Bikemagic's guide to cyclo-cross

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Cyclo-cross, the perfect accompaniment to mountain biking
Cyclo-cross, the perfect accompaniment to mountain biking
Mud is an integral part of cyclo-cross

With the yearly approach of the winter, the beginning of the cyclo-cross season gets underway. Cyclo-cross racing is typically undertaken by road riders who fit knobbly tyres to their bikes and race around very short off-road circuits. It’s fast, furious, and will most certainly hurt you.

In the beginning

Cyclo-cross began a long time ago when some bored French roadies started belting around in the bushes – with their bikes – for some off-season fun. Of course, in the days before MacAdam mixed tar and loose chippings and spread in on roads pretty much everything was off-road, but, as is so often the case, what begins as a laugh degenerates into a fully fledged international sport (and frankly tears if you’re not prepared for the anaerobic hell that is cyclo cross).

So why is it so popular?

Perhaps the enduring appeal of ‘cross is its simplicity. It is, basically (and some might say foolishly), riding road bikes with skinny tyres with touring components on rough stuff, as fast as you can, for about an hour. That said you can take part on a full suspension tandem if you wish. Fields have swelled since mountain bikers have discovered that they are more than welcomed.

The season is short, starting typically in October with the last races around mid-January. (The daddy of all cross races and the curtain raiser is the Three Peaks, usually the last weekend in September, over three large hills in the Yorkshire Dales).

Courses

Courses are normally tailor-made for cross bikes and feature roads, tracks and paths through woods and around fields. They are nowhere near as technical or extreme as mountain bike race courses. Venues are often local parks with some woodland parts. A lap is a couple of miles at the most and will almost certainly require riders to get off and run with their bikes – albeit briefly and sometimes more than once a lap – up a steep incline, across a ditch or even over some planks if the organisers feel that the spirit of the event will somehow be besmirched should there not be a section of ‘portage’. Taking place in autumn ensures all weather conditions will be endured, often during one race. Thus plenty of mud clearance is needed.

Anaerobic hell?

The pace is fast and furious for several reasons: it’s a short race so you can afford to burn round knowing you’ll be off the bike in less than an hour. Another reason is that light road bikes go very fast even off-road. Plus in cold weather you don’t want to be hanging around. Whatever, ‘cross has the reputation for brutalising riders. Your lungs hurt because of the pace, your legs because of the running, your shoulder because you have to carry the bike, your back because even with flat bars you tend to end up hunched over the pedals trying to squeeze out every last ounce of effort. And if you’re used to front or even full suspension the transition to a cross bike is also a shock to your arms and/or behind.

So why do it?

‘Because it feels good when you stop?’ ‘Because nothing that’s good for you is easy?’ How about ‘To retain all that fitness you’ve gained after a summer’s riding?’ Hmmm, it’s difficult to justify in rational terms for anyone lacking masochistic tendencies. For bike racers it’s a change from either the road or mountain bike events. It is also a huge buzz to pilot a bike with only slightly knobbly tyres through mud, over wet roots and round tight singletrack. The feeling of achievement is a lot like that which you got from your first ever mountain bike rides before you got all skilful and bought some suspension forks and disc brakes. And as you become better your mountain bike skills improve as a result.

Bikes and equipment

The British Cyclo-Cross Handbook rules on what bikes are allowed are as follow: “Category A, B and C races shall be open to any type of bike without restriction”. This means everything except national level races will accept MTBs.

We’ll be bringing a more in-depth look at what bikes to look out for soon, but in brief, a specialist ‘cross bike has a slightly beefier frame and more relaxed angles than a road machine and much greater clearance for the wider tyres and the mud that accumulates from them. Although V-brakes (and even discs) have made an appearance on high end machines most have old style cantis and 8-speed gearing. Tyres vary from between 28 – 40c with varying degrees of grip. Everything else is pretty much standard road equipment.

There is no need to alter your MTB for a cross race although sacrificing the grip of fat tyres for something lighter and narrower is a worthwhile trade-off. The technical sections become sketchier but you’ll notice the benefit on the faster sections. You’ll also notice how that cross bike you’ve been tailing for most of the lap suddenly zips away from you on the flat. MTB gearing though may well allow you to ride where other are running – unless they’re in your way.

Events/calendar

The short season is packed with races: pretty much one every week. The atmosphere is usually low key and entry on the line is the norm. National Trophy races however have more of a buzz with courses fully taped, more spectators than a local dog walker and plenty of action in the pits where top riders may change bikes and get drinks from frantic helpers.

International races are intense affairs: a cross between a Tour mountain stage and track racing with riders a few feet way coming round six, maybe seven times with the entire course lined with spectators. At least it’s like that in continental Europe. It’s easy to see why mountain bike circuit racing has veered this way in recent years.

Find out more about cyclo-cross by pointing your browser at the following link www.britishcycling.org.uk/cyclocross

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