Your guide to cyclo-cross racing

Everything you wanted to know about cyclo-cross racing but were too afraid to ask

by David Arthur   September 20, 2014  

It's fast, frantic, spectator friendly and damn good fun. Cyclo-cross - or cross, cyclo-x and CX - is a sport that takes modified road bikes off road in races that typically last for 60 minutes and includes obstacles where you need to dismount and run with the bike over your shoulder.

Cyclo-cross racing was born at the turn of the last century when road racers took their bikes off-road through fields, down muddy paths and over fences as a way to keep in shape during the bleak and cold winter months. It quickly became popular, with the first French National Championship in 1902 followed by Belgium champs eight years later, and it soon expanded into neighbouring countries.

Today there are popular cross leagues held right across the country, so you're only ever a short drive from your nearest race. As cross races are only an hour long you can be done and dusted and home for Sunday lunch. This makes them very user-friendly and most people are fit enough to ride for an hour without worrying about doing any specific training. The competitiveness is always good natured as well, and apart from the top racers, most aren't taking it too seriously, they're just there to have a good time.

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/lightbox-large/images/Rapha%20Supercross%20round%201/Rapha%20Supercross%20round%201%20(%C2%A9%20Wig%20Worland)%2003.jpg

Most cyclo-cross races are held between September and March. That makes them a good alternative to pounding out the miles on the road bike. It's good to try something new too and cross races are great high-intensity training. And with all that dismounting and leaping over obstacles, other muscles get a workout.

Cyclo-cross racing is extremely accessible. Beginners can rub shoulders with elites and there's categories for all levels and ages of rider. There are usually races for younger riders, women, veteran and seniors, so everyone gets a good race against similarly placed riders.

Tempted to give cyclo-cross racing a go? There are perhaps a few questions you might have before handing over your entry money, which we've tried to answer below.

The bikes, they're a bit different looking aren't they?

Yes, just a bit. Essentially cross bikes are modified road bikes with extra clearance for mud and space for wider, knobbly tyres, re-routed cables (to keep them away from the mud) and increased braking power from cantilever brakes.

Mountain bike clipless pedals are used because they'll still work when clogged up with mud and the shoes have the necessary grip and chunky soles that you need for slopping about in mud and sand.

Cantilever or disc brakes?

The big question... Until the UCI relaxed their rules about disc brakes at World Cup level, all cross bikes came with cantilever brakes.

These days disc brakes are becoming a very popular choice, though at the very top-end of the sport most professional racers are staunchly sticking to cantis. Cantis, by and large, are still lighter than current disc brakes which is why the professionals haven't switched over.

Weight isn't the same concern for amateurs however and there's pleasingly a wide and increasing choice of disc-equipped cross bikes out there waiting for you. Most disc brakes are of the cable variety but we expect to see a steady stream of lightweight hydraulic disc brakes in the next couple of years which will really shake the sport up. Their lack of servicing needs, durability, pad life and greater stopping power makes them an attractive - and for some a key - selling point.

Whatever you think of disc brakes, there are many more disc-equipped cyclo-cross bikes coming to the market all the time. Two companies that offer a wide range of cyclo-cross bikes, Specialized and Felt, both revealed a slew of new cyclo-cross bikes with disc brakes for 2015, Specialized almost entirely offering a range of just disc bikes. 

What can I expect from a cyclo-cross race?

Mud... and lots of it! Cross is an hour of fun tinged with the faint scent of suffering. A race requires a good deal of  aerobic fitness and a stomach for pain, which makes them a good way to keep fit during the winter. There are few more fun ways to get such a good dose of exercise in such a short space of time.

Like any sport, cross is only as hard as you make it. Races are short and that means they're usually very fast. It can be the hardest hour of pedalling you'll find anywhere. The conditions and the layout of the course and the obstacles can all contribute to make cross races especially challenging to the mind, body and soul.

Racing is nearly always close and frantic. You can expect to be racing close to other riders on a very tight course. Sharpen those elbows! 

The course

The courses vary greatly but usually feature a mixture of surfaces from grass, Tarmac, sand, gravel, mud and dirt. A cyclo-cross race can be staged anywhere there are some off-road trails or grass fields, which is why school playing fields are often used.

