Get into: Cyclo-cross

If you’re looking to have some muddy fun this winter, increase your cycling fitness and develop your bike handling skills, give cyclo-cross a go.  This article was first published on 13th October 2016 and is a feature piece from Totally Active.

What is it?

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember settling down on a Saturday afternoon to the oddly “badger haired” Dickie Davis hosting ITV’s World of Sport. Alongside Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks knocking bells out of each other, occasionally you’d see a bunch of men careering around a ridiculously muddy off-road course on what were apparently road bikes and wearing helmets that resembled hair nets. This sport was, and still is, cyclo-cross and while the hair nets have gone and the bikes have evolved a bit the mud is still there and, in recent years, has become increasingly popular.

Cyclo-cross races are usually held in parkland and open spaces often in urban areas. The courses are usually about a mile in length involving a mixture of surfaces and terrain. They’ll often be steep climbs, steps, hurdles or thick mud forcing you off your bike and into a run. Being able to fluidly change from riding to running and back again without losing speed is one of the key skills of cyclo-cross. Races typically last for an hour and one lap with a bell signifying the final lap. Junior and novice events are usually shorter. Although there are sometimes some technical sections the degree of difficulty is nowhere near that experienced in a mountain bike race. A good cyclo-cross course will keep the racing fast, furious, have you on and off your bike and at your limit for the whole race.

The bike

At first glance a cross bike looks pretty much like a road bike but there are a few subtle differences. The most obvious are the tyres that although much skinnier than on a mountain bike are still knobbly for better off-road grip. Cross bikes traditionally had cantilever brakes but now disc brakes have become fairly standard. Many cross riders will fit additional bar-top brake levers as much of the riding, especially more technical sections, is done with the hands on the tops. Gearing is following the trend in mountain biking with single chain-ring set-ups and a wide ranging cassette. Pedals are dual sided mountain biking pedals allowing fast mud clearing, easy re-engagement and for the rider to use recessed cleats for running.

Most local races will allow you to take part in cyclo-cross on a mountain bike. So, if you’ve got one sat gathering dust in the garage, stick some skinnier tyres on it and give it a go. However, on a cross course, a true cross bike will always be faster and, be warned, it’s a highly addictive sport and I can guarantee you’ll soon be adding a crosser to your stable. That’s no bad thing though as a cross bike is probably one of the most versatile bikes you can own. With road tyres on it’ll handle winter training and commuting duties. It’ll also open up the world of adventure cross off-road sportives.

Most top cross-riders will have a twin-set of race bikes and, if the course is really muddy, will swap bikes at the end of laps. The poor pit-crew will then have to manically clean the mud caked bike in time for the next change over.

Other kit and essentials

Most of the kit that’d you’d use for riding on the road or on your mountain bike can be used for cyclo-cross. Wearing a helmet is mandatory so don’t forget yours. You’ll be working hard during the race so don’t overdress and avoid baggy kit that could catch on branches or your bike as you dismount and remount. Many racers opt for a skin-suit with a decent baselayer underneath but standard cycling shorts and jersey are fine. Arm and knee warmers are brilliant for colder days, along with some long fingered gloves. Take an extra long sleeved jersey or water/wind-proof for warming up and don’t forget plenty of warm kit and a towel for afterwards. You won’t be eating or drinking during the race, it’s too full on, but a gel to have beforehand and a recovery drink for afterwards are good ideas. Finally, a portable bike wash that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter will help to save your upholstery.

Why do it?

The main reason for giving cyclo-cross a go is that it’s a lot of fun. It’s probably the most accessible form of cycle sport, with races every weekend throughout the country from September through to February. As I’ve already said, most local events will allow you to give it a go on a mountain bike and you can just turn up and enter on the day.

If you’re a triathlete, sportive rider or race on the road during the summer, it’s a brilliant way to get a competitive fix during the winter. It’s definitely a lot more enjoyable than grind-ing away on the turbo, will hit all aspects of your cycling fitness and will massively improve your bike handling skills.

Because of the multi-lap format, you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself in your own race within the race, battling with the riders around you and the course even if you’re not up at the sharp end. Cyclo-cross races are extremely friendly and welcoming and, with races for all ages and abilities, are brilliant for bike mad families.

How to try it?

Go to the British Cycling Events Calendar to find a race near you. Alternatively contact your local cycling club who will be able to tell you about events and leagues near you.

Get ready for it

If you’ve been riding sportives or racing through the summer, you’ll certainly be fit enough to give cyclo-cross a go. You may struggle a bit with the constantly changing intensity of the racing but you’ll soon get used to it. If you’re wanting to fine tune your fitness ready for cyclo-cross, British Cycling have an excellent 8-week Cyclo-cross Training Plan.

Don’t focus exclusively on fitness though as there’s a massive skills element to cyclo-cross. If you just try and power your way round a cyclo-cross course you’ll be in for a frustrating experience and will be spending a lot of time on your backside. Head down to some local parkland and spend some time practicing dismounts, mounts, running with your bike and riding on loose and slippery surfaces.

Expert Tips

Nick Craig is a multiple national champion in both cyclo-cross and mountain biking, has won the 3 Peaks Cyclo-cross three times and represented GB at the Sydney Olympics both on and off-road. Still riding and regularly beating riders half his age, he now works as a brand ambassador for Scott Sports and supports the great work at British Cycling with the mountain biking Olympic Development Apprentices.

How would you describe cyclo-cross in one sentence?

Brilliant fun, intense, skinny tyre off-road racing.

Why should I try it?

Because it is great fun, friendly and incredibly welcoming. I would say it is the most fun and accessible discipline in cycle sport and has so many aspects that keep it interesting. The skills you will learn are all transferable and will make you a far better rider whatever your preferred discipline.

What training should I do?

Don’t get too obsessed about fitness, If you ride a bike regularly, you’ll be fit enough to try cross. If you enjoy it, the specific fitness will come through racing more. Get out on your bike, whether you’ve already got a crosser or are on a mountain bike, ride trails and practise the key skills. Work on developing a smooth and efficient style and don’t just try and muscle through.

Any tips for race day?

Enjoy it! Try to get in a recce lap or two as part of your warm-up before your race. Pay attention to your tyre pressure and don’t be afraid of running it low. Stay relaxed, if you struggle on a particular section, try something different on the next lap and don’t worry if you take a few tumbles. If you get lapped by the fast riders, watch how smooth and fluid they look and the lines they take, that is what you are aiming for.

Both of your sons race, why is it so good for kids?

Cross is brilliant for kids because it lets them try bike racing in a fun, safe and traffic free environment. The multi-lap format means they’re never far from the finish and, for developing bike handling skills, there’s nothing better.

The Three Peaks Cyclo-cross

The Three Peaks is a cyclo-cross in name and is ridden on cross bikes but is a distant and meaner cousin to a typical cross race. It is one of the most challenging and extreme days you can have on a bike. Being able to compete in this race that defines lunacy is a good enough reason on its own to get a cross bike. The winners take three hours to cover the course while the rest of the field wobble home in up to seven. At 61 km in total encom-passing 28km of road, 33km of off-road (of which 6-8km is unrideable) and including three of Yorkshire’s tallest mountain peaks make for one of the most feared endurance races of the year taxing both rider and machine. You know a race is tough when its mandatory to carry a survival bag. The descents off the peaks, particularly the rocky drops off Ingleborough and the stepped slabs of Whernside, would make mountain bikers on full sussers stop and think. The gruelling almost vertical climbs, with your bike a dead weight on your shoulder, slow even the fleetest footed mountain goats to a walk. Held in September each year and filling within hours of entries going live, if you get into cross this winter, put this in your to-do list for 2017.

This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.

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