The Beginner’s Guide to Cyclocross

Cyclocross is one of the fastest growing sections of cycling – it’s an all-out mad dash through the dirt, pavement, grass, mud, sand, snow and/or ice that will leave you sucking wind, barely able to see straight…and jonesing to do it again. It’s held on a relatively short track (2 miles or less) making it spectator-friendly as well. Cyclocross is also one of the few sports where heckling is not only carried on by the spectators but encouraged, even by the top-level touring elites.

So how do you get started? Let’s break it down to equipment, basic skills and the race.

Cyclocross Equipment

What sort of bike do you ride in cyclocross? A cyclocross-designed bike is generally a lot like a standard road bike with a few exceptions. You have clearance for a little bigger tire (32-35mm wide for cross versus 21-23mm wide for road), the tires have a small tread or “knob” to them and typically cyclocross bikes are equipped with cantilever brakes.

Cyclocross Katie Arnold

You don’t need to worry about buying another bike if you’re not sure you’ll like the sport. You can ride whatever you feel like riding in most local cyclocross races, although most people start with a mountain bike (You’ll have to remove the bar ends if your mountain bike is so equipped).  A mountain bike is bit heavier which will be a consideration when carrying the bike over barriers or run-ups. I tell you this merely as a point to keep in the back of your mind. Feel free to purchase a cyclocross bike if you feel the need, however. I find cyclocross bikes quite versatile and there are many good entry-level bikes available.

If you watch a few races or listen to folks who have been racing cyclocross you will probably overhear them talking about their pit bike, spare wheels, tires for different conditions and so on. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT THIS. As a beginner in ‘cross, your races are only 30-40 minutes long. The likelihood of you needing to pit is pretty slim. Aside from this you probably aren’t going for a podium spot in your first few races. The main thing is to not worry about buying a ton of equipment but to just get out there and do it.

All races are going to require you to wear a helmet. I’m going to assume that if you’ve been cycling you have a helmet. As for your clothing you will probably overdress, especially for your first few really cold races. It will take you a while to really zero in on how much you need to wear to keep you warm without overheating. During the race you will generate an amazing amount of heat.  You will probably see the fast kids talking about wearing skinsuits, embrocation and such. Here again, you don’t need to start off dumping a huge amount of money on your apparel.  Wear what you are comfortable cycling in. As you progress you will see and notice the benefits of certain pieces of clothing but it is not essential to your enjoyment of the sport.

Before and after your race you will need to keep those other layers on.  Jeans, sweatpants, windbreakers, wellingtons, whatever works to keep you warm and dry so you can watch, learn and cheer on the other racers.

Basic Cyclocross Skills

Because every race will incorporate some sort of barrier and usually some sort of run-up (a short, steep hill or stairs, where it is faster to run up with your bike than ride) you will need to know how to dismount, carry your bike and remount.  A cyclocross racer performs this movement at speed. You will also want to become familiar with the bike-handling skills especially if you mostly ride roads.

The best way to do this is to attend a local cyclocross practice. Stop in to your local bike shop or ask fellow riders about the local cyclocross outfits and practices. Unless you live in a very rural area there usually is a cycling club or group that holds weekly practices starting just before cyclocross season (usually practices will start in early September). This is a great way to get comfortable with the sport and make friends. Even those who have been racing for a while will attend practices and clinics.

Cyclocross Uncle Steve

However, let’s briefly review these three steps:

Dismount – Keep your hands on the “hoods” or top of handlebars and brake levers so you can reach your brakes if needed. While you are still rolling you’ll unclip your right foot and bring it right behind you left foot on the left side of the bike by swinging it around the rear tire. You will now be standing on the left pedal. Take a moment to get balanced. Move your right hand from the handlebars to the top tube, just in front of your saddle (this may change depending on how you carry the bike but this is the most common). When you are ready you will place your right foot on the ground while you unclip your left foot. Then, run (or walk while you are practicing).  It does sound potentially difficult but slowly work through the steps. You’ll find it is not difficult to put it together into one fluid movement. Now you move on to your Carry.

Carry – There are two manners of carrying your bike. The most common is “Suitcase” style where you lift your bike straight up from where you left off of your dismount (above), like you’d pick up a suitcase. Pick it up high enough to clear the barrier and when you are clear, set the bike down gently while maintaining control. Easy enough, right? The suitcase is the most common carry in cyclocross so you’ll want to practice it the most.

Shouldering – The next type of carry is shouldering the bike.  Typically you would want to shoulder the bike when there is a long run-up or long section of sand that can’t be ridden.  When shouldering your bike you will want to move your right hand from the top tube to the middle of the down tube. This will help you hoist the bike on to your shoulder. You want the top tube of the bike to be resting on your shoulder with your right arm sticking through the main triangle. The right arm will then come under the down tube and reach up to grab the bottom of the left-side of the handlebars. The result is that your right arm will end up cradling the down tube of the bike.

Like the dismount it sounds awkward, but take your time and it will come to you. Release the left hand and now run! When you’ve made it to the top of the hill (or cleared the sand pit or what have you) you will again gently and maintaining control set the bike down. A mistake many people make when shouldering the bike is to take the right arm up and over the top tube (instead of underneath the down tube) and rest their hand on the tops of the handlebars near the stem.

