Your guide to cyclo-cross racing

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

by David Arthur   October 25, 2013  

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?

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/galleria_900_nocrop/images/Canyon%20Inflite%20AL/Canyon%20Inflite%20AL%20-%20full%20bike.jpg

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.

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/galleria_900_nocrop/images/Trek%20Ion%20CX%202012/Trek%20Ion%20CX%20Pro%20-%20top%20tube%20cable%20routing.jpg

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.

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.

Trek Ion CX Pro  £1500.00

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/galleria_900_nocrop/images/Trek%20Ion%20CX%202012/Trek%20Ion%20CX%20Pro%20-%20full%20bike.jpg

Trek's Ion CX Pro is a race worthy bike that's perfect for anyone serious about trying cross racing. It's well thought out and executed, and comes complete with the right kit to hammer around a park for an hour. The added versatility of the mudguard and rack mounts is just a bonus.

Pinnacle Arkose Three  £999.00

More and more people are turning to disc-equipped commuter/cross bikes as a versatile do-anything bike, and the Pinnacle Arkose Three is a very well-rounded example of the genre. It sneaks under the £1k cycle to work limit with a mostly Shimano 105 drivetrain and good brakes. It's a good ride to boot, and light enough for a crack at a CX race if you fancy punishing yourself for an hour.

Kona Jake the Snake £1399.00

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.

Genesis CdF  £799.00

A budget kid brother to Genesis' popular steel road all-rounder, the Genesis CdF is a solid urban and light-touring ride, as long as you're not in a hurry to get from A to B.

Specialized Crux Elite  £999.99

The Crux is a rare beast; a thousand pound cyclo-cross bike that's designed for actual cyclo-cross. It's not a jack-of-all-trades utility bike dressed up as a CX bike but a cross bike that's designed for what cyclo-cross really is - racing.

All City Macho Man  £1599.99

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.

Trek Crossrip Elite £950.00

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/galleria_900_nocrop/images/Trek%20Crossrip%202013/Trek%20Crossrip%20-%20riding%202.jpg

You'll find plenty of disc-equipped, cyclocross-inspired do-it-all bikes under a grand; they're usually a good option as an all-rounder and popular on cycle-to-work schemes. Now there's one more, the Trek Crossrip, and it's a good bike. It's not the hottest on value but as a package the Elite model we've been riding is sensibly specced and good to ride.

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

28 user comments

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If you live in the Wessex region check out the Wessex Cyclo-Cross League for local races.

www.wessexcx.co.uk

posted by seanbolton [134 posts]
7th November 2012 - 15:39

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A clarification on the British Cycling Membership requirements.

Bronze Membership at £13.50 is sufficient to enter local league races. Otherwise the day licence fee is £3.00 in addition to the race entry, which is typically about £10 to £12 for adults.

posted by seanbolton [134 posts]
7th November 2012 - 15:44

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Yes good point Sean, a Bronze membership includes a provisional licence and that allows you to enter local league races. Any Go-Race events can be entered without a licence. For cyclo-cross you only need a full race licence for international and premier/championship races, according to British Cycling. This BC pdf sets it out clearly (http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/zuvvi/media/bc_files/membership/eligibi...)

If you want to get a full race licence, you need the Silver membership. A Bronze membership is probably enough for most people, the Bronze membership gets you a provisional race licence.

And a day licence, according to the BC (and my own experience) is £10 (http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roa20120127-road-Single-Da...)

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posted by David Arthur [1487 posts]
7th November 2012 - 16:06

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A clarification based on the laws of nature:
'increased braking power from cantilever brakes.'
I'm not letting you get away with that Smile

posted by stever [51 posts]
7th November 2012 - 16:11

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I did my first cross race a few weeks ago and it was flipping hard! Only an hour, but I found it harder than a 70 mile hilly sportive, but maybe thats because I'm not built like a whippet!

I raced in a Wessex league event, which unfortunately doesn't have a novice race so you are in with the Pros. Watching them all disappear off into the distance was dispiriting but I tried to have fun and at least finished. I wasn't graceful, but I got round!

A very hard winter workout! And actually quite fun in a strange way Smile

posted by othello [279 posts]
7th November 2012 - 16:12

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Just pointing out it is not too expensive to start in cyclo-cross. A day licence is just three quid and you can turn up and have a go on a Mountain Bike if you are new to cyclo-cross.

