Among the many disciplines of cycling there is one closest to my heart; Cyclocross! A lot of folks, especially here state-side, have never heard of this beautiful form of racing. Here I’ll do my best to paint the best picture I can of what cyclocross is all about.
From the photo above you can see riders race on road(ish) bikes, with drop bars and all, but these bikes have slightly different geometric dimensions than you’d see on a pure road bike. In (cyclo)cross you need to have a little more clearance around the fork, down-tube, and bottom bracket areas for when the inevitable mud, sand, and everything in between comes at the bike on course. This helps to make sure nothing gets gunked up to prevent the tires from spinning smoothly. For this reason, racers also keep a spare bike in the course’s pit area, in order to be able to change bikes mid-race for any mechanical issues, or if the course is really muddy they’ll change bikes each lap, while the pit crew cleans the most recently used bike. A cross bike isn’t exactly a road bike, but it’s not quite a mountain bike either, you don’t have any suspension built in, the suspension comes naturally from the tire pressure, arms, and legs.
The terrain of a cross course is not as “aggressive” compared to what you’d see on a cross-country mountain bike course. These bikes can handle a lot, but with too many odd roots or rock gardens the racing would be too rough on the machine and rider. A cyclocross course is commonly made up of grass, sand, pavement, snow, or man-made features such as; barriers, stairs, or bridges. But the most important word to think of when you hear cyclocross; MUD! Mud defines this sport, it’s loved and accepted by all, whether they’d like to admit it or not (although it does make for a miserable clean-up afterwards). Mud during a cross race creates some of the most epic racing you can watch. A great example is the 2019 Namur World Cup race, where Mathieu van der Poel, and Lucinda Brand came out on the top step for their respective categories.
A unique aspect of cyclocross you don’t see across other disciplines is riders dismounting to run with the bike. Yes, I know it’s strange to think about, most take up cycling because they realize how miserable running really is (sorry to all the runners and triathletes reading but it’s true). In fact; running can be faster than riding in certain circumstances during a cross race. For example: you approach a steep, off-camber climb, the weekend has seen nothing but rain, it’s the eighth race of the day, and the hillside is torn to bits with no green grass in sight. When situations such as this present itself, the fastest option is to dismount, throw the bike over the shoulder, and scurry up in carbon soled cycling shoes. This is an essential practice for cross racers, making sure the dismounts and remounts are smooth in order to carry as much momentum as possible. Elite cross racers tend to make this look simple, but I promise it takes finesse and practice to finally get right consistently, especially at race speed.
In the professional world cyclocross races are 75 minutes for the men, and 50 minutes for the women, each course varies but generally range from two to three kilometers in length. Both men and women race on the same exact course, unlike what you see in today’s road racing scene, where women unfortunately have abridged races or terrain compared to what the men see. The stewards (referees) determine the number of laps to be raced once they average the times of the first or second lap of the leader(s), trying to get the race time close to 75 or 50 minutes. For example: say the lead group of women come across the line with a lap average of about eight minutes, the stewards would then have the entire field race six laps total in order to have race time as close to 50 minutes as possible. The race is based on the leaders time, consequently those further back in the field will have to suffer a little longer.
Cyclocross can be a brutal effort, 75 or 50 minutes may not seem like much initially, especially when compared to road racing, where some races take up to seven hours such as the spring classics Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris Roubaix. Cross is a different effort, there is no sitting in the peloton conserving energy, the race goes off from a standing start straight into a max effort sprint into turn one, otherwise known as the hole-shot (similar to the lexicon of dirt-bike racing). After an all out sprint from the start line, the all important first lap takes place. Position is crucial for cross, taking the fastest, cleanest lines possible, getting stuck behind a rider who may not be as fit, or doesn’t ride as well through the technical sections, will have someone get spit out the back. Once the race “settles in” it generally breaks into small groups or individuals racing solo, tending to be a lonely, and quite painful experience.
Cyclocross is this grand spectacle that incorporates all the beauty, skill, and strength cycling has to offer; seeing tens of thousands of fans turn out for one huge party to watch the best in the world race, well at least in Belgium, not so much here in the states. There’s loads of beer, frites, music, and all sorts of action throughout the weekend. In my opinion, this style of racing is the most exciting in the sport (although I do love my road and mountain bike races). It’s fast, technical, and watching the best men and women navigate these phenomenal courses keeps your eyes glued for the entire race.
I encourage everyone to give cyclocross a try, or at least a watch! Below I’ll link some of my favorite highlights and races from recent memory. They’re a great way to keep yourself distracted on those tough trainer rides. Happy riding everyone!
CX Races & Highlights:
2013 CX Men’s World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky:
2019 Namur Men’s World Cup Highlights:
2020 Women’s World Championship Highlights:
2021 Women’s Elite World Championship Highlights: