Cyclocross – An Introduction

Cyclocross is a sport that has a couple really defining attributes. That’s nothing special, every sport has defining attributes. The thing that makes it different is that it’s mostly the loosely associated attributes or that make it great, the barebones aspects of cyclocross racing aren’t all that exciting. The sport of cyclocross is the result of a set of decisions that independently don’t create something amazing, but together the maybe unexpected ramifications create something really great.

Here are the basics:

  • The race surface can be composed of any combination of the following: grass, dirt, asphalt, gravel, mud, sand, puddles… and whatever else the race organizer can find to make you ride over. The changing terrain emphasizes handling ability much more than road racing.
  • The course necessarily includes places that require dismounting from the bicycle. This can be in the form of a super steep hill that can only be run up, sand too soft or deep to ride through (beach volleyball courts), or plank barriers typically 18 inches in height. These obstacles add a required skillset to racing, successful competitors must be able to quickly and efficiently dismount and remount their bicycles. They must also carry the bicycle through sections of the course, making the ability to pick up their bike and sometimes shoulder it while running an additional skill to learn. Getting off the bike as close to the barrier and back on it as soon after the barrier is ideal, as running is slower than riding in almost all circumstances (when it is possible at all).

  • The race-course is based on time not distance. Racing is done on a lap and based on how fast the race leaders do the first couple laps organizers calculate how many laps to make them to. Typically at the end of the second lap the lap countdown starts so racers won’t see it until the end of their third lap, but they’ll know how long the race is supposed to be before they start: somewhere between 40 and 60 minutes based on category.
  • The bike is a modified road bike, running knobby tyres somewhere around 32mm in size with extra frame clearance for mud around the wheels. Cantilever brakes are used and often only a single chainring is run up front with 8-10 gears in the rear. Cable routing on the frame is arranged to minimize catch-ups while picking up and carrying the bike.
  • Racing is organized into classes similar to road and mountain biking, in Alberta there are three categories for men and two for women which are always (sadly) merged during competition (because the sport is short on females: what’s new in my world). Provincial and National Championships however are split by age. If you are good in your category you’ll eventually get kicked out and have to move up to some tougher competition. If you’re at the top of the best category, someone will inevitably entice you to go and race in Europe where you will be slaughtered by some really fast guys.
  • Speaking of fast guys; the fast guys in this sport are really, really good. As a huge bonus, amateur ‘crossers get to basically participate in the same sport as the pros. It’s not like pro road-racing where the professional version is a completely different kind of competition than the amateur version. Sure, some aspects change a bit, like having a second bike and a mechanic in the pit lane just like a nascar race, but the concept is still ‘ride as fast as you can over this course’. Road-racing at the elite level is all about teamwork, peloton dynamics, leadouts, and whether or not the breakaway is going to be allowed to be successful, hardly about riding your bike as fast as you can over the course. For me this is definitely a pro – getting to race like the pros.

The fast guys are really good – did I say that already? here’s some proof from the World cup races last year:

Why choose to take up the sport? It’s not likely because you think that you really enjoy 1 hour threshold or near-threshold efforts on the bike. It’s not because the idea of jumping onto the seat of your bike at a full run is super appealing to you.

The Flying Mount
The Flying Mount

In fact that’s probably the most off putting aspect for many first-timers. The fact that other people are doing it however, and having fun, is a likely reason I think most people start. There is no secret, the sport really looks fun because the people racing are having fun. It’s also time limited, only happening for a couple weeks each year, and there’s an urgency not to miss out. Perhaps a few esoteric reasons too; the handling skills gained in cross are valuable to bring onto the road (and even triathlon) and the top end speed is something that can be added at the end of a season to a solid base developed for other forms of racing. Cyclocross is meant to be hard, and that’s an appealing reason to start too, it’s a heck of a challenge but I’ll get to that later. Ultimately though I think the apparent disorganization and chaos of a race makes for a good time, and as with all sports, it’s about fun times. Here’s someone’s story about what made ‘cross appealing:

We walked around the course with our coffees and I was getting stoked. Then we got the the first run up. There was a plank at the bottom of steep hill. This was something that clearly nobody would be able to ride. Riders would be forced to get off their bike, run over the barrier, and then remount at the base of an impossibly steep run up. People were crowded all around and cheering and yelling and cowbelling. At this point the tail end of the Masters A racers were coming though, and well, they certainly weren’t making it look easy. Everyone was struggling.

