Cyclocross is a crazy sport. Nothing is stranger – or more fascinating – than watching filthy, exhausted racers rip through the grass and mud, taking waffles, bacon and beer on the way up the run-up. There are so many reasons to love it, but you truly don’t know until you’ve tried it.
Watching ‘cross is one thing, but it’s even more fun to race it. In fact, it’s my personal favorite style of bike racing… between Road, Mountain and Cyclocross, I’ll always choose CX. It has all the best challenges of bike racing with few drawbacks. The best part about it is that you can be as serious or unserious about it as you want. Plenty of riders are die-hard cyclocross fanatics, training hard and eating crazy vegan diets to be competitive… and plenty of people are just there to ride, get weird and have fun. There’s no wrong way to do it. If you haven’t raced yet and are flirting with the idea of getting out there, taking a few beer hand-ups, having an insanely good workout and a crazy fun time on your bike, then here’s a few tips from my experiences to get you ready to toe the line in your first race:
Tip 1: Register for a Race
CX racing is a short season. It traditionally starts in September and goes through January, although the pro calendar starts in late August and goes till the end of February. Check your local area for events. Many CX races are unsanctioned and don’t require a formal USAC racing license. For example, SoCalCross here in Southern California is a 10-ish race series with 1-4 of those being a USA Cycling-sanctioned official race. If you don’t have an official license, and don’t want to buy a whole years’ license, you can purchase a 1-day license at the sanctioned races for a small fee. If you plan on racing as many races and moving up through the official skill categories throughout the calendar, you will need to buy an annual racing license. If it’s your first race ever, just jump in and don’t worry about buying a license. You might find out that cyclocross is a whole world of pain and racing isn’t for you… or you might find yourself addicted and itching for more (hopefully you experience the latter).
Remounting on the run is integral to being a good cyclocross racer.
Tip 2: Practice
In the weeks and days leading up to your race, practice riding around in the dirt and grass, cornering dismounts, remounts and shouldering the bike. There are countless great videos on the internet on how to execute most of the moves, but don’t worry if you can’t dismount and remount at top speed like the pros. More than anything, you really want to focus on being able to handle your bike in corners of different surfaces. You’ll be riding your bike to the ragged edge of traction, so you’re going to need to find where the limits of your bike and tires are, and push them. If it’s your first time, start slowly to avoid injuring yourself. Cyclocross uses a lot of muscles that you normally don’t use while only cycling, so it’s easy to injure yourself if you haven’t developed those muscles. Also, expect to fall off your bike a few times learning how to handle it, so practice somewhere where it won’t hurt too bad to take a tumble. The type of terrain you will encounter in a CX race is wildly varied between locales and race venues, so practice on as many different types of terrain at different speeds as possible. Vary your tire pressure, starting from your recommended pressure and going down during training and see what works on different surfaces. You want to go basically as low as you can without sacrificing speed, burping your tire (if you’re running tubeless) or pinch flatting on rocks or roots.
Any bike with knobby tires, functioning brakes and a drivetrain is good enough for CX, regardless of what the snobs say.
Tip 3: Make Sure Your Bike Works
I’ve broken my bike plenty of times right before races. It’s a huge bummer to have gone all the way out to a race to have a mechanical, and you can save yourself from a lot of heartache by making sure your bike works properly. The night before your race, lube your chain and go through the gears, as well as making sure your tires are holding air. Also, “run what you brung”. Don’t worry about whether your bike is good enough or light enough. Any bike with knobby tires, functioning brakes and a drivetrain is good enough for CX, regardless of what the snobs say.
Tip 4: Eat
A good meal goes a long way, and nothing feels worse than bonking halfway through a ‘cross race (you’re already in enough pain as it is!) I like to have a really solid breakfast the morning of the race. My standard meal has always been steel-cut oatmeal, toast with butter, eggs, oranges and coffee, with plenty of water in between. It’s important to eat something that will settle easily and not give you problems during the race. Eat a meal at least 3 hours before your race, and a snack maybe an hour to half an hour before. A personal favorite of mine is to down a caffeinated gel in staging, just to get some sugar in the veins before the frenzy at the start line. Adequate hydration really helps because in truth, it’s almost impossible to drink water while racing CX. Most of the time it’s just too bumpy and intense to reach down for a bottle.
