Cyclo-cross racers all agree: the best advice is to dip a toe gently into the race waters, ride the best bike you have or can afford, and practice. Watch some races first to capture the nuances and unique vibe of `cross, then dive in head first. Here’s some advice from seasoned racers with very different backgrounds.
Keith Bontrager lives in Santa Cruz, California, one of the main centres of `cross culture. Bontrager thrives in the dirt, but more of the fat, knobbie tire variety. He’s been racing `cross for eight years, and is attracted to the discipline for two reasons: pain and suffering.
These, he tells us, are “served up on a fast food scale by my chosen type of racing except for Three Peaks (a hellacious race in the UK), which is the full multi-course gourmet sufferfest. I find steep run-ups when I have my cheek wedged against the puke on my top tube especially attractive. There are some nice folks out at the races and beers afterwards too.”
The ideal bike set-up, according to Bontrager, depends on the individual. “Light is good, but it doesn’t matter that much for most races,” he says. “Larry Hibbard (a local speedy master) wins on bikes that most people wouldn’t ride to the grocery store. The right tires for the conditions are good. The bike should fit you properly. The one you have is almost always the best.”
The always practical minded Bontrager tells new riders to ‘just do it.’
“Do as much as you can,” he says. “Watch the fast riders and learn from them. You will get better as you go along. Bring something nice to eat and drink afterwards and you will make a lot of friends. And something to calm your stomach so you can enjoy it.”
Pedro’s general manager Chris Zigmont is a New Englander; as a former Mavic employee, Zigmont would travel the world for `cross and has been involved in the sport for nearly 20 years.
On bikes, Zigmont believes, “Flick-able, easy to carry, light weight with easily serviced cables and housing is where the difference is. Redline, Thorne, and Kona all have these rides. Don’t start a season without four sets of cables and housing. Clean cables and housing will keep you in the game.”
Two-time cyclo-cross master’s national champion Tim Rutledge first raced `cross in 1973, and was the first American to finish the Giro d’Italia in the early 1980s. He’s also considered one of the most passionate about domestic cyclo-cross racing.
As a Seattle resident, Rutledge knows mud and crud intimately. He’s taken his 34 years of `cross racing experience and applied it as performance marketing manager for Seattle Bicycle Supply, which includes the popular `cross brands Redline and Lapierre.
For beginners, Rutledge offers this advice: “Get thee to a practice session, or with someone who has done ‘cross and can help you with advice,” he says. “Make your bike as ready as you can, do some running, twice a week – just 20 minutes a day can help your cardio to prepare. Keep riding as much as you can, and get to your local park and layout your own course, and try to simulate a race. A couple of simple PVC pipe barriers that are lightweight and portable will help you start doing barrier work.”
The Pacific Northwest is a `cross hotbed. Rutledge believes that `cross is the easiest way to get into bike racing. “Everyone experiences the same course and course conditions, a bit of `misery loves company,'” he says. “I like to say once the hook gets set, which means it’s so hard and crazy, you quickly get addicted.”
Addicted is the best way to describe a few of Portland’s best `crossers. Dani Dance has been racing `cross four years, works at River City Cycles, and is organizing this year’s (unofficial) singlespeed cross world championships.
“Cyclocross still gives you the nature of competition, but not with the ‘attitude’ that you can get with other types of events.”
“What makes it fun and exciting is that there are always battles going on within different areas of the race,” she says. “The race isn’t always for first; it could be for 11th, 20th or 35th. For beginners it is far less intimidating because once the race starts it gets so jumbled that you can’t tell where people stand in the race. `Cross is also very spectator friendly and the whole family can be a part of the race.”
Another Portland `crosser, VeloShop owner Molly Cameron, is a latecomer to `cross, entering his first race in 2002. “I had never heard of cyclocross and was primarily a track racer,” Cameron tells BikeRadar. “My first race in the Cross Crusade series was on the Alpenrose Velodrome grounds so I entered the beginner race and got hooked.
“There is nothing better than hopping on any bike you have laying around and toeing up to the start line.”
He’s come along way equipment-wise in less than four years of `cross.
“Well, my race bikes are a Speedvagen (by the Vanilla workshop) steel frame with an Alpha-Q carbon fiber `cross fork,” Cameron said. “A single 44t chainring setup with a 11-25 10 speed cassette is ideal for me. You see a lot of riders running a single chainring setup. For ease of operation and less `crap that can malfunction’ the single chainring is the way to go. A 39 or 42 tooth chainring with a 12-27 cassette will be great for every course out there.”
In northern California, ideal weather and terrain attracts hundreds of `crossers each season. Rivendell employee Mark Abele is a more studious `crosser, having come to the sport nine years ago when he was 40.
“Depending on the race, the atmosphere can range from relatively low-key grass roots to full scale big-top circus,” he says. “Attending a race will also give you a much better idea of what skills you’ll need to practice along with the category you should enter. A seasoned road or mountain bike racer should probably enter an A category, while a recreational/club cyclist might opt for a B or C group. Once the race starts you want concentrate on carrying speed however you can, whether it be riding or running. You will quickly discover your strengths and weaknesses.
According to Abele, the start can be the most dangerous part of the race: “If you’re really competitive, then go for it,” he says. “If you just want to get your feet wet, you might want to not bury yourself for the hole shot your first couple times out. Often in the B and C races, riders will fade as the race wears on, so if you have good fitness you’ll likely end up catching and passing folks once the course is more open and less chaotic.”
2007/08 Race/Event schedule
US Nationals (Dec. 12 – 16 Kansas City, KS)
US Gran Prix
Santa Cruz, CA
BikeRadar’s cyclo-cross primer, part 3 will list complete bikes and frameset manufacturers. Check back soon!
© BikeRadar 2007