Cyclocross racing was developed in Europe in the early 1900’s as a way for road racers to remain fit during fall and winter. The intense event helped athletes maintain and improve their racing fitness and skills, too. As the sport grew, some riders abandoned the road-racing scene to become cyclocross specialists. Today, there are cyclists who focus only on cross and many professional road and off-road riders race cross to keep their race engines finally tuned in the off season.
Typical cyclocross courses are 1.5- to 2-mile loops on a mix of paved and off-road surfaces over flat-to-rolling terrain. Usually, races lasts an hour plus a lap. But, what makes cross such a unique and challenging sport is that courses always include obstacles that force riders to dismount and run while carrying their bikes.
For example, most courses feature short, steep (often muddy) sections, which are nearly impossible to ride. There can be scary cliff-like drop-offs, river crossings and technical singletrack, too. Also, courses include series of man-made barriers scattered around the course requiring riders to carry their bikes over or, if they're really talented, to jump their bikes over the obstacles (called "bunny-hopping"). It's this combination of cycling, stunt riding, carrying, running and scrambling over obstacles that makes cyclocross so exciting, such a phenomenal workout and so darn much fun!
Contrary to popular belief, cyclocross racing is fun. It’s also technically challenging and physically demanding. The effort and skill required to compete elevates your overall racing fitness and leads to great improvement when the spring races roll around.
It Makes You Better
If you’ve raced consistently throughout the spring and summer, take a two- to three-week rest after your last race to allow your body to recuperate from a long, hard season. But, don't make the common mistake of letting your lungs and legs collect dust by resting too long. That'll only make it a real struggle to get in shape come spring.
Instead, join some cross races. Keep in mind that you can ride them mainly for fun and general fitness. You don't have to take it too seriously. And even riding mainly for fun, cross will help you a lot. It improves bike handling and power and builds your cardiovascular system. You'll be amazed how great you feel and how much more confidence you have on your bike when the race season arrives.
If you're not a racer, you'll still love the way cross improves your skills. Trails that once worried you will seem tame and you'll be able to ride sections you had to walk before.
The Three Options:
Cyclocross races range from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your category. Although you’ll need to train hard to be competitive, you won’t need to log nearly the amount of saddle time required to compete in road- or mountain-bike races.
Road racers are supported by a team car or teammates if they have mechanical problems. Mountain bike racers are entirely self-sufficient. Cyclocross racers, however, have what’s known as a pit, where they can exchange bikes/wheels. Of course, you need two bikes and/or spare wheels in order to take advantage of the pit. Most top riders have two (sometimes three) bikes for an important cross race. Average Jills might just have a pair of wheels for back-up in case of punctures.
If you've got the luxury of mechanical support and the conditions are muddy, you can hand off your filthy rig to your mechanic, who hands you a clean one. Then, while you're racing, your wrench is frantically cleaning and lubing the bike in case you need it again. In a complete mudfest, you might actually exchange bikes every lap. You also exchange bikes if you have mechanical problems or flat tires.
Make no mistake about it: running is a part of cyclocross. In fact, cross is the one cycling race where strong runners occassionally excel. Running sections are usually short, steep and difficult. And they offer a unique element you won’t find in typical road or off-road races. In fact, knowing when to run can change the race outcome. For example, if you try to ride through a bad muddy section and get bogged down and have to stop, the racer who chose to run it, will leave you in the dust. Also, narrow parts of the course sometimes become bottlenecks and running can be faster than riding and get you past struggling riders who otherwise would slow you down.
We can tell you about cross races in our area. For races nationwide, there's a good calendar in the bicycle-racing magazine VeloNews.