Many consider cyclocross to be a steeplechase with modified road bikes on a 2km course over hill and dale; others consider it muddy hell. Its roots can be traced to the early 1900s, when French army private Daniel Gousseau would ride his bicycle alongside horseback-riding friends through the woods. But it's also an immensely popular winter race discipline, guaranteed to get you fitter (and muddier) with an exceptional atmosphere to boot.
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The cyclocross scene is strong in Europe, with some of the most aggressive and successful racers hailing from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy and the Czech Republic. But it's currently enjoying a massive boom in the US and Australia, along with a renaissance in the UK.
Traditionally, the cyclocross season runs from September to January, ending with the UCI World Championships.
Here's BikeRadar's video guide to getting into cyclocross:
What is cyclocross?
Like triathlon, cyclocross mixes multiple athletic endeavours, namely riding and running, with a strong emphasis on skillful bike handling. The pace, barriers, climate and technical aspects of the course weed out the weak and make for good theatre. Spectators with horns and cowbells provide a festival environment, especially in Europe.
Most races are held on 1km to 3km courses, mixing tarmac, sand, dirt, mud, run-ups and sometimes steps. Races typically last a set timespan — between 30 minutes and an hour — plus a final lap. However, if you're lapped by the leaders then you have to pull out at the end of that lap to avoid confusion. The pace at the sharp end is unrelenting and brutally fast, and the stop-go nature of the courses and racing mean you get an intense workout.
Man-made barriers, usually 18in high, pepper the course, sometimes staggered close enough to force racers to shoulder their bikes or carry them by the top tube. Speed demons with incredible BMX skills have been known to bunny hop the barriers, much to the chagrin of their fellow racers but awe of the spectators.
There are a few ways to address the barriers, but for efficiency and speed the best way to dismount is to unclip your right foot as you're approaching the barrier or run-up, swing your leg around the saddle and in between your left foot and the bike. Unclip your left foot as your right strikes the ground, catapulting yourself forward just in time to hop over the barrier or clamber up the hill.
If there are several barriers in a row, it's sometimes best to shoulder the bike (see why it pays to have the lightest bike you can afford?). Or, if you're tall and have good upper body strength, carry the bike by the handlebar with your left hand as your right lifts the top tube. Run-ups are always best accomplished by shouldering the bike, and pumping your left arm for momentum.
With muddy conditions, intense levels of activity, and plenty of dismounting and remounting of the bike, there's a whole raft of kit that is either designed specifically for cyclocross, or is popular with 'cross racers.
However, for most beginners the cycling kit you already have is good enough, though we wouldn't recommend bringing a high-end carbon road bike to races as you'll end up trashing it. However some race series are fine with regular road bikes (with knobbly tyres added) and even hybrid and mountain bikes. Check with the organisers to make sure.
1. Cyclocross bikes
The ideal cyclocross race bike is a road/mountain bike cross-polination: lightweight aluminum, carbon, steel or titanium frame; carbon fork; drop bars (for leverage on climbs, and for sprinting); integrated shifters/brake levers; 700c x 30-38c (1.2-1.5in) knobby tyres; mountain bike clipless pedals; and a double or single chainring (smaller than on a road bike) with guard. Mud clearance is a big issue; the fork and rear stays need room for mud to build up on the tyres without clogging.
Frames and forks are tougher than on standard road bikes, top tubes are shorter and bottom brackets are often slightly higher. Disc brakes are very popular for cyclocross racing giving powerful all-weather braking. Some racers still use linear-pull (V) brakes or cantilevers, which still offer plenty of power when set up right. Top-bar brake levers are often added for better control.
Many cyclocross bikes play to their utility potential, with mudguard and rack mounts for commuting/weekend exploring work. There's also a growing number of crossover-style bikes, which trade race weight and jarring rigidity for a heavier and more forgiving chassis, often in smooth-riding steel.
2. Cyclocross shoes and pedals
Had you picked up on the fact that there tends to be a whole lot of mud at 'cross races? While it's very much part of the scene, it can catch in the cleats and moving parts of your clipless pedals and gum up the works.
This means that most cyclocross racers will tend to opt for mountain bike style cleat and pedal systems, as they are designed to cope with mucky conditions and keep working. Popular choices are Shimano SPD pedals, Crank Brothers Candy and Speedplay Syzr.
Similarly, mountain bike shoes are a popular choice, as they tend to have lugs and sometimes also spikes that help grip the ground for any running sections that crop up.
3. Cyclocross clothing and kit
Because cyclocross races are short and sharp, despite the fact they take place in winter, you don't need to worry so much about getting cold. Regular cycle kit should be fine, but don't forget all that mud — your best club ride kit might not be the best choice.
With that in mind, make sure you have something warm to wear when you arrive and as you warm up, and something dry and warm to get changed into after the race.
How to get started in cyclocross
So you want to give cyclocross a go? Brilliant! First things first; you'll need to find an event.
Cyclocross races are usually run via local leagues, and a quick Google search should throw up some races and events near you. Most races happen on a Saturday or Sunday, and are short, so you'll have time to get up, warm up, race and get home and showered with plenty of time left for your regular weekend activities. In the UK, the British Cycling website will list upcoming events too and in the US you can search for races in your state on the USA Cycling website.
Cyclocross races are also known for their fun and inclusive atmosphere, and many people bring their whole families along. Even better, many races will also have events for different age categories, so you can encourage the kids to get riding too.
As we've mentioned above, you don't need to go out and buy a 'cross bike immediately, and most people will start out on a mountain bike. You may want to invest in one after a while, and they're such versatile bikes anyway that we also reckon they're ideal for commuting and general riding too.
Cyclocross is a great discipline for fitness and health, and it's also one that fits in well around a busy work and life schedule. If you can squeeze in even just 45 minutes of training five times a week, you'll see the benefit in your 'cross racing, and also be ahead of the fitness curve when the spring comes round and it's time for the road racing season to start.