How to Get Started in Cyclocross
It’s that time of year again! No, I’m not talking about Pumpkin Spice Season. I’m talking about Cyclocross Season! When the temperature starts to drop and those leaves start to fall, we get a little giddy around here at the office. Some might call us crazy to ride a bike in the freezing cold, rain, mud and snow. But, if you’re like us, we don’t want an off-season, we want to keep riding – and a little inclement weather isn’t going to slow us down.
That’s the beauty of cyclocross. Originally intended to provide road racers an opportunity to train during the off-season, the sport has rapidly grown in popularity. Its unique blend of spirited fans clanging on cowbells, short-circuit laps around challenging and mixed terrain, and mud-splattered riders carrying bikes over their shoulders and leaping over obstacles make it an extremely exciting and fun event for everyone involved.
If you’ve never been to a cyclocross race I would encourage you to check one out. It truly is a unique experience. A fun, family-friendly event, beer and barbecue are often the staple of choice on those cold, blustery days. Fans will gather around and cheer for their favorite riders, clanging on cowbells or shouting into bullhorns to raise some noise. And then there’s the heckling: a cyclocross race would not be complete without a group of fans heckling riders as they pass by. But it’s always in good fun. The track is short too, so you’re guaranteed to see a lot of action happening, no matter what your vantage point.
To find a race near you, check out www.usacycling.org for more info.
Cyclocross season runs from mid-September to mid-January. Depending on where you live will obviously determine the type of weather and terrain you’ll be required to navigate. Courses are roughly 1.5 to 2 miles in length with a mixture of pavement, gravel, dirt and grass. Races generally run 30-45 minutes for amateur races and an hour for the elite races. And, it would not be a cyclocross race without obstacles, so you’ll find plenty of winding turns to maneuver, barriers to leap over, and steep hills to climb.
A cyclocross bike is a mix between a mountain and road bike. Start with a standard, drop-bar road bike, but add clearance for wider tires, smaller chainrings, a taller bottom bracket and hard-stopping cantilever or disc brakes and you’re good to go. Your tires will be just slightly wider than a road tire with a small amount of tread for better traction. Cantilever style brakes are still used and provide the clearance needed for muddy conditions, but disc brakes are quickly becoming the standard. The bike should be light enough to carry and quick on the track, but tough enough to withstand rough terrain. To be honest, a cyclocross bike is probably the most versatile bike on the market today and can easily double as an efficient commuter. If I were to own only one bike, I would go with a cyclocross bike. For pedals, you’ll want to go with an MTB style pedal and shoes to match, because you’ll be spending a lot of time getting on and off the bike throughout the course. Also, one side note: Stay tuned for next week’s blog post where we’ll be covering how to dress for cold weather.
There are some basic skills to consider before attempting your first race. You can practice these skills just about anywhere. So take your time, have fun and get creative.
The most iconic of these skills are the dismount and shoulder technique.
There will be plenty of times when you’ll need to leap off your bike, hoist the bike over your shoulder, run for a bit, then hop back on again and continue riding. The process allows you to execute run-ups for when you encounter steep climbs and clearing obstacles like barriers or mud bogs. This can be somewhat unnerving at first, especially while clipped in – but with a little practice, will become second nature.
Shouldering & Run-Ups
The shouldering technique is typically used for running uphill or through rocky terrain and should be practiced separately (at first) from the dismount and remount. Once mastered, you should be able to dismount from your bike, execute a run-up and remount your bike in one, smooth motion. You’ll want to determine the most comfortable way for you to carry your bike as you dismount. Once you’ve found a comfortable carrying position, go ahead and practice combining the dismount and shouldering techniques together.
There are a couple of different ways you can shoulder your bike. One way is to grab the bike underneath the toptube using your right hand, lifting the toptube onto your right shoulder and swinging your right arm around the stem, grabbing onto the handlebars to lock in place. Another way is to lift from the downtube, bringing the toptube to your shoulder and reaching underneath the downtube, grabbing the bars to lock in place.
Clearing Obstacles & Cornering
The suitcase method can be used for quick and easy clearance of barriers. After your dismount, simply grab the bike by the handlebars with your left hand and the toptube with your right, lift the bike and leap over the obstacle(s).
Cornering is also something you’ll spend a lot of time doing. This might seem a bit obvious, but it’s a good idea to practice following through your turns at various speeds. In some cases, you’ll be required to corner a turn at high velocity and keep the momentum going as you exit. In other cases, you may be required to switchback several times, often moving at a slower pace. (If you’re stuck in the middle of a pack for instance or navigating a muddy patch of ground) A fun way to practice cornering is to find a wooded area or park with a lot of trees. Make up a course of your own and practice cornering the trees, approaching from different angles and different speeds until you feel comfortable handling corners in just about any situation.
The Bunny Hop can be a valuable skill to have, especially when approaching barriers or natural obstacles like roots and tree branches. This is a more advanced skill that isn’t necessary to compete in a cyclocross race, but if you do happen to master it, it will help improve your confidence on the track and quite possibly help you stay ahead of the game. In most cases, the obstacles you’ll jump will not be all that high, so even if you can grab just a little air, you’ll be in good shape.
Get Out There & Have Fun!
OK, so now you’ve spent some time riding in the cold, jumping off your bike, running up steep inclines, and cornering tree after tree. You’re now ready to enter your first cyclocross race. No, seriously – you’re ready. Remember, cyclocross is about having fun and no matter what your age or skill level, there’s a race to match. So, go for it! I think you’ll find that once you get out there and warm up a bit, you’ll start to see why cyclocross really is the best kept secret in cycling.