Imagine an hour of high intensity racing, over narrow dirt tracks, weaving through trees, dropping down dips, climbing over steep banks – sometimes carrying your bike – occasionally in thick mud.
Anything can happen. You might be dropped by the group, but then your opponents may pack in due to a mechanical problem. You might even get stronger as others blow up!
You cross the finish line all sweaty and muddy. You may be fatigued, but you have got a big smile on your face. You have had fun and done something to maintain your winter fitness!
That’s cyclo-cross. All levels are welcome – beginners, elites, ‘cross specialists, mountain bikers, road racers, and triathletes. Everyone mucks in together!
What’s it all about?
Friendly - There is a lot of camaraderie among the riders, especially at the end of the race. If you take part in local leagues regularly you make friends with fellow racers.
Fun - Zipping across a field and through woods wacky races style brightens up the dullest of winter days.
Great for fitness - It’s a great way to keep fit on a bike over autumn and winter. Cyclo-cross burns lots of calories over a short space of time, and is a great route for women getting into cycle sport.
Cyclo-cross conjures up classic images of riders caked in mud from head to toe, struggling up a slippery slope with their bikes slung over their shoulders. In actual fact it doesn’t often get that muddy. Many courses are multi-terrain with a mixture of grass, forest trails and tarmac. Some courses take place on sand – indeed the upcoming World Cyclo-cross Championships, to be held in Koksijde, Belgium will have sand dunes thrown into the mix.
Whatever your level, cyclo-cross is well worth a try.
The great news is cyclo-cross is very do-able for all bike riders and it is very easy to take up this activity. There are local leagues held around the country with regular races taking place in school playing fields, parkland and woodland. Races last for between 40 minutes and one hour, with categories for seniors, veterans, women, juniors, and children.
What type of bike do I need?
Any bike that you can ride off-road. A cyclo-cross bike is best as it travels faster than any other type of bike when off road and is lighter to carry if need be. At national level races competitors must ride cyclo-cross bikes only. In local races mountain bikes are welcome, and many people ride them. A few participants have even been known to race on bmx or downhill bikes!
Mountain bikes with disc brakes are accepted, and the UCI (cycling’s world governing body) has now authorised the use of cyclo-cross bikes with disc brakes. These are very useful when braking at the bottom of fast descents as they are more powerful than the traditional Cantilever brakes.
What do I wear?
Ordinary cycling gear (shorts, jersey, gloves, helmet) is fine. Tight Lycra clothing is practical as it does not catch on your bike or on trees and bushes. Also, as winter sets in, people tend to wear ¾ length bottoms and long sleeves, plus a base layer under the jersey. Helmets are compulsory. Some people wear glasses, though many prefer not to wear them, especially in damp conditions.
How far do I race?
The races are done on time rather than on distance. They usually last one hour, though a women-only race lasts 40 minutes. You complete laps of a course which is around 1.5 miles. The number of laps completed is governed by the type of obstacles, and the condition of the terrain.
Are there many obstacles?
No. The UCI rules state that the course has to be at least 90% rideable. There is usually one set of planks where you dismount and carry your bike. There is often a very steep hill that people will have to run up with their bikes. More courses are adding in other novelties like flights of steps and sand pits. It is not often that a local race will have other obstacles. The course is usually opened around 45 minutes before the race so you have the chance to ride around and practice.
I am worried I will be too slow. Should I bother doing a race?
That’s not a problem in the local races. The course is run on relatively short laps so all that happens is that the leading riders will lap you a couple of times. As there are lots of people going round it is hard for spectators to know where people are in the race, so no one will know if you are in last place! As the race is run on time, not distance, your race finishes when the leader crosses the finish line, regardless of what lap you are on.
When is the cyclo-cross season?
The season runs from September to February, though a few regions organise a summer cyclo-cross league.
Helen Wyman’s Tips on how to get started in cyclo-cross
Helen Wyman is Britain’s top female cyclo-cross racer, having won the National Cyclo-cross championships for the last six years. Racing for the Kona Factory Team she had recent success on the US cyclo-cross circuit winning all nine of her races there, and in total the first 10 races of this season. In the winter she spends her time at the spiritual home of cyclo-cross, Belgium where she competes in the World Cup series. Helen is currently 5th in the world rankings, so this is all looking good for a strong performance at the World Cyclo-cross Championships in Belgium next month.
Here are Helen’s tips on riding cyclo-cross:
Stay relaxed – don’t grip the handlebars too tightly and keep your body relaxed. Allow yourself to flow with the bike.
Control the bike – look at where you want to go, rather than directly at the obstacle. Adjust where you are holding the bars depending on the obstacle you are approaching.
Cadence – Some people push a big gear (maybe 70 rpm cadence) and some spin (Maybe 100 rpm cadence), but I would suggest something in the middle and be prepared to change gear a lot to help maintain the right cadence.
Sliding around – if the bike slides while riding through mud relax and allow it to correct itself. Don’t suddenly brake or turn the bars sharply.
Steep uphill – the key is in your entry speed. Ride it if possible but if your speed is too slow or you don’t quite have the power to push over the top, it may be quicker to dismount from your bike and run.
Running – remember it is a race, so the aim is to get around the course as quickly as you can – sometimes doing it on foot is quicker!
Steep downhill – make sure you have ridden this before the race. Hold the handlebars on the drops. Adjust your speed before the descent. Use the rear brake during the descent, and feather the front brake if you need extra braking power.
Opponents right on your tail chasing you down – stay relaxed, hold your line, and ride your own race. It’s up to them to pass you, not for you to stop and let them by. Leave them to decide how they will overtake you – don’t deliberately block opponents though!
Pre-race preparation – do some course reconnaissance so that you know where the obstacles are and roughly what gear you should be in for the different sections. You may also want to practice riding certain obstacles.
Allow a minimum of 20 minutes to warm up and try to finish your warm-up shortly before the start of the race – ideally within 10 minutes of the start.
Warm up by riding on the rollers or turbo trainer if you have one, or by riding on the tarmac nearby at medium pace.
Try to include a couple of short sprints towards the end of your warm-up to raise your heart rate before the race.
Try to get out on your bike regularly, and train in order to feel stronger and more comfortable when racing. Having said that, many people who race cyclo-cross are doing it just for fun over the winter so they tend not to do cyclo-cross specific training. This is a rough training guide. Club mates in your local cycling club can give more specific training tips.
Sunday if no race – 2-hr ride on-road or off-road (medium effort)
Monday – 1-hr road ride/commute to work (medium effort if no race – easy effort if the day after a race)
Tuesday – 40-min intervals session: 10-min warm-up, turbo trainer/spinning intervals (30s hard + 2 mins rest – repeated 10 times) 10-min cool down
Wednesday – technique practice – mounting/dismounting/carrying the bike
Thursday – 60-min ride on-road or-off road (medium effort)
Friday – rest
Saturday – on-road or off-road ride (easy effort)
You may also wish to do a little running, e.g. 15-minute runs at medium effort, though this is optional. And of course leisure off-road rides help in just getting used to being off road.
Information about races and clubs
British Cycling has lots of information including a race calendar and lists of cycling clubs that are involved in cyclo-cross.
Maria David, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Check out Maria’s blog at: www.2wheelchick.blogspot.com
Helen will be competing in 8 races in the 2 weeks over Christmas, starting with the Namen World Cup race in Belgium. Keep up-to-date on how she is getting on at www.helenwyman.com
Image credits: London CycleSport.com; Bart Hazen and Danny Zelck.