Where a race is held influences the course layout dramatically and this means cross courses can vary a huge amount. You'll never get bored with repetition between courses. The most interesting part of the course, and what sets them apart from other cycle sport disciplines, is the obstacles.

Some venues lend themselves well to natural obstacles like steep banks, drops, and sometimes sandpits. Other times the organisers will introduced man-made obstacles like wooden hurdles - popular obstacles at all levels of racing.

Such obstacles demand a unique set of skills, and we covered the basics of dismounting and remounting with Paul Oldham in a recent article.

Where can I find a cyclo-cross race?

And the cyclo-cross season is in full swing now with races happening right across the country every weekend. There's most likely a race within a very short drive of where you live, so it should be easy to find a suitable race. The best place to find them is on British Cycling's events calendar, where most races are listed. It's also easy to Google for details of your local league; most counties have their own.

Most local races will operate on an entry on the line (EoL) basis so it's just a case of turning up and handing over your money. You do need a British Cycling race licence but if you don't have one you can buy a day licence, which costs £10. A British Cycling membership for the year costs from £13.50 a year and uncludes a provisional licence, which is fine for most local league events. Go higher up than that and you'll be needing a full race licence.

Join a club

If you're nervous about starting racing, joining a club is a wise step. Most clubs will cater for cross racers, some better than others, and many will organise 'cross training sessions. These are a good way to get used to riding and handling a 'cross bike off-road and will gently introduced you to the essential skills needed. This will put your nerves at rest before you're ready to step up to your first race.

What do you need?

You need a cyclo-cross bike. Well, actually, that's not true. If you don't have a cross bike but do have a mountain bike, that will be okay - most local leagues will allow them. For beginners,  the fatter tyres and suspension and less aggressive riding position can make a mountain bike more forgiving

If you want to take the plunge and buy a cyclo-cross bike, then there has never been a better time. Nearly every manufacturer offers at least one cyclo-cross bike in their range.

There are a couple of things to consider when buying a cross bike. Versatility is a key feature of cross bikes and for that reason many will have a full complement of rack and mudguard mounts and two bottle cage mounts. So you could easily set a cross bike up for riding to work, mixed terrain riding and a bit of other stuff that falls between those gaps.

A dedicated racing cyclo-cross bike does without rack and mudguard mounts and very often comes without bottle cage mounts (you won't have time to drink in a cross race, it's just too short). Such a bike is purely focussed on racing. So before you buy, decide if your new bike will be solely for racing, or whether you want to extend its useful service life beyond the race circuit.

What cyclo-cross bike should I buy?

We've picked a few cyclo-cross bikes from the Road.cc archive to show you what is available. We've included a few bikes that might not be the first choice for racers, but are a good choice for those getting into the sport. We've included some with disc brakes and some with cantilever brakes, providing a few highlights of the available choice. 

Storck T.I.X. from £3,199

One of the newest carbon fibre cyclo-cross bikes on the market, it's actually the first 'cross bike from German company Storck. They're advocates of disc brakes and the T.I.X. has been designed around disc brakes, and the model we tested came with Shimano's hydraulic disc brakes providing excellent stopping power. Read our first ride here.

Specialized Crux Elite £2,000

Specialized's Crux is a popular choice among amateur cyclo-cross racers and for 2015 it looks like the US company is really getting behind disc brakes, most of the new bikes are disc-only. This is the £2,000 Elite with a Shimano 105 groupset and TRP Hy/Rd disc brakes with Specialized's own 33mm Tracer Sport tyres fitted. 

Moots Psychlo X £3,331 (frameset)

Carbon and aluminium may be the most popular material choices for 'cross bikes, but if you want something a little flasher, then there are a handful of titanium options. The Moots is one of them. You can get it with cantilever bosses, as tested here, or with disc brakes if you prefer, along with a host of other custom options you can specify. 

Felt F5X £1,799

Felt is another company adding disc bikes to their cyclo-cross range for 2015, and this £1,800 model sits roughly in the middle of the range. You get a full carbon fibre frame and fork, so keeping the weight low, with internal cable routing and tapered head tube. This model offers a Shimano 105 groupset with TRP Hy/Rd hydraulic disc brakes.

