Cyclocross is unique in its ability to combine the best of two sports. There’s the technical aspect of mountain biking, with the endurance of road riding, however, in neither of the two parent sports are you likely to get as muddy as you will in ‘cross.
Cyclocross may look like road riding, but before you show up to your local race, there are a few key things you should know about.
Cyclocross bikes may look the same as road bikes, and in many aspects they are, but where they crucially differ is in the tyre clearance. Cyclocross bikes will often be able to fit up to a 35mm tyre (however 33 is the UCI legal limit), whereas many road bikes can only fit up to 28mm tyres. The larger tyres help the bike grip off-road, provide comfort over bumps, and minimise the chances of pinch flats.
Cyclocross bikes also tend to put you in a more upright position. This allows you to be more stable whilst off-road, giving you greater control in the dirt. If you’re coming from a road background, this might seem like an odd choice, but since speeds are much slower than they are in road racing, aerodynamics play a much less significant role.
If you’re looking to get into the sport, these differences don’t mean you need to go out and buy yet another bike. It’s not uncommon to see people racing on hardtail mountain bikes or modified road bikes.
If you currently own a hardtail, the first thing you want to do is strip it of everything but the bare essentials. Bottle cages, saddlebags, lights – it all has to go. Then you want to swap out whatever chunky off-road rubber you’re currently running and swap them to the thinnest semi-slicks you can find. The Maxxis Ignitor is a great choice. If you’re really serious, you may even consider swapping out your telescopic fork for a rigid one.
If you’re looking to convert a roadie, disc brakes are ideal for a bodged ‘cross bike. They allow for greater clearances, as well as performing better in the mud. Most road bikes can fit up to a 28mm tyre, so be sure to check your clearances, but there’s a good chance you’ll be able to fit a narrow ‘cross tyre. If you know your races are going to involve mud, make sure you’ve also got enough room so that you’re not stopped in your tracks on the first lap. A cyclocross wheelset is also a good investment, as most road wheels aren’t designed with the demands of off-road riding in mind. A second wheelset also comes with the added benefit of not having to swap tyres everytime you want to use your road bike for something other than ‘cross.
You’ll also need to get yourself a set of mountain bike pedals for mud shedding and ease of clipping in, as well as mountain bike shoes, for the recessed cleat – this will make running a much simpler task.
Finally, you’ll need to adjust your position; as a general rule, your bars will need to go up and back by 1-2 centimetres to get that extra control. This is just an initial guide, and after your first few races you’ll work out where you like to be.
Training for a cyclocross race isn’t as straightforward as road or mountain biking, as it can be difficult to replicate a ‘cross track. Therefore, it’s best to train for the constituent parts. Short road rides with high-intensity efforts match the fitness requirements of a cross race, and riding singletrack is great for honing your riding skills. A classic rookie error is to forget to train for running sprints. Whether it’s stairs, sand or a particularly steep incline, you’ll need to be off the bike and sprinting with your bike during the race. Adding hill sprints into your training routine will mean your legs won’t be jelly after powering up a climb.
Cyclocross is a great sport, with a community like no other; expect heckling and eskies full of beer, but also freely offered advice. As with any sport, the best way train is to just start racing and learn from the veterans there. Give it a go, it’s a great way to mix up your standard routine!