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.
Buying the right bike
There's a lot of choice out there so why don't you have a look at our buyers guide to cyclocross bikes before you make a decision. We've listed 10 different bikes at different prices to help guide you through the maze of choice.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.