What is cyclocross? I tell folks cyclocross or CX is like steeplechase on a bike. You race around a course and navigate sharp turns, sand, and mud, as well as get off your bike to handle obstacles (running up stairs/hills or leaping over barriers). The sport started in Europe, supposedly with road cyclists taking shortcuts through pastures and fields.
It grew in popularity as a way for cyclists to stay in shape in the (cold) off-season. Today, it’s still very popular in Europe (it’s not unusual for 60,000 people to show up to watch a world championship in Belgium). Like many things European (baguettes, red wine, well-engineered cars), they eventually get exported to North America, sometimes with slight modifications. Our cyclocross is similar in most respects but the courses here tend to be less muddy and sometimes laughably warm (California CX?). Here’s a good piece on the differences between European and North American CX, from a Canadian racer’s perspective.
What’s a race like? The venue is typically a park, school, or maybe a church where you’ve got access to lots of grass with maybe some sand (volleyball court or playground) and if you are lucky, some mud from a recent rain. There may be a short section of trail, as long as the roots and rocks are minimal (running skinny tires at full speed over roots is a recipe for a flat). The course is a taped-out route with many of the features mentioned (Here is a super funny video on getting your tape for CX courses).
The race is 30-90 minutes; shorter for the beginners, longer for the pros. The riders are grouped according age, experience, and gender. Here’s a short video of one of our local races.
What do you ride? Unfortunately (or fortunately), you’ll need a CX bike for a CX race. Mountain bikes will work and be a great way to try it out but its weight can be limiting. Most CX bikes have a road geometry but with wider, knobbier tires. Until recently, road bikes were hard to use in a CX race since the caliper brakes would collect mud and skinnier tires could not survive the punishment. With road bikes and CX bikes going to disc brakes, it’s possible to get a frame that would be suitable for road, gravel grinders, and CX.
So why should a triathlete or long-distance rider or even a marathoner take up CX? Here are a five reasons:
- It’s fun. Who wants to sit in a garage and pound out the miles on a trainer or run in the cold rain when you can race for 30 minutes with your heart in your throat and about to cough up a lung, all the while your chasing down a rider for a sprint finish. As someone put it, “CX is the most pain you’ll ever love”.
- It’s a great community. The folks doing CX are pretty chill. Since most courses are set up in a relatively small area, there’s ample opportunity for spectators to watch the race.
- It’s good training. Training for cyclocross involves high-intensity intervals which when done once or twice per week still leaves time for building a base for the next season and doesn’t tax the body excessively.
- It’s accessible. The range of age and ability of CX riders is very wide. There are 60 year old overweight guys racing as well as svelte 20- somethings with thighs that look like canons. If you know how to ride a bike and can find a bike with knobby tires, you can race CX!
- It’s great for youngsters. Related to points 2 and 4, the races are accessible to young riders (down to age 8 or 9), even those with limited skills. Some race series will have a “kiddie race” for those with push bikes and striders. All this adds up to CX being multigenerational: many families participate with both kids and parents racing.
So there you have it. Great reasons to take up ‘cross in the off-season.