Raleigh RX Pro £1,500

For 2015 Raleigh have added the RX Pro to their range. It's a aluminium frame with butted tubing and a tapered head tube with a carbon fibre fork. They've gone with a 15mm bolt-thru front axle, regular quick release rear axle. As well as ideal for racing, it's versatile for the daily commute with rack and mudguard eyelets. It comes with a SRAM Rival 22 hydraulic disc brake groupset. 

Pinnacle Arkose 2  £900.00

The Arkose 2 deviates a bit from the normal cyclo-cross mould, witha  single ring and handlebar drop gear shift lever providing fabolous simplicity with hydraulic disc brakes giving greater confidence on the descents. The frame is bristling with mounts for bottles, racks and mudguards so it's a very versatile option. Would suit a racer or commuter. 

Canyon Inflite AL 8.0 £1,249

The first cyclo-cross bike from German company Canyon impressed hugely when we reviewed it, with great handling and a very good parts package for the money. Boasts the sort of versatility that will ensure it appeals to those wanting a bike for more than just racing, but has all the credentials for taking to the start line.

Kona Jake the Snake £1,399

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/galleria_900_nocrop/images/Kona%20-%20Jake%20The%20Snake%202013/Kona%20Jake%20The%20Snake%20-%20Riding%20Big%20Ring.jpg

Kona have had the Jake series of cyclo-cross bikes in their range since.... ooooooh, a long time ago, 15 years or so, way before the recent swell in cyclo-cross popularity made other manufacturers whip out their note-books, scribble down a design, colour it in and e-mail it to the factory.

Niner RLT 9 £2,799

 

Niner call the RLT 9 (RLT stands for Road Less Traveled) a 29er, a monster cross machine, an all-road mountain bike, and a gravel grinder. The RLT 9 is built around an alloy frame with Niner's own carbon fork plugged in up front, and is of course built soley with disc brakes in mind.

All City Macho Man  £1,599.99

The All City Macho Man is solidly built, and descends and bowls along like a tank. Unfortunately its heft retards it seriously on climbs and it's way under-specced for the money.

See the full archive of cyclo-cross bike reviews here.

 

55 user comments

Latest 30 commentsNewest firstBest ratedAll

Thanks for the information - really useful and I appreciate you taking the time to do it. Incidentally, and somewhat surprisingly, I was impressed with the service I received at Halfords - a new store with a big bike section - the guy I spoke to was really knowledgeable about the Boardman CX and bike set up/upgrades etc that I could make. Slightly put me at ease about buying it.

posted by Team Rux [21 posts]
26th October 2013 - 18:07

1 Like

Croix de Fer is another contender, but thanks for the Trek tip!

posted by Team Rux [21 posts]
26th October 2013 - 18:09

37 Likes

Quick shout-out for the Yorkshire Cyclocross Association: http://yorkshirecyclocross.com/

I started racing in this league last season and found everybody very welcoming and friendly (even though I quickly established a reputation as That Woman Who Gets In The Way). Agree re. 'cross being terrific bang for your buck exercise-wise: the HR line on my Garmin upload looks like this for every race:

95% MHR -------------------------------------------

Totally recommend 'cross as an introduction to racing and a jolly awful horrible friendly muddy grimy soggy lovely scary delightful lungbursting legbusting bumache of a way to spend a Sunday. It's also very family-friendly - most leagues run kids' races before the adults get going and it's a great spectator sport as courses are short and there are plenty of chances to cowbell and heckle, sorry, cheer people on.

Go on, have a go. You know you want to.

The International Ned Boulting Fan Club, @INBFC
http://goshyesnedboulting.tumblr.com/

INBFC's picture

posted by INBFC [10 posts]
29th October 2013 - 18:12

1 Like

I will entering my fist ever cyclocross event tomorrow. Gulp, I am using my mountain bike and will be having fun instead of expecting anything. Smile

posted by CXR94Di2 [150 posts]
20th September 2014 - 19:38

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CXR94Di2 wrote:
I will entering my fist ever cyclocross event tomorrow. Gulp, I am using my mountain bike and will be having fun instead of expecting anything. Smile

A mountain bike is a really good way to get into cyclo-cross, they're welcomed at most races I've ever been to, and on some courses can actually be a bit easier and faster. Enjoy your race!