It is a great form of cycle racing, I think a lot of cyclists would enjoy it if they gave it a go.

posted by seanbolton [134 posts]
7th November 2012 - 18:10

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I'd consider the CAADX 105... but i would say that... I race on it. Big Grin

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posted by richmitch [50 posts]
7th November 2012 - 18:55

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seanbolton wrote:
Just pointing out it is not too expensive to start in cyclo-cross. A day licence is just three quid and you can turn up and have a go on a Mountain Bike if you are new to cyclo-cross.

Not sure where you're getting this £3 from though? According to BC it's £5 for Go-Race (not many of them) or £10 for regular race (http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roa20120127-road-Single-Da...)

seanbolton wrote:
It is a great form of cycle racing, I think a lot of cyclists would enjoy it if they gave it a go.

Totally agree. That's why I wrote it Wink

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posted by David Arthur [1487 posts]
7th November 2012 - 18:56

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The £3 is the levy on top of the race fee if you don't have the BC race licence. Its covers the event organisers for insurance for the individual as they won't have the necessary BC insurance that comes as part of membership. At least I think that's what its for.

I have mixed feelings re disc brakes as part of the skill and fun of cyclo cross, for me, is racing with ineffective brakes - it really brings out the bike handling skills and rider agility in cornering and around the obstacles. I reckon that disc brakes that always work gives those rider who can splash the cash an advantage especially in those wet and muddy conditions. Thinking Still, not that its going to affect me much as I'm generally finishing 60% down the field! Smile

posted by Dunlin [11 posts]
7th November 2012 - 20:58

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David Arthur wrote:
Not sure where you're getting this £3 from though? According to BC it's £5 for Go-Race (not many of them) or £10 for regular race (http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roa20120127-road-Single-Da...)

David, it really is £3 for 'cross. Take a look at the page you linked to: it's headed "Road and Track".

posted by DaveC [39 posts]
8th November 2012 - 9:24

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Hi David

The £10 day licence fee is for road and track events. For cyclo-cross the day licence is £3. That's what all the events in the Wessex League charge.

However trying to find this information on the BC website is a bit of a challenge!

Sean

posted by seanbolton [134 posts]
8th November 2012 - 9:28

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After trawling the BC website (they really need to sort out their documentation, it's a mess....)

I found this wonderful document, the Cyclo-Cross Quick Start Flow Chart! (turn up, pay, sign on)

http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/zuvvi/media/bc_files/volunteer/Flowchar...

posted by seanbolton [134 posts]
8th November 2012 - 9:38

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Article:
..., re-routed cables (to keep them away from the mud) ...

The cables are also rerouted because you need to carry the bike on your shoulder, so you don't want cables on the underside of the top tube, where they might hurt you, or you might hurt them.

posted by jsheadland [5 posts]
8th November 2012 - 10:27

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Timely article as I am just about to buy a 2011 Trisport from specialized not for cyclo cross but as an all rounder (actually it gets a crap write up as a X bike) mainly because I am 135kg of frobbing flab and looking for the bigger tyres and extra strength (I hope) of the cross componants will let you know how it goes.
For a racing cross bike the one from B'Twin the Decathlon supplier seems a very good bike for the money 899.99 euros which in real money is about £750.

Have a look at

http://www.btwin.com/blog/blog-and-news/sports/on-road/range-road-2012-b...

Sodit

posted by sodit [68 posts]
8th November 2012 - 14:16

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The West Midlands League is hugely popular, held at venues across the region from September until February. Definitely an 'all age' experience with kids from about 6 years old having a go. The Islabike Luath and Beinn models dominate the junior races (with good reason) but MTBs etc are welcome in all classes.

Arrive and early (you'll get a spot in the car park instead of parking 1/2 mile away and beat the queue at signing-on). Familiarise yourself with the rules, race duration etc.

Pre-riding the course is essential as you want to be sure what you might encounter before you are chasing a wheel headlong into that wooded section.

Very important considerations include: staying warm before and after your race e.g. leggings that are easy to get on and off and, if it's cold, race in longs or knee/legwarmers.

A choice of gloves with adequate insulation but also dexterity and grip so you can you can hold on and even change gear even when they are wet and covered in mud.

