run can often see the lead change.
10. Wax lyrical about tyres
Outside of a fetish club, you’re unlikely to find a group so obsessed with rubber as cyclocross riders. Tyre pressure, compound, and tread patterns are just the start.
Should you run tubulars for the smoothest ride, despite their cost and fiddliness? Are tubeless tyres too prone to burping out air at low pressure? What’s the ideal tyre and pressure combination for the prevailing conditions?
Who knows? Still, be prepared to offer an opinion before the start of the race if you’re to have any chance of fitting in.