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An Introduction to Cyclocross Racing
What Is Cyclocross?
Cyclocross racing was developed in Europe in the early 1900’s as a way for road racers to remain fit during fall and winter. The intense event helped athletes maintain and improve their racing fitness and skills, too. As the sport grew, some riders abandoned the road-racing scene to become cyclocross specialists. Today, there are cyclists who focus only on cross and many professional road and off-road riders race cross to keep their race engines finally tuned in the off season.
Typical cyclocross courses are 1.5- to 2-mile loops on a mix of paved and off-road surfaces over flat-to-rolling terrain. Usually, races lasts an hour plus a lap. But, what makes cross such a unique and challenging sport is that courses always include obstacles that force riders to dismount and run while carrying their bikes.
For example, most courses feature short, steep (often muddy) sections, which are nearly impossible to ride. There can be scary cliff-like drop-offs, river crossings and technical singletrack, too. Also, courses include series of man-made barriers scattered around the course requiring riders to carry their bikes over or, if they're really talented, to jump their bikes over the obstacles (called "bunny-hopping"). It's this combination of cycling, stunt riding, carrying, running and scrambling over obstacles that makes cyclocross so exciting, such a phenomenal workout and so darn much fun!
Why Should I Race?
Contrary to popular belief, cyclocross racing is fun. It’s also technically challenging and physically demanding. The effort and skill required to compete elevates your overall racing fitness and leads to great improvement when the spring races roll around.
It Makes You Better
If you’ve raced consistently throughout the spring and summer, take a two- to three-week rest after your last race to allow your body to recuperate from a long, hard season. But, don't make the common mistake of letting your lungs and legs collect dust by resting too long. That'll only make it a real struggle to get in shape come spring.
Instead, join some cross races. Keep in mind that you can ride them mainly for fun and general fitness. You don't have to take it too seriously. And even riding mainly for fun, cross will help you a lot. It improves bike handling and power and builds your cardiovascular system. You'll be amazed how great you feel and how much more confidence you have on your bike when the race season arrives.
If you're not a racer, you'll still love the way cross improves your skills. Trails that once worried you will seem tame and you'll be able to ride sections you had to walk before.
What Kind Of Bike Do I Need?
The Three Options:
a cyclocross bike
a modified mountain bike
a modified road bike
(Note: To race in the Elite class in UCI-sanctioned races, you must have a bike with drop handlebars, 700c wheels and tires no wider than 35 mm.)
Cyclocross Bike- A cyclocross bike is essentially a road bike with some slight frame and component modifications for cross racing. It features the drop bars and 700c wheels of traditional road bikes, but has cantilever brakes for better stopping power and additional clearance for wide, knobby tires and any mud the tires pick up. The frame, too, needs widely spaced stays for mud-covered tires to spin freely without jamming. And the frame's bottom bracket (where the crankset is mounted) is higher for additional clearance over obstacles and for pedaling around corners.
Gearing is usually easier than on traditional road bikes and selected according to personal preference. Most racers opt for outer chainrings of 44- to 50-teeth and 38- or 39-tooth inners. And, rear cassettes are typically 12-27s or 13-27s. Tires have tread patterns that hook up in the dirt and mud, while offering low rolling resistance on pavement. Use dual-sided mountain-bike clipless pedals for cross racing. They're easy to enter and exit, shed mud well, and work with off-road shoes which are best for running.
Benefits: Cyclocross bikes are light (easiest to carry), fast, and offer the traditional European cyclocross experience. Plus, these bikes can be used for road riding and touring just by changing tires and gearing.
Mountain Bike- Many people use their off-road bikes for cyclocross racing. If you have bar-ends on your bike, take ‘em off. Because, for safety reasons, USA Cycling strictly forbids the use of bar-ends. Also, take off the frame pump, seatbag and water-bottle cages. These are unnecessary and only weigh you down. You’ll also want to throw on 1.25- or 1.5-inch-wide tires, which are easier to pedal and faster than fatter knobbies. Plus, narrow tires offer more clearance on muddy race days. Although it’s not necessary, you can save weight and improve efficiency by removing your front shock and installing a rigid fork. Suspension is not necessary for cross because courses are fairly smooth.
Benefits: If you're on a tight budget and you've got a good off-road bike, converting it is the way to go. Plus, after a season of racing cross on a mountain bike you’ll acquire the handling skills of a pro. (Remember, if you want to race in the Elite class in UCI-sanctioned races, you must have a bike with road-style handlebars, 700c wheels and tires no wider than 35-mm.)
Road Bike- You can use a road bike for cyclocross, but only in dry conditions. On muddy courses, the brakes and stays will usually get clogged with mud jamming the wheels and forcing you to run the entire race or drop out. That's no fun at all! So, if you live in a predictably dry climate and your road bike has enough space for knobby tires, modify the gearing as described in the Cyclocross Bike section above, remove your water-bottle cages. Also, take off your road pedals and put on some dual-sided mountain bike clipless pedals, too. They're easier to clip into and shed mud better than road pedals, and you'll be able to wear your off-road shoes which are much better for running.
Benefits: This is a great option for experiencing the feel of riding a true cyclocross bike without spending a lot of dough. Plus, you’ll be able to race in an Elite-level, UCI-sanctioned event without any worries. But, remember that this option doesn't work well in muddy conditions. Also, if you've got an expensive road bike, keep in mind that cross racing is very hard on equipment. Expect paint chips, bent wheels, broken parts, etc.
What Makes Cyclocross So Unique?
Cyclocross races range from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your category. Although you’ll need to train hard to be competitive, you won’t need to log nearly the amount of saddle time required to compete in road- or mountain-bike races.
Road racers are supported by a team car or teammates if they have mechanical problems. Mountain bike racers are entirely self-sufficient. Cyclocross racers, however, have what’s known as a pit, where they can exchange bikes/wheels. Of course, you need two bikes and/or spare wheels in order to take advantage of the pit. Most top riders have two (sometimes three) bikes for an important cross race. Average Jills might just have a pair of wheels for back-up in case of punctures.
If you've got the luxury of mechanical support and the conditions are muddy, you can hand off your filthy rig to your mechanic, who hands you a clean one. Then, while you're racing, your wrench is frantically cleaning and lubing the bike in case you need it again. In a complete mudfest, you might actually exchange bikes every lap. You also exchange bikes if you have mechanical problems or flat tires.
Make no mistake about it: running is a part of cyclocross. In fact, cross is the one cycling race where strong runners occassionally excel. Running sections are usually short, steep and difficult. And they offer a unique element you won’t find in typical road or off-road races. In fact, knowing when to run can change the race outcome. For example, if you try to ride through a bad muddy section and get bogged down and have to stop, the racer who chose to run it, will leave you in the dust. Also, narrow parts of the course sometimes become bottlenecks and running can be faster than riding and get you past struggling riders who otherwise would slow you down.
How To Race Cyclocross?
We can tell you about cross races in our area. For races nationwide, there's a good calendar in the bicycle-racing magazine VeloNews.