Cyclocross: What is it, where did it come from, and how to start racing
A guide to cyclocross basics including race formats, bike specifics, and more.
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As the road season comes to a close, attention turns to cycling’s winter discipline, cyclocross. Thanks to the stellar performances of star riders Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel this summer, interest is growing in the discipline in which they first became successful. But what exactly is cyclocross? Here is the VeloNews cyclocross 101.
How and when did cyclocross start?
The origins of ‘cross are shrouded in mystery. Most cycling historians agree that the discipline started in the early years of the twentieth century. One story is that a French Army private, Daniel Gousseau, charged with delivering messages between generals, used his bike to cross rough terrain and was inspired to create an off-road race that involved carrying one’s bike over fences and other obstacles. In 1902 Gousseau organized the first French cyclocross championship and a new sport was born.
After Octave Lapize claimed his 1910 Tour de France — his win was due to his intensive winter cyclocross training — the popularity of the sport spread across northern Europe. Despite huge crowds attending professional races in France throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the UCI did not recognize the sport until the late 1940s, and the first UCI world cyclocross championship was held in 1950.
Also read: Get your mud on — Cyclocross 2021-22 season preview
Since then the sport has grown in size and become more professional. What used to be a fun way for road racers to keep fit during the off-season is now a serious discipline in its own right.
What are the race formats?
Cyclocross races are short and intense. Senior men’s races are generally just over one hour (the time of the first lap is used to calculate the total number of laps) and women’s races are 50 minutes. Races for riders in younger categories are slightly shorter.
The format is like a city center criterium mashed up with motor racing: Positioning is key and tactics are minimal. Riders start from a carefully controlled grid; the sprint away from the line is critical. If a rider is too slow into the first corner they are likely to be held up behind other riders. Unlike the chess-like intricacies of a road race, cyclocross is simple. Go hard from the start, and then dig in for the next hour. The first across the line wins.
There are “pits” where riders can change bikes up to twice a lap. On particularly muddy days, a bike can be slowed considerably by mud clogging the wheels and drivetrain. Elite riders have dedicated and expert pit crews who will help with de-mudding bikes or with any mechanical issues. A rider will enter the pits, throw his bike at one member of the crew, then take a fresh bike from another. The muddy bike will then be washed down ready for the next swap.
What is a typical cyclocross course?
Races take place on a circuit of between 2.5km and 3.5km, with a mixture of surfaces including grass, mud, sand, gravel, tarmac. The regulations say that 90 percent of the course has to be rideable, but this is rarely enforced. Courses are tight and twisting, with some elevation gain and technical features that force the riders to dismount and carry their bikes.
Weather conditions play a big part in how a course rides. After periods of heavy rain, there will be deep mud. In December and January courses in northern locations often freeze solid. With a top layer of ice or greasy mud, some courses can be like skating rinks. Bike handling skills are everything. Traction, picking the right line, and judging when to lay down the power are all crucial. Usually, there is a single fastest line around each course. Before races, riders can do practice laps to work out the fastest lines.
The most famous cyclocross courses, such as those at Namur, Overijse, and Gavere (all in Belgium) have lung-busting amounts of climbing in each lap. Other famous courses have their own trademark features; Koksijde has long sections across sand dunes, Koppenbergcross takes the riders up the infamous cobbled climb that features in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
How is a cyclocross bike different from a road bike?
They share the same DNA but cyclocross bikes have evolved to suit the demands of the discipline. The most obvious difference is the tires: Knobbly tires are essential, and racers can become obsessive about matching their tread pattern to the conditions. For beginners, there are multi-purpose tires that work perfectly well on most courses. Tires are run at low pressure to increase traction. Without traction, power is pointless. Frames are designed to give more clearance around the wheels, to minimize the impact of clogged mud. Gears are lower to cope with steep climbs and heavy mud.
If you are going to try cyclocross racing for the first time, try to borrow or buy a used cyclocross bike. You could ride the race on your old clunker mountain bike, but it just won’t be the same.
How do I get started with cyclocross racing?
If you want to give it a go, track down your local cycling club and they will be able to point you in the direction of your nearest cyclocross league. Leagues are usually regional and hold races most weekends between September and January, so you’ll soon get to know your fellow competitors. The cyclocross community is friendly, welcoming and doesn’t usually take itself too seriously. And it’s great for families – racing starts with kids who have only just learned to ride a bike and the age categories go all the way up to their grandparents.
Going fast around a cyclocross course is not easy. But everyone’s definition of fast is different. The vast majority of amateur riders simply enjoy challenging themselves to nail a tricky feature, find the right line, and maybe just beat that guy from another club who’s in the front. And because all the riders are spread out around a circuit, it’s virtually impossible to tell anyone’s exact position.
Come wind, rain, snow, mud, sand, or even sunshine, cyclocross is just good fun.