Nine essential cyclocross skills

Master these off-road techniques for maximum hot ’cross fun

Cyclocross is an accessible and inclusive way to have fun and stay fit in the off-season. You don’t have to harbour dreams of being a pro, though, because there are races for all ages and abilities.

The following technique tips will help you tackle the terrain quickly and safely, leaving you with a smile on your face and a new set of skills that can only help your road riding. And we’ve got British cyclocross champion Ian Field to show you how.

Shouldering the bike

On long or steep slopes, or deep mud and sand, carrying the bike can be quicker than pushing it. After dismounting (see below), keep your left hand on the lever and pass your right through the frame, grabbing the underside of the down tube, and with your elbow bent, slide the top tube up onto the right shoulder.

Alternatively, pick it up by the top tube and swing your elbow through the frame to place it on your shoulder.

To stabilise it, either reach between the down tube and fork to grab the bar by the left drop, or reach around the head tube to grasp the left brake hood.

Try each method, as although the latter is more stable, it suits those with longer limbs better.

Shouldering the bike:
Shouldering the bike:

Shouldering your bike can be quicker than pushing it on long or steep slopes or over mud or sand

When setting it down again, try to place the wheels on the ground front first, otherwise there’s a good chance the chain will bounce off.

Carrying the bike

This is how you clear brief obstacles, such as hurdles or logs. It involves a fast dismount followed by swiftly hoisting the bike up to shoulder height with both hands, before placing it back down firmly and remounting with hardly a break in forward motion. It also comes in handy when clearing kerbs or train steps on foot, or taking your bike indoors after a ride.

Carrying the bike:
Carrying the bike:

Carry your bike over obstacles such as hurdles or logs

Begin to dismount using your preferred method (see below), but after swinging your right leg across to the left side, move your right hand to the top tube, just over halfway towards the seatpost.

Then continue the dismount and, once on the ground, use both hands to lift the bike up by your side to clear the obstacle before placing it back on the ground and remounting.

Starts

A good start is crucial to avoid potential bottlenecks at the first corners, so you need to be able to react fast to the signal, clip in on the first pedal revolution, and be in the right gear to accelerate from the line.

On the road, this’ll be handy for being able to get away from traffic lights or out of trouble in a hurry, often keeping ahead of vehicles and staying more visible.

Starts:
Starts:

A good start requires fast reactions and the right gear choice

To improve your starts, assess the terrain that you’ll be starting on, and if possible practise on it beforehand to find the ideal gear. Aim for one you can turn quickly enough from a standing start to get away, but not so small that you spin out.

Learn to clip your standing foot into the pedal in one movement so you can use all your power immediately, then focus on staying out of trouble on the way to the first corner.

Observation

This is an essential cycling skill but is especially useful in cyclocross, with the terrain and obstacles involved. As surfaces and conditions will often change during a race, you’ll need to constantly modify your route.

Avoiding tree roots that could cause flats and slips or wheelspinning on deep mud is as important off-road as avoiding drain covers, white lines and broken glass on the road, and seeing them early allows more time to react. 

Observation:
Observation:

Keep an eye out for obstacles on the trail

As well as stationary obstacles, it’s important to have sufficient spatial awareness to know if there are other riders around you (or pedestrians, vehicles or animals), and account for them before changing line.

Bunny hop

This is a theoretically simple skill that allows you to clear small obstacles without dismounting.

Start with an imaginary obstacle and, with hands on the hoods or tops, roll towards it and just before it, raise yourself from the saddle with pedals level and knees bent, and shift your weight back while pulling the handlebar towards you.

Bunnyhop:
Bunnyhop:

A bunny hop will allow you to simply hop over smaller obstacles, rather than having to dismount

Once the front wheel is airborne, transfer your weight forwards, pushing the handlebar away and downwards again, which should kick the rear wheel up. Pulling up with your feet will help you raise the rear wheel to follow the front over the imaginary obstacle.

Once you have the basic technique dialled, it’s a matter of fine-tuning your speed and timing so you lift the wheels at the perfect time. Planks aren’t very forgiving.

When unsure whether you should bunnyhop or dismount and run, go for the latter. Bunnyhopping is a high-reward but high-risk endeavour.