David Arthur's picture

posted by David Arthur [1588 posts]
20th September 2014 - 19:53

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I used to race cross on a mountain bike as did maybe 60% of everyone else at the time, while cross bikes were faster on the flat mountain bikes clearly had an edge on technical sections, of which there were many, the whole affair was fun, relaxed and good natured. Nowadays the same series has no rules against MTBs but if you show up on one you will be met with scorn and derision and the general atmostphere is very serious and competitive with nobody on MTBs and people warming up on turbos before the race and swapping bikes part way, which should be against the rules as it provides an unfair advantage to those with more money. The whole scene has been ruined for me.

posted by drfabulous0 [359 posts]
20th September 2014 - 20:49

1 Like

I'm going to watch my first CX race tomorrow at Gunpowder Park near Epping Forest.

If I'd known it was on sooner I would have slotted the knobblies back onto the CX and given it a bash Smile

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

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posted by Gizmo_ [872 posts]
20th September 2014 - 22:06

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drfabulous0 wrote:
the general atmostphere is very serious and competitive with nobody on MTBs and people warming up on turbos before the race and swapping bikes part way, which should be against the rules as it provides an unfair advantage to those with more money
That's kinda sad. If it's not pro it should be fun.

posted by truffy [344 posts]
20th September 2014 - 22:23

1 Like

That's kinda sad. If it's not pro it should be fun.

...really?

So where does the next generation of Elite or even pro riders come from?

It's about racing. That means actually going out and riding as fast and as hard as you can, and training in between times to get faster. If you want 'fun' go and play somewhere else.

posted by crikey [128 posts]
20th September 2014 - 22:33

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Probably worth clarifying drfabulous0's comments - 'some' people warm up on turbos and rollers before a 'cross race, but not all.

As with anything, some people take racing seriously, they want to win and do everything possible to best prepare for that. That said, many people at a cross race just do it for fun, don't warm up before the race and recovery food is tea and cake.

It is possible for people to race seriously and people to race for fun in the same event. That's the really big appeal for cyclo-cross for many, because that does happen at all races

David Arthur's picture

posted by David Arthur [1588 posts]
20th September 2014 - 22:50

3 Likes

I think it's really important to preserve and uphold the idea of cyclocross as a 'race'; as a competitive event, with fairly strict rules and regulations to separate it from mountain biking and from non-competitive sportive style events. Cyclocross has survived the rise and fall of mountain bike racing, has pottered along in the shadow of road racing, and is suddenly seen as the new trendy thing to do by people who haven't raced before. It is what it is, an hour blast on a Sunday where you go and you try and you improve. Please don't attempt to make it 'user-friendly', or dilute that essential character by pandering to people who can't cope with the competitive aspect, or who want to use different bikes or who want some special treatment because they have kids or because they work or because they can't get on with racing.

If you want to do it, come and do it, but please don't sulk and whinge about it.

posted by crikey [128 posts]
20th September 2014 - 23:00

1 Like

Unless it is a pro event it should be fun. Can't see why people would have a strop because of what someone else wears or rides!? Surly no ones life is that meaningless.

posted by MaxP [54 posts]
20th September 2014 - 23:31

2 Likes

It is fun; the only person not having fun appears to be someone who objects to a sport being taken seriously because he wants to ride his mountain bike around a park on a Sunday.
'Cross is what it is and it does exactly what it does, lets not turn it into some kind of hipster fun run.

posted by crikey [128 posts]
21st September 2014 - 8:45

0 Likes

crikey wrote:
If you want 'fun' go and play somewhere else.

crikey wrote:
It is fun

Fortunately the only arbiter of fun is the person who is either experiencing or not experiencing the fun so the best thing to do is to go and race and make your own mind up.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [839 posts]
21st September 2014 - 11:20

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Just finished my first event, good fun in a masochistic way Smile the first lap was bedlam with several bottle necks causing queuing, a relief to me as my lungs hadn't started to work( I don't have a turbo trainer like some of the competitors)

