My legs burned, I was wheezing, and dirt covered every inch of me. I pedaled through the muddy corner toward a sudden, steep hill. I knew my legs wouldn’t make the climb. I jumped off my bike, threw it over my shoulder, and ran. This is cyclocross.
Cyclocross (or cross) isn’t new—the concept developed in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a way for cyclists to stay fit during winter. However, as organized events and spectator presence increased through the mid-1900s, cyclocross became a stand-alone discipline in cycling. Riders no longer use cross just to train for road; many racers specialize and train specifically for the gritty fall- and-winter-season sport.
Although I’d ridden up the intimidating “run up” the first time through, this was my second lap, and my Garmin timer let me know I would probably see that hill twice more. Cross races involve a circuit-style course and a given time that varies between 40 and 60 minutes depending on rider category. Officials give riders the “laps to go” as they pass through the finish line.
The pain of cross makes a “One to go!” announcement seem like a line from dark comedy.
The spectator-friendly circuit style, mud, entertaining rider spills, and impressive feats of technical skill have created a sport with a vibrant and rapidly growing community in the United States. Don’t be intimidated by the men in flashy spandex; there’s a big movement in the cycling world to get more women on bikes and the sentiment has radiated down to even the smallest race.
I’d been jockeying between first and second place throughout the race. As we approached the final lap, I knew I had to ride clean—no spills—to gain ground on my competitor. This meant navigating a downhill landing into a sand pit and quick transitions over the barriers with a fluid dismount and remount on my bike. In a typical cross race, competitors can expect off-camber paths (a slanted trail with one side higher than the other), stairs, tight corners, and barriers—16” tall wooden barricades that require a practiced technique. Cycling clubs and local bike shops often offer free or low-cost clinics in late summer and early fall to introduce beginners to the obstacles and technique of cyclocross.
Charging through the last corner, one barrier stood between me and the finish line. I beat my competitor over the barrier and remounted my bike, ready to sprint in, but my cleat had picked up a rock and wouldn’t clip in. My one-legged sprint was no match. Thankfully in cyclocross, second place is celebrated with a laugh, a high-five, and a beer.
Some Cyclocross Tips for the Novitiate
Do: Take time to get comfortable riding on dirt, gravel, and sand before your first race. Practice cross-specific techniques with the help of a local clinic.
Do: Arrive early on race day and take advantage of the “pre-ride” (a chance to ride the course between races).
Don’t: Be afraid to fall! It will probably happen, it probably won’t hurt, and it will probably be hilarious.
Don’t: Use your road bike. Even if your road bike has the brake clearance to take knobby tires, the mud will jam your wheels and you’ll be running the whole lap back to the pit. Keep your road bike happy and cross-free. Although not ideal, borrow a bike or use your mountain bike until you’re hooked and ready to invest in a cyclocross bike.
Don’t: Be too intimidated by the seasoned racers to ask questions. Everyone is there to help!