Essential cyclo-cross skills from Paul Oldham

We spend the day learning how to ride cyclo-cross with one of the UK's best racers

by David Arthur   October 13, 2012  

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.

Starts
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.

Dismount

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.

Remount
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.

Shouldering
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.

Cornering
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.

Lines
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.

Steep banks
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.

Sand
Weight back, slightly higher gear, full commitment and stay loose and in the rut!

Mud
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.

Tyres
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.

Bike setup

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.

Putting it into practice

Now that I know how to dismount and remount correctly (something I always struggled with in the few 'cross races I've donein the past) I'll be hoping to use these skills in local league races and in the final round of Rapha's Super Cross series.

Returning for a second year, the three date cyclo-cross race series heads to a brand new venue for cross - the stunning Broughton Hall near Skipton where we met up with Paul. From there the series heads to Misterton Hall, near Lutterworth in Leicestershire, and finishes at Alexandra Palace in London the following day.

As well as watching the UK's top 'cross riders doing battle for the honours and a large prize list, there are also categories for all levels of ability. So if you fancy trying 'cross for the first time, the fun category is perfect for you. There are also kids' races and men and women support races.

There's more than just the racing to enjoy. The series will be bringing a touch of cyclo-cross madness from Belgium and the US with an atmosphere you won't forget in a hurry. Entertainment will be running throughout the day with beer, pies, frites, DJ's, live music, cowbells and the infamous tequila shortcut for the racers. And there's the mysterious 'Wall of Foam.'

You can enter the Rapha Super Cross races at www.rapha.cc/super-cross

The dates are:

Saturday October 20, Broughton Hall, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 3AE

Saturday October 27, Misterton Hall, Lutterworth, Leicestershire, LE17 4JP

Sunday October 28,  Alexandra Palace, London
 

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.

11 user comments

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Just wondering what the best gearing might be for cross racing ?

I'm new to the discipline and I'm running 46/38 up front but at the moment 12-23 at the back. I like the 9 speed ratio but think I might need some lower gears for when i enter my first race which is errrm tomorrow !

I see how it go's i guess. I'm signed up for the Ally Pally race and i know from experience that its a quite a big slope and the course I think will be running up and down it.

Any answers to my gearing question would be greatly appreciated.

With regard to dismounting, it seems all the pro riders dismount with the right leg swinging round and just hoping off, at barriers and inclines. This seems to be faster but maybe doesn't leave any margin with unclipping the left foot. Either way its great to see it done at speed

When I first tried remounts I got into all sorts of trouble, crushing the old crown jewels on more than one occasion Crying Angry . I worked out Pauls method was the best starting with a standing leg over progressing to walking with the bike and swinging over and then on to a slow trot and hop and then on to a run and jump. Important for the guys to land on the inner thigh and then slide over I found.

Looking forward to the Ally Pally event Cool

posted by berniemaupin [13 posts]
13th October 2012 - 9:58

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Wearing Rapha for cyclocross, and driving all the way from London to Yorkshire just for a few tips on basic skills? Good job cyclocross is so "accessible." Personally, I make do with the old version of my club's kit, and practicing dismounts and remounts on a bit of grass outside my workplace.

Regarding the question about gears, it completely depends on the nature of the course, and how much rain it has had in the last couple of weeks. But rarely is there much speed difference between riding in a low gear and getting off and running.

posted by handlebarcam [527 posts]
13th October 2012 - 12:59

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Thanks handlebar cam. Thats what I was thinking. I can see that running with the bike is another skill to be learnt. I thought my running days were behind me. I think thats why I've taken to cross. It's short and intense and my body feels like its getting a more overall work out.

tks again Smile

posted by berniemaupin [13 posts]
13th October 2012 - 13:06

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handlebarcam wrote:
Wearing Rapha for cyclocross, and driving all the way from London to Yorkshire just for a few tips on basic skills? Good job cyclocross is so "accessible." Personally, I make do with the old version of my club's kit, and practicing dismounts and remounts on a bit of grass outside my workplace.

Yeah, I suppose Dave could have stayed in London and we wouldn't have done the feature with Paul at all… that would have helped increase the accessibility too?

Last year we did a cross skills video too, about half a mile from the office, this time we had the chance to do something with a top rider passing on his tips - we thought it worth the drive. Just let us know where you are and next year we'll pop over and do a cross skills piece with you on the grass outside your work.

Agree with you about the Rapha kit, not cos it's Rapha, but cos I'm not too happy that young David isn't wearing his road.cc merino.

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4136 posts]
13th October 2012 - 14:35

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handlebarcam wrote:
Personally, I make do with the old version of my club's kit, and practicing dismounts and remounts on a bit of grass outside my workplace.

Thanks for keeping us updated.

It's 'practising', by the way.

posted by Mat Brett [1863 posts]
13th October 2012 - 15:00

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good article chaps - more cross stuff please!

A couple of things: Bernie - about your gearing question - of course it depends on course, fitness, riding style etc. but in general I would say that you might want a wider range block. 38/23 is going to be a right grind if the course is particularly steep in places. Yes, you can dismount and run up stuff but its less tiring and more efficient to pedal over short climbs. I've done a couple of races where I barely got out of the bottom 4 sprockets a- but then I don't finish anywhere near the front either! IMHO a 12-27 would serve you better or maybe a 36T ring up front if your chainset will take it.

RoadCC: please can we have a large picture of Paul's tasty bike if you have one and I'd be interested if you knew what ratios he's using on his 1x10 transmission

ta

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posted by joemmo [796 posts]
13th October 2012 - 15:56

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hmm… I'm going to have to watch my step on the old practice/practise thing

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4136 posts]
13th October 2012 - 16:33

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i use a 38/42 on the front, with a 13-26 on the back. i've never been overgeared in any london league races, and because cross is run in england on twistier, slower courses than in belgium, i've never spun out, despite using smaler gears than most. i think people would be better off using narrower ratios like a 13/26 as opposed to a 12/27 or 11/28 because the gaps between the gears are smaller so you are more likely to find the right gear. anbother benefit of having a 42 instead of a 46 is that you can stay in the big ring 98% of the time, which is much simpler than having to constantly change at the front.
thats just my setup, hope its helpful Smile

posted by jamjam [61 posts]
13th October 2012 - 17:21

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Bernie, I too would suggest a wider ratio rear block. How big you can go will depend on your rear mech's capability (road mechs usually handle up to 27/28 teeth OK, MTBs 32 or 36, no problemo). Don't forget to check your chain still fits when on the big chainring.

In a Singletrack magazine interview with Isla Rowntree (who has used single chainring setup for some time) she describes how she would set up obstacles and practice dismounts etc over and over again. Reminds me of the old (and true) statement, "The more I practice the luckier I get".

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posted by Simon E [1946 posts]
15th October 2012 - 15:56

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yup, FTR I have a 36T and 9speed 11-28 block, gives a pretty good spread.

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posted by joemmo [796 posts]
16th October 2012 - 18:27

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Thanks for everyones replies. I've changed my set up to a 46/36 -12/25 a combination I'm hoping will see me alright for the Ally Pally event next weekend.

Cheers, Bernie

posted by berniemaupin [13 posts]
21st October 2012 - 9:22

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