Cyclocross 101


Bikewagon - BWCC

Cyclocross is one of the most exciting styles of bicycle racing around. It's very spectator friendly, it's fast, it's dirty and it's fun. It's a party with a bike! Cyclocross started in France in the 19th century as a way for cyclists to train in the off-season. It actually pre-dates mountain biking, but many weren't aware of it since it was a very niche sport until more recent years.

What is cyclocross?


Cyclocross race start

Cyclocross can best be described as a hybrid between mountain biking and road cycling. The bikes are much more like road bikes but have many of the capabilities of a rigid mountain bike. Cyclocross shares some of the characteristics of both of these more mainstream sports but has a style and flair all it's own. I would highly recommend watching some online videos of a race to see some of the awesomeness.

>> See our Bikes 101 guide.

One thing that is unique to cyclocross is that you will, at some point during a race, need to get off the bike and run with it. Getting off the bike is called dismounting; getting back on is remounting. There are several reasons you may have to get off the bike, but basically it's because a section is not ride-able, either because the terrain exceeds the limitations of the bike, there is a barrier blocking passage, or it could simply be faster to run the section than to ride it.

Cyclocross takes place in the fall and winter months, when the weather is not usually ideal. This adds to the chaos of the sport as the weather tends to be more unpredictable at this time of the year, and cyclocross races run rain, shine... or snow.

This looks like fun. How do I get started?

So you're excited to join the madness but don't know where to start? Okay, so there are two ways to start: grassroots style -- which is generally much easier and more relaxed -- or just jump right into it competitively by going right into USAC sanctioned races.

The biggest difference, in general, is that grassroots people don't care what you ride; they just want you there. This means as long as you have something to ride that's safe, you can race it. I would advise that you have something capable of riding on terrain like you would find in a city park or golf course. Many people will use their mountain bikes for racing cyclocross.

If you enter into a USAC sanctioned cyclocross race, you're going to need a cyclocross bike; it's the rule. You'll also need a USAC license (you can get a 1-day license for entry level categories).

How do cyclocross races work?

For those familiar with road racing, cyclocross works very much like a criterium. I usually tell people that a cyclocross race is really just an off-road criterium because they're fast, short, and technical. The race format, as per sanctioned events, are timed events, not distance or lap based. The riders will start and do a lap or two. The race officials will time these laps and use that time to decide how many laps should be able to be completed in the stated race duration.


Running over barriers in a cyclocross race

Everyone finishes at the same time, which means you could finish a lap down. Rules state that lapped riders should be pulled, but officials are given the final say on this as the reason for the rule is to keep racing safe. If you're getting lapped, get out of the way and let the leaders pass.

Many grassroots style races will use the same format as sanctioned races, but many will also simply do a predetermined number of laps or do it endurance style, where you just start the clock go until the time runs out. Whomever has the most laps wins. This saves the cost of providing timing services and lowers the entry cost, which is very important to getting new faces to check out the sport.

They are all mass-start races, meaning all of the riders in a particular class will start together. This means that being in the front at the start is an advantage. It gives you a better chance of being in the front towards the end, since passing can be difficult on a CX course.

The courses themselves are often set up in public parks but can be set up almost anywhere. One thing unique about cyclocross, too, is the fact that the courses are setup as the race organizers desire, with some regulations of course. This means that you could race the same place two consecutive years and the course will be nothing like what you raced the year before. This also means that the course can be built harder or easier depending on how the course is designed. Many courses are set up little in advance to race day, meaning there usually is not much chance to pre-ride the course before race day.

What should you know to race well when you start?

Okay, this applies to those that want to be competitive. Some of you may ask, "who doesn't want to be competitive?"

The answer: a lot of people.

Probably the biggest difference I see between CX and road racing, at least in my area and the races I attend, is that there are large numbers of people who attend the grassroots races as a social cycling event and not as a race where they need to do really well to be happy. A lot of people want to watch the "good guys" race and figure they might as well race a few laps while they're there. American style cyclocross is great in that aspect; it's a very friendly environment. It's a gathering of friendly cyclists, and there happens to be a race going on, too (seems to happen anytime a group of cyclists get together).


A muddy cyclocross course

So for the guys who are determined to give it their everything, here we go.

First, you'll need to be in shape.

Seriously. You might think, "oh, we're just riding in grass and on some pavement and a little sand," but none of those areas have had a chance to be beaten down by years of riding like a MTB trail. Open grass sections are surprisingly hard to ride through if you're new to the sport.

Cyclocross pacing is like this: Go hard out the gate, go hard through the course, go hard until the finish. There's no sitting in and resting. Your heart rate will be high the majority of the race.

You need to be able to get on and off your bike with some speed.

You're going to have to get off your bike at some point, so you want to practice this. Don't spend your entire training on mounting and dismounting; it's only one aspect of the sport and getting it right every time all the time takes a lot time and doesn't save you huge amounts of time.

I say this because too many people focus too much on the barrier and running aspect when it's a small percentage of the race itself. Just make sure you can get off the bike with some speed and without falling and be able to do the same getting back on. Getting good at it comes with time and experience. Tip: you land on your thigh, not your crotch, and slide into the saddle.

Terrain management

Here is the golden secret to cyclocross racing and the biggest technical aspect of the sport. Terrain management is the ability to ride and maneuver the bike in different terrains -- the signature characteristic of cyclocross racing. A cyclocross course often has widely varying terrain: pavement, sand, mud, grass, hard-pack, rooted trails, crushed gravel, etc. You'll also learn there's more than one type of each of these terrains, and with experience you'll start learning their different flavor profiles.


Give it a shot! There's nothing else like it, and the people involved are often more welcoming than you would believe, especially the grassroots organizers. Ride on.