Having enough to eat & drink. I love fresh coffee but a colleague mentioned Heinz squeeze & stir soups; it's like a gel sachet of very concentrated soup to which you add hot water.

Wet wipes, towels, bin liners for filthy clothing... Some people use embrocation but if you do then remember you will need to get it off your hands before you do anything else.

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posted by Simon E [1946 posts]
8th November 2012 - 22:14

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I'm thinking of buying the Boardman CXTeam (the updated 2014 model) as an all-rounder as I want to do some cyclocross over the winter (and this article and comments only make me more keen to do so!) but also use it for less technical mtb-ing with my son and as a winter road trainer. Anyone out there taken the plunge already and able to give some feedback?

posted by Team Rux [21 posts]
25th October 2013 - 16:44

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look at the genesis 'adventure' bikes including the CDF croix de fer and croix de fer 931. also check out the trek crockett and cross rip. crockett would give you a slightly more 'race fit' (generally a little more forgiving geometry than road but more aggressive than an all round cross bike)
I don't necessarily have a problem with the boardman bikes, just the useless retailer that puts them together (halfrauds)

posted by titch75 [13 posts]
25th October 2013 - 16:48

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I bought a Boardman CX Team recently to replace an aging MTB and winter trainer/commuter. Overall I'm pleased with it, however I have issues with the mudguard eyes being unprotected during the painting (M5 tap is needed here), there are no eyelets in the front forks so have used race blade mounts there. It also had an 8spd link the 10spd chain that made for interesting pedalling. Brake calipers needed a little more tlc than I'm used to (but I'm new with discs though, so probably me!) Local halfords was fine with assembly and customer service, however I experienced the usual CBA attitude when I took it into another store while I was away to try to sort out the chainlink problem. Online customer service is just as unhelpful if not worse (buy a 10spd link and send the invoice to us!) At Wits End . If Boardman bikes had another outlet I'd use them tbh.
A change of tyres from GP4000s to Challenge Griffo (preferred boots) removing mudguards and it's good to go CX, and vice versa for training/commuting.
I bought it on their 10% off weekend with BC 10% off on top of that, so can't complain about the price either.
It handles well, brakes and accelerates nicely. There's a good range of gears on it as standard. It's not exactly lightweight, but I'm not exactly a cx pro, so doesn't matter.

posted by GrahamF [11 posts]
25th October 2013 - 18:24

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The great thing about CX is that the biggest factor is the rider, not the kit and you can have a good time, regardless of what you're riding - only those at the head of the race have a clue about their race position after a lap or two. Entries have been steadily increasing in the last few years and it's a great. safe way to bring young riders into bike racing - the pity is that because it's a non-Olympic discipline it receives very little funding from BC and still relies heavily on a stalwart of volunteers to lay on races.

Make mine an Italian with Campagnolo on the side

posted by monty dog [360 posts]
25th October 2013 - 18:36

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Watched a few CX races now and I love it, really want to give it a go......I'm under no illusions though, this is hard hard work its pretty much max HR for between 30mins to an hour. Go watch it it's an awesome spectacle, great banter and I dare you to not want to give it a go.

posted by Spooks [61 posts]
25th October 2013 - 20:27

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If you're doing it properly I've heard you need two bikes...

Sir Velo

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posted by Raleigh [1728 posts]
25th October 2013 - 21:47

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I use a Ridley Crossbow, a great bike.

posted by brandobiker [22 posts]
25th October 2013 - 23:18

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North of England events can be found at CYCLO-CROSS NORTH EAST's website http://cxne.org.uk

posted by si4star [37 posts]
26th October 2013 - 0:45

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si4star wrote:
North of England events can be found at CYCLO-CROSS NORTH EAST's website http://cxne.org.uk

And also the NECCL series http://neccl.co.uk

Quick plug for the cxne round at Bedlington on Nov 3rd - it's a great course with lots of up and down. More fun than plugging round a football pitch for an hour.

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posted by joemmo [795 posts]
26th October 2013 - 15:34

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Raleigh wrote:
If you're doing it properly I've heard you need two bikes...

Only if you're riding in really muddy conditions or have a puncture / mechanical - unless you're consistently getting into top-10s, it's not really necessary unless your live by the n+1 rule

Make mine an Italian with Campagnolo on the side

posted by monty dog [360 posts]
26th October 2013 - 17:46

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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

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

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

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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/

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

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