Cyclocross for beginners: An idiot's guide to the best way to start bicycle racing!
If you’re looking to get your cycle racing career underway, don’t hang around. Cycling Plus editor Rob Spedding first pledged to enter a cyclo-cross event in 2010. A man of his word he made good just six years later and discovered a sport that’s perfect for beginners and old hands alike. Pictures: Adam Gasson
Oh bad luck, you almost had that!” The man in the high-viz jacket means well, but as I untangle myself from my downed Ridley X-Ride I mumble a thank you, clumsily clip back in and, embarrassed, gracelessly slip-and-slide my way up a muddy, grassy slope swearing under my breath. Welcome to cyclo-cross…
What makes my tumble to the turf of a Welsh playing field even more galling is that I’m not even racing yet. My crash has come on my first practice lap of Welsh Cyclo-Cross League round five – organised by Hafren CC and held in Newtown, Powys – as I tackle a seemingly innocuous, short but steep hump after a sharp turn. Only my pride is hurt, but it doesn’t bode well for the main event. And now I’m really worried about the twisty sections through the woods and the wooden hurdles that I’ll have to leap on each lap…
This wasn’t how it was meant to be… I’d long threatened to attempt a cyclo-cross (CX) event. My sporting history is steeped in cross-country running – I loved it as kid, ran for my county through the mud and – in my twenties – spent many a Saturday getting filthy with like-minded men in spikes in league races. Truth be told, I miss the thrill and camaraderie of racing. Sure, sportives are great but they’re not quite the same. Oh, and they take a long time whereas a CX race is done in under an hour.
I figured one would be the closest thing in cycling to my cross-country past. Everyone I knew who’d raced ’cross said that it was fun, friendly, inexpensive and a brilliant introduction to bike racing. Some even claimed that my running background gave me an advantage – some technical sections require you to hoist your bike onto your shoulder and jog.
It took me a while to actually enter a race, but when my father-in-law Martin mentioned that he was going to enter his club’s event to race his first CX for nearly two decades it felt rude not to join him. I asked our resident CX expert Robin Wilmott for advice and he said some technical things about tyre pressures, gearing and dismounting/remounting. All I heard was: “You’ll probably crash, smash your testicles on your saddle and have a lot of fun…” Three out of three Mr Wilmott!
I’ll come back to the first two, but I want to get the fun bit out of the way first. Just after parting with my tenner for entry in, what I assume was, a scout hut, staffed by volunteers from Hafren CC and filled with a huge amount of cake-based energy product, Mart and I headed onto Trehafren Fields and witnessed children having a whale of a time in the junior races.
More like this
Sure, there were plenty in club kit on fully trick mini-cross bikes taking it as seriously as I took school cross-country races, but an equal number were just enjoying getting muddy on their mountain bikes. I knew that I wouldn’t be in the ‘serious’ camp once the grown-up (okay, Vets) race started but I was certainly looking forward to getting muddy.
Now, onto the smashing of testicles bit… One aspect of CX that you don’t come across in a sportive, road race or commute is the need to rapidly remove yourself from your bike while keeping it moving, so that you can jump obstacles or run with the bike through unrideable sections, before jumping back on and pedalling off. Experienced riders make this look almost balletic. I had a few practice running dismounts on the field and my attempts were more bull**** than Bolshoi…
That much became obvious very early in the actual race when, after most of the field of senior and veteran men – including some on full-suspension mountain bikes –had already left me in their wake, I came to two wooden hurdles placed a few metres apart.
Only around half a metre high they were bunny-hoppable for the best riders in the race, but I had to get off, run, and carry. Needless to say the running dismount was more a clumsy unclip and yes, my nether regions did hit my saddle hard as I jumped back on. At least I’d only have to do this bit five or six times during the 45-minute-long multi-lap race. Plus another five or six times after running up some stairs, and a few more after crashing.