Cyclocross racing begs for good bike handling.
Tip 5: Show Up Early
You want to give yourself lots of time to register, pre-ride the course and get a decent warm up. Aim to be at the race at least 2 hours before your race time. Registration can take a lot of time, even if you’ve pre-registered.
Tip 6: Pre-ride the Course
The moment you get on the course, start visualizing the start and make sure you jump in at a point when the course is open for pre-ride. Riding the course is generally not allowed when there is a race running, so check with the officials. I like to do at least two laps. First lap is just to get the legs warmed up, second lap at 60-80% of race pace to get a feel for the corners and barriers at speed. Cyclocross courses are similar to MTB courses in that they evolve as the day wears on, either from weather or rider erosion. If you do multiple races in a day, sometimes the races are hours apart, and the course can change dramatically (for better or for worse). If you can, pre-ride before each race you plan to do.
Tip 7: Get a Good Spot at the Start
Once you’ve done your pre-rides, watch for the staging announcement. With cyclocross, the series leaders often get “call ups” which means they get to start in front of everyone else in the corral. In CX you want to be as close to the front as possible at the start so that it’s easier to get the coveted hole shot. Start smart. Before the whistle, be clipped in with your dominant leg ready to push down and sprint. It helps to be on the saddle as well if you can balance on your other toe.
Recon the course prior to the race so you ‘re familiar with it.
Tip 8: Get the Hole Shot
The rider that wins the starting sprint gets the hole shot. Winning the hole shot puts you in a great position to be competitive in the race, but even being in the top 5-10 riders is still a great place to be. Be careful in the starting sprint not to wander too much off line because you can cause a crash. It’s best to be in the drops for the starting sprint for stability.
Tip 9: Pace Yourself
Cyclocross races feel about twice as long as they are, and if you go completely all-out in the first lap and gas out in the second lap, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Pacing is very important and you want to have a really solid first and second lap to distance yourself from competitors, and stay steady the rest of the race. The best riders can summon a faster final lap to finish off the competition. If you’re exceedingly fit, try it out.
Tip 10: Be Courteous
If a crash happens ahead of you, slow down and pass safely or stop. Running over other riders should be avoided as much as possible! Also, if you come up on another rider and need to pass, make sure you say “passing on your (left/right)” before you pass them, it’s a common courtesy and prevents crashes.
You can see why getting a good spot at the start helps your chances.
Tip 11: Watch Those Barriers
A common mistake is to go too fast into barriers due to race nerves, and crash or trip over them. I know, because I’ve done it countless times. In ‘cross, it’s better to be as smooth as possible than to go as fast as possible and crash because of it. Keep that adrenaline in check, stay focused going into the barrier and make sure you adequately clear it. Try to be smooth on the remount as well, as doing it while running around in the red zone is considerably harder than when you practice it in the park. Gauge the flow of the section; some run-ups have long or steep climbs after them, and it might be better to continue carrying or pushing the bike up these instead of trying to remount and possibly losing valuable momentum.
Sometimes it’s better to carry your bike.
Tip 12: Win! Or don’t.
Whatever you do, have as much fun as possible, while following the rules and being courteous to other riders. You will be in pain. You probably will be heckled by spectators (it’s an integral part of CX culture.) You might take a tumble in the grass, or grab that tempting bacon hand-up. You might even win! Anything can happen in ‘cross and that’s part of the charm.
Now get out there and race! Regardless of whether you care about winning or not, a cyclocross race is an unforgettable experience and you should try it out. If anything you’ll have a new respect for the sport and all the awesomely crazy people that love it.