I’m well aware that many people have never heard of Cyclocross, have never seen it and have never considered riding a Cyclocross race. I thought I’d put together a few blogs to help people begin to find out about a sport which has become my favourite thing to do.
What is Cyclocross?
Cyclocross is less well known discipline within cycling: an off-road winter sport that is a somewhere between road and mountain biking. You ride a bike that looks a road bike with drop handle bars but has knobbly tyres like a mountain bike. Races are on a mixture of surfaces, primarily grass (which will normally become mud), sand, cobbles and tarmac. Races last between 40 and 60 minutes (depending on age and gender), and comprise approximately 10 minute laps of a circuit. Distinctively, races include reasons to get off the bike and run, such as hurdles, steps and steep banks, hence the classic picture of a Cyclocross rider with their bike on their shoulder. Another important point is that the bikes often get really muddy so there is a bike exchange area known as ‘the pits’ where bikes can be swapped mid-race, cleaned by your pit crew and returned to you later in the race for another bike swap. Bikes can be exchanged as many times as needed during a race.
Races are fast and furious, with a sprint from the start. Riders negotiate the lumps and bumps of the course, constantly deciding whether it is faster to ride or run each section. Typically, the grass may become so muddy that it is quicker to run than ride, or so it is common to see riders running through deep sludgy mud with their bikes on their shoulders, or to plough on riding through the mud or sand showing expert skill to keep the bike moving forwards.
Where are the races?
At grassroots, Cyclocross has a huge following in the UK, largely as a participation sport. There are local leagues across the country holding races in large muddy fields, parks and woods, and places like County Showgrounds. Many leagues have upwards of 500 people racing in a day, in their various race categories. At a professional level the main focus is racing in Belgium and the Netherlands where there are several Elite leagues and many thousands of fans. Riders come from around the world, including the US, China, Australia, Canada, as is evident in the World Cup, also held around the world.
Who can race?
The basic answer is ‘anyone’ – hence the beauty of Cyclocross, it’s all inclusive. Leagues run races for children through to adults. The youngest races are for under 10s (U10), which often includes tiny tots on balance bikes with Mum or Dad running alongside them. Race categories progress through U12s, U14s, U16s, Juniors (under 18s), U23, Senior (Elite), Vet 40, Vet 50, Vet 60+, for men and women. Consequently, it’s a family friendly sport where the entire family can participate on a race day in their own category – and many do!
What kit do you need to race Cyclocross?
The simple answer is any off-road bike and clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty. The complicated answer is a specialised Cyclocross bike, ideally 2 (so that you can exchange bikes in the pits when it gets too dirty), a pit crew with a jet wash and tons of water, bike shoes with spikes at the front (to assist with climbing steep bikes), and a lycra race skinsuit. Whilst people would argue that this isn’t all entirely necessary (and they are right! Most people start off racing on an old mountain bike and get hooked), it is also true that those who win the races have all this kit plus a great big van to transport it in!!
What’s the appeal of Cyclocross?
That’s the million dollar question! Racing in a muddy field during the coldest months of the year, slippery surfaces with mud spraying everywhere, unrideable banks and steep obstacles, riding at your maximum heart rate for the duration of the race – who would want to do that? Well, it turns out that loads do and it really is the most enormous fun!
Why do I love Cyclocross?
I love it because I can ride at my own pace and it doesn’t matter if I can’t keep up with the peloton, because in Cross there is no peloton. If something is too difficult to ride, you jump off and run – there is no pressure to have to ride things outside your confidence level. It’s inclusive so anyone can do it, no matter how good or bad they are – all are welcome. If riders are really good, they can go and ride the National Trophy or better still, ride Elite races in Europe.
Above all though, I love the competition of riding with people at a similar level to me, who have put in as much (or as little) training as I have, and who I race against week in week out. During the race we are competitive rivals: outside the race we are best friends. There is such a camaraderie of doing what we love together. We get a whole day out, in a pretty location, with a focus that all the family can enjoy, and with a team spirit generated through collaboration in the pits. The fact that the family need to pull together as a pit crew to support each other in their different races throughout the day has taught my children the importance of being a team player; the concept that ‘I’m here for you, you’re here for me’ and neither of us can compete properly without the other.
Besides all that, you get the buzz from intense exercise mixed with the satisfaction (or disappointment) of competition. That’s quite a heady cocktail!
Want to see what an Elite race looks like?
There are many examples of Cyclocross racing on YouTube. Here is a link to the highlights of the last World Cup in Hulst 2021. In the interest of equity there is a link to both the men and women's races. Note how fast the riders ride away at the start, how busy the pits are for bike changes, which riders hop the hurdles and which run them, and how fast the riders run when they need to! Note also that the even the best riders fall off! It's a proper all round fitness that is required, along with a good amount of skill.