Beginner's guide to cyclo-cross essentials
Whether racing cycle-cross or just riding for fun, here's what you need and what you need to know
Cyclo-cross is fun involving varying degrees of mud and pain, it can look a bit daunting if you've never tried it, but once you give it a go you'll be hooked. Cyclo-cross is a great way to hone your riding skills and keep fit over the winter and it's a brilliant excuse to treat yourself to a new bike. Here's our guide to getting started, focusing on the basic kit you'll need and what to do with it.
First things first, what exactly is cyclo-cross? It’s riding off-road on a modified road bike with knobbly tyres, lower gear ratios and mud clearance for tackling a variety of terrain. And mud. Lots of mud.
It’s long been the preserve of road cyclists spicing up their winter training, and in Europe it's also a huge sport in its own right, with massively attended races, latterly it's also been getting increasingly popular in the US and the scene in the UK is booming.
Cyclo-cross bikes though are even more popular than the sport itself and indeed the pure cross race bike has spawned a whole family of cross-type bikes from everything from the race to work, to long haul adventure riding, to simply messing about in woods, towpaths and trails all with a greater or lesser amount of race DNA in their genes. That's because many of the attributes that make a bike so good for riding around a muddy field or through the woods are also ideal for so many other things too - like commuting.
And if you've got a bike with knobbly tyres, even if its for riding to work, it'd be a waste not to play in the mud at the weekends - whether you want to race or not. That's why over the last few years we've seen a mushrooming of cyclo-cross sportives and a big rise in the numbers of riders messing about in the woods on bike with dropped bars.
Bikes and the kit you need
Cyclo-cross bikes are loosely based on road bikes, they certainly look very similar. There are numerous differences though, chief of which are the knobbly tyres and increased clearance between the tyres and frame. This extra clearance means brakes switch to the cantilever variety, though disc brakes are rapidly becoming a very popular option. The geometry is tailored for riding off-road, with a higher bottom bracket and usually a slightly more relaxed head angle the key changes.
Fully fledged cyclo-cross racing bikes are built for the purpose of going fast, and being light, so shun unnecessary things like bottle mounts, certainly no mudguard or rack mounts.
While race bikes have a very focused set-up, there’s a wide range of cyclo-cross bikes with added versatility, that makes them useful for so much more than just racing. Rack and mudguard mounts mean you could use it for commuting, where the bigger volume tyres are great at tackling rough potholed roads, and for throwing in some off-road action on your way home to inject some fun into your commute.
If you’re buying your first cyclo-cross bike, and want to dabble in racing, but need to justify the purchase, then using it for commuting is a certainly an attractive, and popular, way of doing so. Stick some fat slicks or lightly treaded tyres on and it won’t be much slower than a road bike.
They make an interesting option for a winter bike, a bike dedicated to riding through the worst weather and saving the wear and tear on your Sunday best bike. The gearing is a bit lower yes, but unless you're hammering along you should be fine. Some bikes come with compact chainsets so they're better suited to pure road riding.
Gearing and materials
The gearing is lower on a cyclo-cross bike, as the speeds involved are a lot slower than on the road. Chainsets with 46/36 chainrings are fairly common, though you can tailor this to suit the course or your fitness level. If you live somewhere hilly, a lower ratio chainset will be a good choice. A wide range cassette like an 11-32 will give you plenty of gears for coping with steep hills, handy if you have ambitions beyond the limited terrain of a sanitised cyclo-cross race.
One thing most cyclo-cross bikes have in common is the cables being routed along the top tube. This is to keep the gear cables out of mud's way, so your gears keep on shifting even when you’re riding through deep mud. Other differences you can expect is a curved underside downtube to placing the bike on your shoulder is a little less uncomfortable.
Cyclo-cross bikes can be made from the same materials as road bikes, so that’s steel, alloy, titanium and carbon, it’s just a question of how deep your wallet is. The best options for value for money if you’re starting out is an alloy bike, there’s certainly more choice in this material.
Don't ever get a serious cyclo-cross racer started on tyres, you'll never hear the end of it. For racing, the UCI stipulates a maximum width of 32mm, but tyres are available much wider, up to 38 and 42mm. There's a huge choice, and many tyres are designed for very specific terrain and conditions, from dry hard trails to wet and loose. Plenty are designed to work well as all-round tyres though. If your riding is leaning more towards road, then a semi-slick tyre with a lightly treaded carcass is a good choice. Fat tyres are great on the road, they're comfortable as they absorb a lot of the vibrations, and they're much less likely to puncture.
Serious racers are wedded to tubular tyres - tyres glued to rims because the can be used with carbon rims saving weight - but at the other end of the spectrum clincher tyres are the norm. Tubeless cyclo-cross tyres are starting to become more widely available.
The right pressure will depend on the course and the conditions. To gain extra traction on slippery terrain, tree roots and rocks and the like, a lower pressure will give an increase contact patch size, and allow the tyre to conform to the trail.
For racing you want between 15 and 25psi, the best advice is to practise the course before the racing starting with 30psi, and lower as you see fit until you reach a satisfactory pressure that works on the terrain. If you're riding on the road and possibly adding some off-road trails into the mix, than go for about 40-50psi, but again you want to tailor it to your riding.
Cantilever brakes replace the caliper brakes found on road bikes because the space between the rim and frame is increased for mud clearance. Since the UCI changed its ruling on disc brakes at world cup level in 2011, there are now many more disc brake cyclo-cross bikes on the market.
