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