If you need a bit more guidance, check out our video guide on How to bunny hop.

Cornering

Taking the correct line through a corner increases your exit speed, and the major factors are tyre pressure, line, weight distribution and braking.

It is possible to run tubulars as low as 20psi and clinchers at 30psi on a ’cross bike, but optimum pressure depends on your weight, ability and the terrain, because there’s a balance between grip and avoiding impact flats from tree roots or stones.

Concentrate on where you intend to go; if you look at your exit point it’s likely your head and body will follow. Keep your weight back, so the front wheel is free to turn and less likely to wash out.

Cornering:
Cornering:

Concentrate on where you intend to go

A bike is faster in a straight line, so look for traction and take the widest line possible, allowing you to brake later and more confidently before turning. Tyres don’t like being asked to slow the bike and grip laterally at the same time, and doing so will lead to understeer or a slide.

Aim to make your turn early in the corner for greater exit speed, and as the surface evolves over the course of a race, look for traction away from the racing line.

Running dismounts

Obstacles and unrideable sections may require you to dismount. Practise on flat ground with a stick or marker as your obstacle, starting slowly and gradually increasing your approach speed.

  • With your hands on the hoods, ride towards the marker. About 10m away, with your left foot down, unclip your right foot.
  • Swing your leg over to the left side of the bike, crossing it behind your left leg.
  • As your right foot is about to touch down alongside the pedal, unclip your left foot.
  • Then transition to a run.

Running dismounts:
Running dismounts:

How to dismount in four easy steps

Alternatively, after swinging your right leg over, lean the bike to the right a little, bring your right leg forward between your left leg and the frame, and unclip your left foot just as your right is about to touch down alongside the front wheel.

A more thorough explanation can be found in our How to dismount in cyclocross feature.

Climbing steep banks

Short, steep banks are often unrideable, but with the right technique it’s possible to conquer some and maintain good speed over the top, gaining time on your rivals. It helps to check out the bank when warming up, to test gearing and grip and look for the best line.

Climbing steep banks:
Climbing steep banks:

Balance your weight between the wheels to maintain enough traction to make the climb

Your ability to ride up a bank will largely depend on being able to approach with enough speed, and then balancing your weight between the rear wheel for optimum traction, and the front wheel to maintain direction and keep it on the ground, often adjusting constantly.

If a climb steepens, gear selection will be key, and is best done just before the climb begins to avoid losing momentum later. Then it’s all about having the strength to keep climbing, and picking a line that will allow you to keep as much traction and speed as possible.

On the road the same techniques can be employed over the longer duration of a climb, and the ability to maintain momentum and traction using your body weight and balance can be a bonus on steep leg-breaking climbs.

Running remounts

This is the fastest way to start cycling after an obstacle, a bike change or a fall.

  • Start on the left of the bike, hands on the hoods or tops, and left pedal just behind its lowest point. Take two steps, finishing on your left foot.
  • Hop off this foot while raising your right leg to 90 degrees with knee bent.
  • Aim to slide gently onto the saddle with your upper inside right thigh – landing centrally in the saddle is not advisable.
  • Your momentum should allow you to slide fully into the saddle and pick up the pedals.

Running remounts:
Running remounts:

How to remount in four simple steps

Practise slowly at first until it becomes second nature. 

A more thorough explanation can be found in our How to remount in cyclocross feature.

Wondering how you can give cyclocross a go? Our Get Into Cyclocross video might come in handy:

How to get into cyclocross

Video: How to get into cyclocross

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Robin Wilmott

Tech Writer, Tech Hub, UK,
Robin began road cycling in 1988, and with mountain bikes in their infancy, mixed experimental off-road adventures with club time trials and road races. Cyclocross soon became a winter staple, and has remained his favourite form of competition. Robin has always loved the technical aspect of building and maintaining bikes, and several years working in a good bike shop only amplified that. Ten years as a Forensic Photographer followed, honing his eye for detail in pictures and words. He has shot at the biggest pro events since the '90s, and now he's here, drawing on all those experiences to figure out what makes a bike or component tick.
  • Discipline: Road, cyclocross, time trials
  • Beer of Choice: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

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