The adoption of disc brakes at the highest level has been little so far, though Lars van der Haar did win the first world cup on disc brakes at the season opening race, so the tide could be turning. Away from racing, many people have leapt at the extra stopping power and low maintenance of disc brakes for many years, and they’re often found on the multipurpose cyclo-cross bikes at lower prices.
Which braking system you go for is entirely up to you. Cantilever options will generally be less expensive. If you're serious about racing then you’ll probably need several sets of wheels (for all the variety of tyres you’ll need for every possible course and conditions), and that will impact which you go for. Even if disc brakes do become the accepted norm in cyclo-cross (which they aren't likely to for many years) there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a cantilever brake bike now.
The benefits of disc brakes - low maintenance, consistency of performance in the mud - does make them the more attractive choice, and these benefits have been recognised by a huge swathe of non-racing cyclo-cross enthusiasts.
While cyclo-cross racing is hugely popular, it's the increased choice of cyclo-cross bikes that are designed with so much more than racing around a muddy field in mind. Disc brakes for one, rack and mudguard mounts, room for large volume tyres, lower gear, general bombproofness and durability, makes them perfectly suited to winter cycling and commuting. And manufacturers have really cottoned onto this trend and are starting to design cyclo-cross bikes that blue the lines between road and touring bikes.
Unless you plan on going very fast, the lower gearing shouldn't hold you back, and the slight extra bulk of the bikes just means increased stability. There's a huge choice of tyres, a lightly treaded large volume number will be pretty nippy and its size will provide more cushioning than a 23mm road slick. They will also be more puncture resistant too.
Some manufacturers are blurring the lines between road and cyclo-cross. The Giant Anyroad, as an example, has space for 33mm tyres with an alloy frame featuring a tall head tube and a sloping top tube for bags of standover clearance. They describe it as being ideal for bumpy roads and dirt, which is sounding more and more like a good description of UK roads.
Specialized also do a similar bike in the shape of the AWOL, a steel frame and fork that's more of a touring bike with a cyclo-cross influence, full rack and mudguard mounts and a relaxed all-day geometry.
Shoes and pedals
Apart from the bike, you don’t need any specialist equipment to go cyclo-cross riding. One key difference however is in the choice of pedals, most cyclo-cross riders won’t use their road pedals and shoes, instead borrowing clipless pedals and shoes from the mountain bike world.
You could of course you flat pedals and trainers if you’re just starting out. Mountain bike clipless pedals are double sided so it’s easier to clip-in, and they don’t get fouled up by mud that easily.
The shoes have a treaded sole that provides grip when the inevitable dismount comes and you have to push your bike up a muddy bank. Try that in your slick carbon road shoes and you won’t get far.
Washing away the mud
Riding any bike off-road at this time of year will undoubtedly leave it fairly covered in mud, so you’re going to need to wash your bike fairly regularly. A hosepipe or jet wash (though some don’t advocate the use of a jet wash as it can force water into bearings) and a good area to wash the bike is essential.
Once you’ve got the worst of the mud off, you want to attack the remaining mud with your cleaning product of choice and a good stiff brush, make sure to get all the mud out from the transmission and the brakes. Once you’ve got your bike shining again, it’s important to lube the chain, so it doesn’t rust and keeps running smoothly ready for your next ride.
All the gear now some ideas… of what do to with it
So, that's the cyclo-cross kit sorted now what do you do with it?
Most obviously there’s the regular racing scene right across the country, so if you’re a competitive sort you can get your fill of adrenaline right through the winter. We’ve got the complete guide to cyclo-cross racing right here if you want to know your hurdles from your sandpits, and we've expert advice from Paul Oldham.
Riding a cyclo-cross bike off-road is good fun, plain and simple. Sliding and drifting through the leaves and around slippery tree roots is guaranteed to have you smiling and laughing all the way to the hot bath waiting for you at the end of the ride. As well as being lots of fun, cyclo-cross also works your upper body and arm strength a lot more than sitting on the road bike for five hours.
It’s fantastic for your bike handling skills. There’s nothing like controlling a cyclo-cross bike slithering through the mud, oversteering and tank-slapping through corners, to hone your riding skills on a bike. It’s all transferrable to the road bike as well, because cyclo-cross teaches you to relax and not let a bit of sideways slide scare you.
Riding and training on a cyclo-cross bike can be ideal when the weather and road conditions are less than favourable. An hour or two blatting around the local woods with a few bridleways and other trails thrown into the mix will be a cracking workout, and for some is preferable to endless hours of steady riding on the road bike in steady rain, or even turbo torture.
Getting away from the traffic on the roads and heading into the countryside and following a muddy path through the fields is another clear benefit. Of course it helps if you don’t mind getting muddy, because you most certainly will. A good Ordnance Survey map (or this brilliant map showing bridleways) is a good place to start plotting a route.
This sense of adventure has been spotted by event organisers, with cyclo-cross sportives increasingly popular. The long-running (Hell of the North Cotswolds) HONC is a good example of a long-distance event, which they themselves describe as an off-road cycling reliability trial. The Kinesis Hell of the West is another one.
And don't mention gravel racing. Oh, I just did didn't I. It's hugely popular in the US, where there are many loosely organised long distance races on gravel roads, and many compete on cyclo-cross bikes. We don't have the same huge network of gravel tracks in this country, but there are a fair few, if you want to tap into the spirit of the gravel racing scene.