Cyclocross comes from the rich family of cycling disciplines. Road racing is the queen and has reigned over the sport of cycling from the beginning. Track racing, which can be traced back to the 19th century, “showcases a range of the most dynamic and extreme skills and tactics in the sport of cycling” according to the Union Cyclist International (UCI) definition of the sport. While mountain biking is relatively new compared to the other two, (only in its early twenties), this branch of cycling has gone through an explosive growth curve in the 1990’s, making it a very well known discipline.
Cyclocross, which predates mountain biking, did not receive the same enthusiastic reception. Seen mostly as a training discipline for road racing, it became an intense but fun way to work on fitness and handling skills during the off season. Known best in Europe, it was not until 1950 that the first World Cyclocross Championship event took place and not until recently that this discipline has attracted North American riders.
What is cyclocross? The classic picture would show a rider carrying a bike on one shoulder while climbing a steep and muddy hill. There is more to it.
In terms of technique, cyclocross is one of the most difficult forms of bike racing. The bike itself is very similar to a regular road bicycle with drop handlebars, regular size wheels and narrow tires. The course, however, has more similarity with mountain biking, using wooded trails and grassy or muddy steep hills instead of smooth pavement. Obstacles (barriers) that can’t be ridden are purposely placed on the course to force the riders to dismount and remount their bikes, adding a little running to this cycling event. Finally, the cyclocross season runs from early October to the beginning of February, making for usually cold racing conditions.
Still, cyclocross is different from mountain biking, as, contrarily to the fat tire sport, technical and mechanical support during the event is allowed and can become a major part of the strategy used to win a race. Since it is a winter sport, the mud can stick to the bike adding unnecessary weight, and creating mechanical problems. For this reason, a pit system, where trained mechanics provide riders with fresh, clean oiled bikes in exchange for their muddy ones has been developed over the years.
The sport is also spectator friendly. The track is designed on a short loop of approxi- mately two miles, usually looping back to the main area a couple of time. This allows everyone to keep track of the action and riders positions. The barriers, tight corners, steep muddy sections, and pit area are always good viewing spots. The course is short: riders come by often and when the pack is strung they come continuously. Races are also short, one hour for the top men’s category, making for intense racing from start to finish. There is no hiding in the pack and waiting for the final sprint.
The real beauty of cyclocross is that is it open to everyone from beginners to elite, junior to master. Each series offers races for kids, making the event a family outing. The races are short and fun and unless you are an elite racer, you don’t need a real cyclocross bike, any bike will do. Bring your mountain bike or your single speed; they have a category for you. All of the series organizers put on training sessions to demonstrate how to mount and dismount, carry the bike, jump barriers and much more. You can contact them directly to find out about these training opportunities. Cyclocross is a great way to extend your cycling season, to help maintain your level of fitness, and keep you cycling during the fall and early winter months. So go out there and discover for yourself what cyclocross has to offer.