Ah, yes, the crashing. After my practice shunt I did manage to negotiate the tricky sharp turn and small climb without further incident. The technical singletrack sections through the woods were a little different. I’d set my tyre pressures at a completely arbitrary 37psi (lower pressure equals more grip on slippery surfaces) but that didn’t help my rubber grip exposed roots or improve my handling skills. I hit the deck several times, usually when a faster rider was about to overtake or lap me. (Sorry!) It was all low level stuff though and I got back on and carried on.
All of which could make it sound like my first CX race was a misery fest. You couldn’t be more wrong though – it was an absolute hoot. First up, it was a proper workout. I managed just six miles in 48 minutes of racing, but according to Strava, 75 per cent of that was at either tempo or threshold level.
Then there was the support – okay, so the crowds were sparse and mainly made up of other riders’ friends/family and the volunteer marshals from Hafren CC – but they cheered everyone relentlessly. Some may have taken a little too much pleasure in seeing the man in Cycling Plus kit lying in a muddy puddle… A special mention also has to go to the race officials, all of whom are volunteers and give up their weekends throughout the year to make sure events like Hafren’s can take place.
So, did my first cyclo-cross race satisfy my dormant racing urge? Yes – I finished an impressive 35th in my age group, out of 36, and I’d like to think that I’ll do another one rather sooner than in another six years. Although I can see the point of one rider whom I heard shout, “Why isn’t this a summer sport!” as he squelched through some deep mud. If you’ve got an old competitive itch to scratch or simply fancy taking your first steps in bike racing I’d encourage you to make a date this autumn.
The majority of cyclo-cross races are held between September and February. Visit britishcycling.org.uk/cyclocross for more info.
ASK THE CXpert
It would have made sense to consult five times British cyclo-cross champion Ian Field – that's him in the middle with his game face on – before my first race, but I didn’t… Afterwards, I asked him where I went wrong
How do you make the call to dismount and run?
There’s a point in every race when running is faster than riding, usually around particularly tricky corners or longer sections of mud. You need to factor the time lost dismounting and remounting the bike into this equation so experience and knowing your own ability is crucial. Quite often you’ll stay on the bike but then feel like it would be faster to run – it’s too late but the beauty of ’cross is you will be round to the same point in a few minutes so you can learn from the mistake and put it right.
I got a bruised shoulder and the bar kept hitting me when I carried the bike. What was I doing wrong?
Holding the bike tight to your body stops it moving around but other than that, toughen up! If you carry your bike on the right shoulder then the right arm should be holding onto the handlebar with your arm wrapped around the head-tube or under the down-tube securing the bike tight onto your shoulder and preventing the bar from spinning.
Hurdles – dismount or bunny hop?
If you can bunny hop safely, this is the fastest option nine times out of 10. The perfect bunny hop means lifting the front wheel first and then
the back so both wheels clear the obstacle rather than pulling both wheels off the ground at the same time.
I came off twice in a woody section. I’m blaming wheel slip on roots, how do you deal with those?
Always try and hit roots square on/at a 90-degree angle so that your wheels can’t slip off in another direction. If the angles don’t make this possible, performing a small bunny hop or simply lifting the front wheel over them works.
I dropped my tyre pressure to around 40psi, but how do you judge what pressure to use and how low can you go?
You need to keep going lower until you find the balance between hitting the rim and enough grip to get you through the corners and up bankings without wheel slip. You can’t go as low with inner tubes as you can with tubular tyres though. I won the National Championships two
years ago with just 15psi in my tubulars!
Where’s the best place to practice technique and what sort of fitness training works best for CX?
My top training advice would be to practice techniques in a local park or woodland. You want a safe environment with plenty of space to get it wrong a few times before you master the skill set. To be good at ’cross you need to be super fit across all aspects so working on tempo/threshold efforts as
well as really short and sharp high intensity efforts are needed.
Sign up to the Cycling Plus Newsletter here
We've been trying out new things since 1992 – subscribe to find out what else you can do with your bike every month!
Get 13 issues of Cycling Plus for just £42.99 - that's just £3.30 an issue!