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#TeamRutland | Sian's Guide to Cyclocross

Words by Tom Worsfold

on 26/11/2019 16:12:37


Words by Rutland Cycling staff member Sian Botteley

The Off Season

As summer comes to an end, the nights draw ever darker and the temperature plummets downward with increasing haste, us roadies have a choice to make. Do we don multiple thermal layers and head out training on the roads as normal, with the added bonus of numb fingers and toes for company? Or do we leave the delights of British winter outside and stay tucked up indoors and get our riding done on a turbo trainer? The world of indoor training has many benefits. Aside from the obvious lack of need to defrost at the end of your training session, there's also no need to spend an hour washing your bike, nor do you fill the entire washing machine with your wet and mucky kit from one ride.

Indoor training is also now more entertaining than ever, with smart trainers and immersive software such as Zwift allowing you the 'real-feel' of riding outdoors from the comfort of your living room. You can even ride up Alpe D'Huez, or "Alpe du Zwift" as it's known. Far more entertaining than staring at the wall for the duration of your ride, right?


Well personally, I can't stand riding on the turbo trainer. Zwift and the like just don't do it for me, in fact I think I'd rather get sopping wet for three hours in the rain than ride the turbo for half that time. But there's an alternative to both those things. This alternative does also involve getting wet and possibly (probably) muddy from time to time (pretty much all the time), but I promise you it's fun!

Cyclocross racing has grown hugely in popularity in recent years, both with more and more people taking to it as their primary discipline, and with roadies like me looking for a bit of fun and an alternative way of training in the winter. Cyclocross has got many advantages; perhaps the biggest of these is that you're aboard a bike with so much more versatility than a standard road bike but with not far off the same capability to go really fast! You can simply pedal out of your front door and pick whatever path you like, from tarmac to gravel to thick sticky mud. A cyclocross bike will do it all. With the added safety element of all races being completely off road, you can be safe in the knowledge that you can race as hard as you can without the worry of oncoming traffic, or leaving skin on the road if you fall off. In fact if you fall off the CX bike, the worst you're likely to do is fall on grass and maybe get a bit muddy and it definitely won't hurt as much!


On top of that, for me personally cyclocross racing has another big advantage. With my road racing season not starting properly until at least March/April time, this time of year is all about building up a solid base, with a little bit of top end thrown in once or twice a week. If I was to be purely riding the road bike, the thought of going out a couple of times a week to do a top end session in the freezing cold, with my racing season still months and months away, isn't an overly pleasant thought. But a cyclocross race presents a perfect top end training session, without even having to think about it. That may sound a little backwards. But if you've got a competitive edge about you, once you're surrounded by your fellow CX race mates on the start line, the will to beat as many people as you can will take over. You'll quickly find that it's effortless to push yourself really hard, far harder than you could muster up the motivation to on your lonesome on a soggy road ride.

Now don't get me wrong, you don't have to be crazy competitive to enjoy cyclocross. There are plenty of people that enter these races purely for the enjoyment of it, because pedaling round a country park at the weekend is a great way of keeping fit and getting out with the family. With leagues across the country offering races for all age groups, from under 8's to veterans of all ages, there really is something for everyone. This is perhaps the most special aspect of racing cyclocross. When I race on the road in the summer, particularly at the National Series races, there's always an element of seriousness about the whole affair. This is understandable when there's a lot of talented riders present in these events with the ambition of making bike racing their career, but ultimately we're all there because we're like minded people who love to race. I think this serious element sometimes takes the shine off this on the road racing scene. But turn up to a cyclocross race and everyone is in it together, from the fastest to the slowest, there's a real community feel with everyone looking out for each other.

Cyclocross course laps are typically 7-10 minutes long for the leaders and with a vast spread of ability and races up to an hour in length, it's inevitable that some will end up getting lapped. It can often be quite heart warming when you're lapping riders, or even being lapped yourself, because the overtaking manoeuvre is often met by a heartfelt cheer from both the person doing the lapping and the person being lapped. "Keep going!" or "well done you're doing great!" can often give you the extra bit of motivation you need to keep pushing to the next obstacle, to pedal that little bit harder up a long grassy drag or to try and catch the rider in front of you.


