Cyclo-cross is one of the most exciting and accessible branches of cycle sport, but there are some key skills that can make it tricky to master. I've taken part in a few 'cross races but would describe myself as a rookie. I haven't mastered the strange business of dismounting and remounting for the obstacles. At least, not with any style or panache.
So when I was asked to come along to spend a day with one of the UK's most talented 'cross racers and that he was willing to share some of the essential skills required, I jumped at the chance. I didn't realise how far Broughton Hall, near Skipton was from London when I agreed, however, and after nearly five hours of driving I parked up in the grounds of the stunning 16th century house.
We (that's me and three other journalists) assembled in the somewhat squidgy grounds of Broughton Hall, the brand new venue for the return of the Rapha Super Cross series later this month, with Paul Oldham. He'd competed in his 11th Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race just two days before so when I asked him if he was tired, I expected him to say yes, very, but he replied that he felt fine. Hmm, I'm sure I'd still be laid up in bed after seeing the horrific conditions the race put competitors through.
Anyhow, Paul is the perfect person to teach cyclo-cross. Not only has he been ridng and racing 'cross since he was 18, but he's a very down to earth and straight talking chap. He was only too happy to talk us through the skills and after a few hours in his company, it's fair to say we all came away with the understanding of how to approach the tricky skills that are key to 'cross.
It's a very technical sport is cross, involving obstacles like wooden hurdles, steps, sandpits and steep banks that really test bike handling skills. There's nothing else like it; nothing even comes close. To the casual observer it can all look a bit odd, grown men jumping off their perfectly good bikes and leaping over wooden planks pegged into the ground.
Once Paul had taken the time to deconstruct the skills into their key components, it starts to make sense and soon we're all leaping over a hurdle, negotiating tight corners and tackling steep banks and off-camber tracks. And once we had gotten over the fear some of us had with the dismount and throwing the bikes around sloppy slippery grass and mud, we were all laughing and smiling. Cyclo-cross really is a lot of fun, more so when you get your head around the techniques involved.
So are the key skills and techniques, in Paul's own words, that you need to grasp for successful cyclo-cross racing.
Choose a gear which you can accelerate quickly, but not too low that you spin out instantly. Put your strongest leg forward and concentrate on getting your foot in the pedal. Remember, the start is very important.
Swing right leg over saddle and put your right hand on the cross bar.
As the obstacle approaches, bring the right foot between the frame and your left leg.
As your right leg hits the floor in a running action, unclip the left leg and run.
I think the remount is often the bit that scares beginners.“You see people launching themselves a foot above their bike,” Paul tells us. “You don't need to. You're really just stepping onto the bike.” Here's how it should be done...
Place both hands on handlebars.
Swing right leg over saddle and, using your inner thigh, slide over your seat and onto your pedals
Aim to clip into the pedal as quickly as you can, and drive off before bringing the other leg up and smoothly onto the other pedal. And away you go.
Use the dismount, but as you unclip lift your bike by the top tube and pass your elbow through the triangle to place crossbar on shoulder. Pass your right hand under the down tube and hold the left drop on the bars. Pull it all in tight and run.
For dry conditions the “racing” line applies - wide in, apex wide out. In a race this line will become muddy. When this happens you need to square corners off!
This involves trying to do your turn on the grippy grass. This may appear slower but you will be able to accelerate out of the corner faster.
Always look for the grip. Try different lines whilst practising, but don’t worry about changing your lines mid-race as conditions change. Watch other riders.
If possible, attack the bottom of the climb. The more speed you carry the less power you need on the steep section. As you hit the steep part, move your weight back to gain grip. Keep moving your weight forward and backward to balance.
Weight back, slightly higher gear, full commitment and stay loose and in the rut!
Similar to sand: stay seated and use a slightly bigger gear. The faster you go the easier it is. Pick your lines - usually the edge of the mud is fastest, where the grass meets the mud.
Bike setup is also very important and the most important part of all is the tyres and their pressure. Paul tells us, “Tubulars are the best for cross as they can be run at lower pressure with less punctures." The downside is that they're very expensive. They're also lots of work to fit. Clinchers can now be run tubeless which gives advantages.
After tyre choice, tyre pressure is the critical factor, and we could fill this entire page with talk and chin scratching about the best pressure. Paul reckons, “For tubulars pressure needs to be between 20 and 30psi whereas clinchers should be a little higher [to avoid pinching].”
The right pressure will depend on the course and the conditions. Paul shared a good bit of advice, and that's to practise the course with about 30psi in the tyres, and then let some air out until you reach a satisfactory pressure that works on the terrain.
We asked Paul if he sets his 'cross bike up any differently to his road bike.
“I set my bike saddle height the same for road, mountain bike and cross," he said. "I have my handlebars about 20mm higher and the top tube is about 10mm shorter than on my road bike for added control.”
So think about running a stem that's slightly shorter and higher than you use for the road.
Thanks to Paul Oldham for this time. Paul Oldham has cyclo-cross in his blood. He started racing back in the late 80s and has risen to become one of the most successful 'cross racers in the UK, taking the National Championship in 2011. He's also competed in the Three Peaks on 11 occasions, and this year finished second.