Get Into… Cyclocross Racing

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14.11.19 at 11:06 am

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Winter has come which means only one thing in the cycling world, it’s cyclocross racing time. Arguably the most accessible form of cycle racing, due to its relatively safe nature and closed-circuit, off-road courses, plus categories that stretch from young kids to pensioners, there is no finer discipline than ‘cross.

Races last from 30-60 minutes depending on the category and consist of multiple laps on challenging technical courses. In the UK they are usually organised on playing fields or woodland, although you do see the odd interesting location thrown in like the central grass patch in the middle of a velodrome. A CX race is often a personal battle between each racer and the course, rather than a tense tactical affair with team domestiques and water bottles from the support car-like in road racing.

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Above all else, cyclocross racing is a fun discipline to participate in and a great chance to pin a number on and race in earnest against fellow mud enthusiasts.

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 Equipment

From the outside, cyclocross-specific bikes look a lot like road bikes, just with knobbly tyres. However, there are more subtle differences to be found. Cyclocross bikes can take wider tyres, have a lower gearing to help a rider cut through the mud, and more clearance for mud in key areas around the brakes, tyres and bottom bracket. The clearance is to allow the inevitable build-up of mud without impairing the function of these key components.

Although a cyclocross bike is the ideal machine to use in a race, most leagues allow you to race on a mountain bike and in drier races a gravel bike is more beneficial. There are no fixed rules about what you ride, at least not until the higher levels of the sport.

he bikes are incredibly versatile and with the correct setup can tackle any course. Tyre choice and pressure is a totally different conversation altogether and one that defines cyclocross racers, a topic of conversation that any rider can enjoy. You will become a PSI-obsessed expert in time, but for now, it should be sufficient to know to set your pressures far lower than you would on a road bike.

 

 Technique

Cyclocross racing and riding is all about technique, in fact, it’s probably the most vital factor. Having the correct equipment is important, but the right technique is where gains are made.

Before the first race, it is good to get a grasp of the basics. The best place to learn and train skills will be a local park or woodland that allows bike use. There are tonnes of helpful videos on YouTube that will take you through all the cyclocross skills you could possibly want, including some very technical info on how to ride up concrete steps without shattering a clavicle. However, starting off the three most handy to have before your first race are; learning how to mount and remount, learning how to carry and shoulder your bike, and learning how to ride different terrains.

Mounting and remounting correctly is important to have nailed beforehand because many ‘cross courses will have sections you will need to get off your bike to tackle, for example, a set of planks.

Learning how to shoulder the bike correctly is important as well. Finding a steep verge or bank and combining a dismount drill with a shouldering/running up a bank drill will help you nail the skills come race day.

Learning how to ride different conditions is also very important, this works in hand with having the tyre and tyre pressure set up also sorted. The cyclocross season in the UK is pretty long and goes over a few regular weather seasons. Early on, the courses are dry, dusty and fast, but as the season progresses the rain and mud impact the conditions. Learning how to tackle sharp corners and off-camber bends in all of these conditions is another area to focus on.

Ian Field is a five-time elite British cyclocross racing national champion and has been racing on the continent for most of his career. Ian says, “go and practise for an extra 30 minutes on your skills and you’ll probably make up more places than any bit of equipment could ever buy you. Being able to ride a bike can be really rewarding in terms of a race result, especially when things get a bit muddier.”

 

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 Preparation

A cyclocross race is relatively short so you will not have to eat while you race, but it is important to get the nutrition right before and after. Staying hydrated pre-race is a must and eating a good breakfast is key. If the race is later on in the day e.g. after lunch, maybe take some pasta with you to top your energy levels up.

If it is cold, wear as much kit as possible for the warmup, gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers and jackets – all are advisable to keep the muscles warm. The warmup lap is key as you can see the challenges of the course and what has to be tackled in the race. Leagues will either let you take to the course just prior to your race or set a time earlier in the day where all age categories can practise together.

One of the most bizarre bits of cyclocross is the ritual pre-race strip down. Even if it is a cold and wet day, many riders will strip down to just their jersey and shorts, but this is because you do heat up very quickly when racing at full effort. Keep the gloves and warm socks on though, extremities are important to keep warm in a race.

 The race

So, it’s finally the day of the race, time to put all the skills that you have learnt to good effect. The bike is sorted and it’s time to line up with your fellow racers and take part in an hour of cycling that is quite unlike any other form of racing.

In cyclocross, the sprint comes at the start. Starts are quick affairs and it is incredibly exhilarating to be sprinting in a pack on uneven ground. From the outside, it looks intimidating and hard to navigate, but like most bunches, when you are in the thick of the action you only really have an awareness of the rider directly in front of you and the riders to the left and right of you.

After a couple of laps the intensity dies down a little and you can really start to learn who you are as a cyclocross racer. The glory of the races is that no matter where you are, fifth or fifty-fifth, there is usually a rider ahead of you, so a race is always on.

Most of the time in the race you are working above your threshold. The short steep hills and the quick descents push you hard the whole race and, as a result, sometimes it’s better not to get bogged down in statistics and power outputs. The lap system means you learn a little bit more about the course each lap and will become more confident or even learn where to put your fellow competitors under pressure.

Before too long you will get the final lap bell, the best sound of any cyclocross race, when you know it’s time to attack the course one last time, make up one more position and leave it all out on the mud. It may come as a relief to finish the race, but don’t be surprised if you find you want to get straight back out on your bike and practise your skills in time for the next one.

Over time your handling and confidence will improve, until a challenge that had previously felt unobtainable – for example, bunny hopping the barriers – becomes almost second nature. These boosts to handling and confidence can then be transferred back to your day-to-day cycling, whether it be training on the road or commuting, and you will become a better rider for it.

 

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Have fun

Fundamentally, the main thing about cyclocross racing is that you have fun. It’s hard to race at full gas for 40-60 minutes, but at the end the reward is sweet. Most cyclocross racing leagues have a real community feel to them, you’ll be cheered on by riders who participated in the earlier races that day and there’s nothing better than the immediate post-race dissection with your fellow competitors over a beer and a piece of cake.

So, get involved, you can find the nearest cyclocross racing league operating near you through the ‘Dirt’ section of the British Cycling website.

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