After a couple of laps I settled down into a rhythm. I was able to climb most hills without getting off so could make up a few places. I was passed by the leaders 3 times which caused to me fall a coupe of times. The latter laps of the race I was able to overtake few more riders as I could climb hills where most were beginning to push up them. Glad the bell went for the final lap though.

posted by CXR94Di2 [150 posts]
21st September 2014 - 14:50

2 Likes

Strange events, you think they look easy, then you take part and its just head down hell for an hour.
Wish I never sold my cross bike, now looking at getting a Cannondale CAADX with Hydro discs and riding over 65's cat Smile

posted by SuperG [58 posts]
21st September 2014 - 15:20

1 Like

It's a lot of fun and it it hurts like hell, does that cover it?
2 laps in, you will find another rider who is roughly the same speed as you and your competitve urge will rise up, it doesn't matter what bike they or you are on, you will want to crush them, all the while, getting out of the way of pesky elite riders as they come to lap you. Being lapped does not matter! You will not care. At the end of the race you will seek out the rider or riders you have raced and cursed for the last hour and shake their hands. It's great!

I found out that what I thought was my max HR was in fact my ave HR, for an entire race.

posted by nappe [42 posts]
21st September 2014 - 15:33

2 Likes

Just finished my first event, good fun in a masochistic way Smile the first lap was bedlam with several bottle necks causing queuing, a relief to me as my lungs hadn't started to work( I don't have a turbo trainer like some of the competitors)

After a couple of laps I settled down into a rhythm. I was able to climb most hills without getting off so could make up a few places. I was passed by the leaders 3 times which caused to me fall a couple of times. The latter laps of the race I was able to overtake few more riders as I could climb hills where most were beginning to push up them. Glad the bell went for the final lap though.

posted by CXR94Di2 [150 posts]
21st September 2014 - 16:07

2 Likes

crikey wrote:
That's kinda sad. If it's not pro it should be fun.

...really?

So where does the next generation of Elite or even pro riders come from?

It's about racing. That means actually going out and riding as fast and as hard as you can, and training in between times to get faster. If you want 'fun' go and play somewhere else.

Well I'll tell you where tomorrow's pros won't be coming from: middle aged, middle class blokes in Rapha on two carbon bikes. It's the guy who shows up in jeans on a steel singlespeed and demolishes half the field that's going to do well, but if your snobbery keeps these people from entering or enjoying themselves then they will probably just become triathletes instead. Sport is about fitness and recreation for most people, not the ridiculous belief that they might one day turn pro. Of course it's a race and everyone gives it as good as they can otherwise they're not taking part, the riding is horrible but the atmosphere should be fun for everyone involved. Beating your mates is more important than winning and it should certainly not be about who has the flashest kit which makes little difference anyway. I'm pretty sure that if I raced now I would do alright, despite the fact I never 'train' and can warm up by simply riding to the race.

posted by drfabulous0 [359 posts]
21st September 2014 - 21:12

2 Likes

I think you'll find that 'cross is just about the most friendly cycle sport going; you can turn up on a mountain bike; you can wear what you want; you will get a race at whatever level you are at.

The 'snobbery' is something that only you feel, it's nothing to do with the sport itself.

...and the pro's come from an established sport which allows anyone from young to old to have a go. I know, because I've watched kids come through the sport and go on to become professional riders.

Cyclocross is doing fine; you seem to be the odd one out.

posted by crikey [128 posts]
21st September 2014 - 22:18

0 Likes

Following up... watched my first race yesterday, happened to be the youth race. Surprised by how busy it was, for an event with basically no publicity. Walked around various parts of the track (should have brought the bike, doh!) to get a feel for it.

Some of the yoofs have serious skills (the Sigma Sport guy and the Herne Hill representation most especially, but some others too) and serious bikes too. Wish I'd have had kit like that when I was a kid. Maybe N+1 applies to family bikes too...

