September 05 2017
What is cyclocross?
Like triathlon, cyclocross mixes multiple athletic endeavours, namely riding and running, with a strong emphasis on skilful 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.
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.
Some race series though 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-pollination: 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 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, and 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.