Two reasons to not do this are: You are now putting extra weight on your shoulder instead of using the crook of your elbow to help relieve the weight. Also this forces the nose of the saddle into your helmet.

Cyclocross Caroline Remounting

Remounting – The part that scares most people is to hop back on your bike without coming to a complete stop. Not to worry. Remounting your bike while it is moving is essentially swinging your right leg around behind the rear wheel and “stepping” onto your bike. This is an exaggeration of a manner in which your probably get on your bike from time to time. Make sure both hands are on the tops of your handlebars so you can best maintain control of your bike. As you step onto your bike you want the inside of your right thigh to land on the saddle and then slide onto the saddle. Don’t jump up and just land on to your saddle. This could hurt you and may cause a flat.

Cyclocross Steve

Like anything worth doing it’s not enough to merely know how to dismount and remount. You will want to know how to do it well. Find an area you can use to practice dismounting and remounting your bike. It can be your yard if it’s big enough or maybe an area of the local park or school grounds after school hours. Practice slowly concentrating on form. The speed will come later. You can find something to use as a barrier (2 x 8s, hay bales, logs) or build some of your own. Regulation cyclocross barriers are no more than 40cm tall. If you make your own barriers there are lots of instructions on the web on making some from PVC pipe which has the distinction of being pretty cheap as well as easy to build. Not to mention if you crash into your practice barriers and break something you are not out much money.

If you don’t have a cycling group nearby or haven’t yet found them I would recommend checking out the “Noob” articles at Cyclocross Magazine’s website or getting Simon Burney’s book “Cyclocross: Training and Technique”. Both are excellent resources. Cyclocross Magazine’s website has some great videos on mounting and dismounting and are definitely worth watching.

Race Day

For myself, I have found that race day prep begins with the night before. I lay out everything I’m going to need – bikes, tools, tire pump, shoes, kit (clothing), helmet and the whole shooting match. Bring some safety pins to pin your number on your jersey. Don’t’ forget your water bottles & recovery drinks either. Having this all set out the night before means less last-minute stress.

Cyclocross Big Run

On race day, you will probably be racing in one of the categories that take off early so be sure to eat at least 3 hours before race time to give your food enough time to digest. Some protein and carbs work best for me such as an egg or two and a bowl of oatmeal. You will also want to arrive at the race venue about an hour and a half to two hours before your race time. This gives you plenty of time to get checked in/registered, unpack and prep both you and your bike. If you have an extra set of wheels in case of a flat you will need to find the pits and get your extras set up where you can find them easily.

Getting to the race venue early also gives you more time to pre-ride the course. Because cyclocross race courses are pretty small it’s easy to get at least several laps of practice in. This is almost essential. For one, you will need to warm up. ‘Cross racing is fast and intense so there is no “rolling start”. It’s all-out from the whistle.  You will need to have your body ready in order to jump when it’s time.

Secondly, you will want to know the course. Make several slow laps getting to understand the track. Is the outside of the hairpin bumpy?  Is it quicker to dismount and run through a deep sandy section or can you find a fast line to ride through it? Then take at least one fast lap if you can to see how it will go at race pace. Do things feel differently at speed? Most of all don’t worry about what the guy in front of you is doing. Just because he’s going wide into a turn for example does not mean it’s the fastest way for you. Work on your tire pressures, too. As a rule of thumb you’ll want to get your tire pressure about as low as you can without bottoming out on the rims to get maximum traction especially in muddy or snowy conditions.

If your race day is going to be an exceptionally muddy or snowy one you may not want to pre-ride the course and then panic about getting all that mud/ice off your bike in time to line up. But you should at the least walk the course in order to know what to expect.

Five minutes until your race; get your last drink from your water bottle and line up! Good luck and have fun.

Don’t worry too much about crashing. You will crash at some point. It sounds scary but it’s not. First off, if you haven’t crashed at least once a race for your first handful of races (or at least missed a turn or had to get off for some reason) then you probably aren’t going hard enough. Hey, this is racing! Secondly, even though you are going hard, the speeds in ‘cross are not too high and most likely you’ll crash in the dirt or grass. You should be able to hop up and quickly get headed in the right direction. Don’t freak out about the person who just passed you. You can get them back when they go to fast into a hairpin turn or botch a remount.

Another item to remember while you are racing; As a newbie you will probably get lapped. Not a big deal. Keep your wits about you. You don’t want to hold up a rider who’s lapping you. But you don’t want to just pull over and let the people who are racing you for position go by. Defend your position but don’t intentionally run anyone into the tape. This may make you to ride even harder or take a different line. Ride smart and you may surprise yourself of what you are capable of.

When your race is over be sure you get a proper cool-down such as riding another lap at a very easy pace. Then get changed, grab your refreshment/recovery fuel and go cheer on the other racers!

This beginners guide to cyclocross was created by J.D. Kimple. Kimple is in his third year of racing cyclocross. He is currently racing with the Crossniacs cyclocross team and is involved with the Columbus, Ohio Cap City Cross group.

Photo credits: Noah Hutson
Joel Runyon