Really wish I'd put the knobblies on. I'd have been last but it would have been fun. Sorry, not fun: seriously enjoyable. Wink

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

Gizmo_'s picture

posted by Gizmo_ [872 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 8:45

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crikey wrote:
I think you'll find that 'cross is just about the most friendly cycle sport going; you can turn up on a mountain bike; you can wear what you want; you will get a race at whatever level you are at.

The 'snobbery' is something that only you feel, it's nothing to do with the sport itself.

...and the pro's come from an established sport which allows anyone from young to old to have a go. I know, because I've watched kids come through the sport and go on to become professional riders.

Cyclocross is doing fine; you seem to be the odd one out.

Dude the snobbery is clear for all to see when you make comments like "If you want 'fun' go and play somewhere else." and suggest that the sport "shouldn't panda to those who want to use a different type of bike."

I'm not really the odd one out as I haven't been interested in racing for ages, personally I much prefer Audax, however I do occasionally marshall at CX races and the atmosphere at my local series has changed in a negative way, resulting in less new people joining the races. I'm not sulking about it, just suggesting that some of the more experienced people could maybe be a little less elitist, especially as they are far from elite.

posted by drfabulous0 [359 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 9:34

1 Like

Hmmm, I'm not sure it's worth continuing with this; you seem to have a limited understanding of what cyclocross actually is, and now you're making up quotes...

It's the most inclusive, accepting form of cycle sport going; you can ride it on whatever you want, you can wear whatever you want.

Some people take it seriously as a sport and use spare bikes and turbos.

You seem to want something different, some kind of low key short course mountain bike friendly event, I'm sure you could set it up.

posted by crikey [128 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 10:43

2 Likes

I'd love to have a go at CX but really couldn't be arsed with all that cleaning! Big Grin

posted by Beatnik69 [116 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 10:49

0 Likes

Beatnik69 wrote:
I'd love to have a go at CX but really couldn't be arsed with all that cleaning! Big Grin

Didn't have to clean the bike after my first 'cross race yesterday Smile

David Arthur's picture

posted by David Arthur [1588 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 10:51

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The article makes me want to have a go. Some of the comments, however, don't.

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3246 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 12:25

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notfastenough wrote:
The article makes me want to have a go. Some of the comments, however, don't.

Ignore some of those comments. Cyclo-cross is great fun, it's accessible and you can do it on a mountain bike - there were people on mountain bikes in the race I did yesterday - and everyone has a good time. Even the spectators have loads to watch as the courses are packed into a small space. And it only lasts an hour

David Arthur's picture

posted by David Arthur [1588 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 12:48

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crikey wrote:
Hmmm, I'm not sure it's worth continuing with this; you seem to have a limited understanding of what cyclocross actually is, and now you're making up quotes...

It's the most inclusive, accepting form of cycle sport going; you can ride it on whatever you want, you can wear whatever you want.

Some people take it seriously as a sport and use spare bikes and turbos.

You seem to want something different, some kind of low key short course mountain bike friendly event, I'm sure you could set it up.

To try and spread some peace, I think the confusion here is partly down to your own original comments Crikey which came across as somewhat less than inclusive and to be fair, you have slightly changed your tune since.

I can't see anyone arguing to change the character of CX from what it is either. There might be some high profile events like the Rapha series, which seem like the kind of thing you don't approve of but apart from that, it's mostly going to be regional club-run, get-changed-in-the-car-park series, without the cowbells or faux-Belgian trimmings, that make up the majority of people's racing experience.

I'm totally in agreement about your last comments about the inclusive nature of it and echo other posters who have said that the great thing is that after the shakedown you end up in a mini-race against your nearest competitors. I always get lapped by the leaders and generally end up bottom/middle of pack but who cares, it's still a challenge and it's still fun.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [839 posts]
22nd September 2014 - 12:50

1 Like

Discover 100s of CX events on our easy to search, independent, map based site: http://www.pedalplanner.co.uk/#tmp&t_6

BillyV

posted by bumsonbikes [20 posts]
24th September 2014 - 10:44

0 Likes

Doing my first ever 'cross race this weekend. Its called The Three Peaks.....you may have heard of it....
To (mis)quote Jens;
Stop whimpering legs!

Caleb's Dad

posted by ricardowilson21 [7 posts]
25th September 2014 - 10:57

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