Then Barry Wicks came though like a cool breeze, bunny hopped the barrier and rode his bike up the hill. A man on the hill with an enormous cowbell chased him and screamed in his face, over and over again:

I CAN SEE YOU!

I can see you, I can see you, I can see you! That didn’t make any sense to me, but I loved it. I would later realize that shouting the most obvious shit is the best way to heckle your pals.

Turns out it was Bruce from River City Bicycles doing the yelling. It was that scene right there that did it for me, that made me want to try cyclocross: Bruce yelling in Barry’s face, and Barry riding the hill with an ear to ear smile.

Brian NoLastName – 2009

Others have described Cyclocross as “You make a bike race as stupid as possible, but it’s still a race, so people do it. And then you rationalize that, like, it’s so stupid that it must be fun”. I agree that the concept works for some people but I don’t think that’s how you’d sell the idea to a bunch of athletes who are actually looking for a physical challenge, which ‘cross is in spades, but perhaps the sheer stupidity is part of the reason for some folks. For the people who want to go out and race ‘cross, what most of them are really relishing when the whistle blows to start the race is that this is really really hard. The courses are laid out to prevent rhythm, just when your heart-rate is getting out of control there’s a hill to really add some nails to your coffin and bury you if you’re not careful. Just when your legs are tired from a long section in soft grass there will be a corner that really requires you to slow down and re-accelerate out of it to remind you that your legs are really tired. When your hands are starting to ache from all the jittering and shaking after riding over some really uneven terrain you’ll have to hop off your bike and grab the top tube of your bike with a serious grip to pick it up and run over the barriers, yeilding a big ache in the knuckles. When you think you’ll get to run up some speed down a big hill there will be a U-turn at the bottom, or maybe even a double barrier dismount to prevent you from reaping the benefits of the climb you just did. The changing pattern isn’t something that can be practiced as it’s different from week to week, the ability to change pace, position and focus is the underlying key, while at all times keeping the effort level high. Cyclocross happens in the autumn and early winter. For Edmonton that’s September to November; for Belgium and the rest of northern Europe, where this great sport began, it’s more of a November to February sport. The result is the potential of miserable weather. Why is that a good thing? Well, it makes things hard! Cold and wet sap determination. It makes the win go to the toughest competitor out there. If it’s hard, why do I love it? Probably for some of the same reasons that I’m signed up to tackle Ironman in August.

Maybe it’s the mud, or the bruises, maybe the beer, or the loose semblance of camaraderie. I think what it boils down to is that I feel more alive during a cross race than at just about any other time. Cyclocross is the most intense hour of effort, pain and joy I have ever encountered. I’m attracted to cross because I can put everything I’ve got on the line for 60 minutes, come out of it totally exhausted, covered in rain, mud and grime, perhaps with a trickle of blood running down somewhere, craving ibuprofen, blowing mud out of my nostrils, placing top 30 if I’m lucky, and loving every minute of it.

Kelly Hobkirk – 2008

Unlike road-racing where team-tactics play a huge role in competition, cyclocross is more of an individual sport. Co-operation on the course is a definite possibility but more often than not it’s co-operation with riders from another team. The main role of team-members is cheering when they’re not racing and maybe snapping some photos, that’s it. In that sense, everyone is on the same team. The pre-race course inspection and post-race random shenanigans are shared amongst the entirety of those assembled at the race. The event of cyclocross lasts more than the length of the race, it lasts the entire duration of the time spent at the park. Things like this would not at all be considered to be out of the ordinary:

One of the best things about cyclocross is the attitude. Gone is the testosterone-induced yelling and uber-competitiveness. Everyone seems to respect each other, no matter how talented or strong or skilled they are. Everyone cheers for everyone.

Kelly Hobkirk – 2008
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