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A Beginner’s Guide to Cyclocross. Or, What Do You Call a Lost Roadie?

   Words by Mark

   on 30/09/2014 13:16:36

peaks 2 

To the un-initiated, a cyclocross race appears to be a peloton which took a wrong turn somewhere and somehow wound up in the middle of a field covered in manure. But cyclocross is actually an ancient cycling discipline steeped in history. It already produces household-name-celebrities in Belgium, and it’s becoming seriously popular in the UK, too.

 

Since the dawn of man we’ve hated winter. Think back to the days of our early ancestors and you probably envisage cavegirls in animal skin bikinis, or cavemen in loin cloths getting a tan whilst wrestling sabre tooth tigers. It wasn’t like that at all - it was most probably an Ice age and were no doubt huddled together in a cave eating 6 month old mammoth, with a side of gravel, trying to keep warm.

Mankind’s primal hibernating instinct still prevails, even today. What cyclist can deny that the lure of the open road is somewhat diminished when a gale force wind is blowing in your face and ‘freak’ (now somewhat normal) tundra weather has decided to give the UK a licking. Surely we would all be better off staying warm and dry, catching up on some Emmerdale?

Some don’t see it that way. For that bunch of hardened souls, the cold air makes their engine run richer and the bitter gale force wind, in the event that it ever is on their backs, will help push them to a new PB on Strava. These guys were the cavemen and cavegirls that left the cave to go and stalk an animal in bare feet, with permafrost underneath, to win the admiration of the tribe.

These guys are cyclocross riders.

 

“I’m having the trunk for a new set of arm warmers. Wicked”

What do you call a lost roadie?

To the un-initiated, a cyclocross race appears to be a peloton which took a wrong turn somewhere and somehow wound up in the middle of a field covered in manure. But cyclocross is actually an ancient cycling discipline steeped in history. It emerged in Europe during the early 1900s when road riders would challenge each other to race to the next town, via any route conceivable. This often included riders negotiating farmer’s fields and fences, a bicycle steeple chase you might call it. The sport gradually evolved and came under UCI regulation in the 1940s to become today’s modern equivalent – enabling roadies to look miserable in the winter as well as the summer.

 

Early cyclocross riders were notoriously badass. 

 

So what really makes a lost roadie different from a cyclocross rider?

The Bike

Whilst you can certainly ride your new Trek Emonda off road, cyclocross bikes do have a few differences and are better suited to the job. First off, your 23c Contis offer no grip whatsoever in the slippy stuff, so knobbly 700c tyres are a must. Of course those tyres are going to pick up a hell of a lot of mud, so wider tyre clearances on the frame and fork mean you won’t be scraping thick clay from your wheels every two minutes. The disc brake is making its gradual migration to road cycling, but they have long been a fixture on the cyclocross scene - due to the poor clearances offered by road brakes. Some frames even have a brace across the corner of the seat and top tubes to enable the rider to shoulder the bike when carrying the bike uphill.

The Forme Calver. Knobbly tyres, disc brakes, carbon fork, Shimano 105. Go get muddy.

WHAT? Carrying the bike uphill?

I know that to the roadie the act of stopping on a hill to either push or carry their bike is an eternally shameful act. I have even known one particular rider to get back on his bike, with a flat tyre, and continue to ride up the hill so not to lose face with the roadies coming the other way.

Riding a road bike up a hill that is made purely from soft loam is impossible, and so is riding them over a fence. In cyclocross the only way forward sometimes is on foot. This was a technique employed by early riders to get the feeling back into their feet and calves on cold days. But, it has since evolved into a staple part of cyclocross racing as a way of getting over obstacles that pepper the courses.

 

peaks

 Staff rider Wiggy turns on ‘the hurt’ at the 2014 Three Peaks cyclocross race.

Shoes and pedals

The problem with all road shoes is the cleats. They work very well on the bike; power is transferred with minimal loss straight to the back wheel, the pedals danced upon as the rider rockets up climbs. However, the minute a rider gets off the bike and has to walk they resemble a duck with a severe case of haemorrhoids. This is absolutely not compatible with running on mud and clambering over fences. Cyclocross riders favour SPD pedals that offer a recessed cleat, making running easier. MTB shoes were once used, but cyclocross specific shoes have started to appear offering grip patterns and spikes suited to running up muddy slopes.

Technique

Your average road ride doesn’t consist of bunny hopping or high speed dismounts to clear obstacles, both of which can be expected from a cyclocross ride or race. Be it a ditch, rabbit hole, or planks of wood there is typically something in the way - but this is all part of the fun. Bunny hopping a cyclocross bike has been common practice for a long time, but official races do try to stamp this out by placing obstacles closely together. Skilled bunnyhoppers... bunnyhopperers... people who are really good at bunny hopping, can still manage, but most now prefer the high speed dismount. This is not as easy as it sounds and produces some spectacular crashes. Next time you’re riding at 17mph just consider jumping off the bike, jumping over an obstacle with the bike, getting back on the bike, clipping in, all without losing any speed.

File:Cyclocross runup.JPG

Not easy at all.

So Why Do It?

Despite everything you’ve just read, cyclocross is a huge amount of fun.

Yes you get covered in mud, but this is a good thing - just Google image search the word “mud”. Yes it’s a winter sport, but I guarantee there is so much to concentrate on you won’t notice the cold. Your bike handling will improve no end - If you can circumnavigate a cyclocross course you can pretty much ride on anything. The camaraderie is fantastic - what begins as a field full of riders full of fear and trepidation soon turns in to a herd of riders bellowing hysterical laughter.

Riders tend to filter into groups of ability and offer each other words of encouragement to get through the farce that is a cyclocross course. Riding cyclocross makes you a better cyclist full stop.

 

“Bro, you rocked it”

Do I have to race?

Nope. There is a lot of talk about cyclocross racing, and it is the season for it, but a ton of fun can be had on a cyclocross bike without the need to pin a number on your back. The great thing about cyclocross bikes is that they are real ‘go anywhere’ machines. If you’re on the road and an interesting bit of off-roading presents itself you can go and explore. Plus when you get back on the road you’ve got near road bike ability in terms on speed and efficiency. They also make fantastic touring bikes (provided you go aluminium and not carbon), with pannier mounts and typically more relaxed geometry than a road bike for adventures that last longer than a day.

If you’ve got a cyclocross bike in your armoury then you’ll without a doubt increase your miles all year round, just because of where and when you can ride. In fact it may just make a couple of bikes in the shed redundant. It’s a bike that can be used in any season, but in the winter months it will give you hours of joy.

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