Training for Cyclocross

Cyclocross racing certainly isn't plain sailing though. A typical CX course will have a multitude of different obstacles that even the fittest most seasoned road riders will struggle with if they're a total cyclocross newbie. Carrying your bike up stairs? Over 45cm hurdles? Getting off your bike and jumping back on again at least a couple of times per lap? All seem a bit alien? Here's a quick run down of some top skills to practice to improve your cyclocross racing.

Practice Starts

It may sound relatively simple. Push off, clip in and pedal away, right? If you watch the start of a cyclocross race, you'll be amazed by how fast the riders at the front start off. It's definitely the hardest part of the whole race, getting in front of as many other riders as you can to give you a clear run at the first technical sections. There can often be a ‘bottleneck’ narrowing of the course to some single track quite early on and it’s advantageous to avoid getting caught behind riders that may be slower than yourself. While it’s important to try and get yourself in a good position in the early stages of the race, it’s also quite a fine balancing act between going hard enough to start well and going too hard, resulting in you blowing up in spectacular fashion in the latter stages of the race.



One of the rules for race organisers creating a cyclocross course is that there must be at least one ‘dismount’ section per lap. This can take the shape of many things, from stairs to steep muddy banks to hurdles. Hurdles are the most common obstacle involved, essentially a couple of planks of wood spaced a few metres apart, between 20 and 45cm tall. Some riders will negotiate these barriers without dismounting their bike, some with more style than others. More seasoned cyclocross racers who have spent considerable time honing their skills will be able to ‘bunny hop’ the barriers in one fell swoop, with a simple jumping motion lifting their front wheel high in the are then lifting their back wheel before the front has hit the ground. I say simple, I most certainly can’t do it despite many hours of practicing! Most people that try to ride the barriers will slow down considerably and ride over them with unceremonious clunk that you would imagine can’t be doing their rims any good. However with the slowing in speed necessary to not cause damage to your wheels, it’s just as quick to get off the bike, pick it up and run over the hurdles, jump back on the other side and pedal away again.

Shouldering the Bike

If you’re running over hurdles, it’s pretty easy just to grab the bike by the handlebar and the top tube and carry it for a few steps. But if you’ve got a longer running section to negotiate, this definitely isn’t the most efficient way of carrying the bike. Steep banks and a flight of stairs require a longer period of time off the pedals and on your feet. The best way to carry the bike for sections like this is ‘shouldering’ the bike. This may sound a bit odd, but it does make sense! Cyclocross frames are mostly manufactured now with this specifically in mind, with a flat underside of the top tube to prevent it digging into your shoulder. Lift the bike up onto your shoulder, loop your hand underneath the downtube and grab hold of the handlebar and you’ve got a secure way of carrying the bike with spare hand free to keep your balance.


Mounting and Dismounting

A common theme here is that cyclocross definitely has more than its fair share of not cycling, for a bike race. With cyclocross being a winter sport, the conditions on the course can often get pretty muddy especially in the coldest months with the most rain. In some cases, particular sludgy bits of the course can be unrideable. Hurdles, stairs, thick mud are all cases where it’s either easier or necessary to get off your bike and run instead. There can be several running sections per lap, so it’s definitely in your best interest to get off the bike and back on it again as quickly as you can! If you’re new to cyclocross, the thought of jumping off the bike without actually coming to a stop, and then jumping back on the saddle in one swift motion, is quite an alien (and perhaps painful) thought. But with practice it does become easy!

Take on the Challenge

Cyclocross racing is certainly no walk in the park. But it is a lot of fun and a great way to keep fit over the cold winter months. The great thing about it is you really can just rock up and ride around and have some fun, no matter your skills level. But if you’ve got a competitive edge about you, get practicing your skills and you’ll be well on your way to becoming the next Sven Nys. You’ll probably fall off a few times and get muddy along the way, but it’s all part of the fun!

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