How do I start cyclo cross?

Written by: Tim Costello, 13 August 2008 Last updated: 16 December 2010

Who should read this?

This article is intended for anyone interested in trying cyclo-cross for the first time.

What is cyclo-cross?

Cyclo-cross - a mix of off-road, on-road and acrobatics.

Cyclo-cross is a winter sport that used to be used by summer roadmen as a means of keeping fit during winter. Nowadays riders have tended to specialise so that whilst riders do compete in both, it tends to be the specialists who do best. There has also been quite a crossover between mountain biking and cyclo-cross.

In Belgium, particularly, it is a huge winter sport drawing massive crowds and prime time TV coverage.

But what is it? Cyclo-cross races last a maximum of one hour and will cover the same circuit for up to 10 laps. Most of the course will be off-road with a short on-road section and usually a section where you have to run. Cyclo-races go flat out from the start and are very intensive. Think of it as a muddy criterium or a time trial with mud and bends.

What skills does a cyclo-cross rider need?

Jumps are often a feature of cyclo-cross courses Photograph copyright Dennis Sacket

To be a good cyclo-cross rider you need to be able to sustain a near maximum effort for an hour, have good bike handling skills, be acrobatic so you can leap on and off your bike quickly and also be a good runner.

Don't worry, however, if you don't meet all these criteria. Cyclo-cross is a great sport for beginners. It's easy to enter, it doesn't really matter how quick you are, as you will always find someone your own pace to race against and your efforts will be encouraged no matter where you finish.

Probably the greatest skills you will require initially are perseverence, determination and a sense of humour when you end up face down in thick mud.

Am I ready to start racing?

Unlike road racing, where you need a minimum level of fitness to compete, you just have to be able to ride non-stop for an hour. Cyclo-cross is much more like running where the field quickly spreads out and small groups of riders will have their own personal battles. If you get lapped you just carry on until the leaders finish so you only do as many laps as you can within the hour.

As you will almost inevitably find you will have to get off and run at some point it's worth practising running and leaping on and off your bike. Other than that, the best way to learn is to enter some events.

What sort of bike do I need?

In the early season events when the ground is hard and dry you could get away with using a normal road bike with some cyclo-cross tyres. As soon as the ground gets soft and boggy you'll need a bike that has greater clearances between the frame and tyres otherwise you'll clog up with mud and grind to a halt.

You can use mountain bikes in all but the top events. They are fine for the Wessex and London League events.

A proper cyclo-cross bike, which is what must competitors use, is much like a road bike, but with wider clearances, cantilever brakes and knobbly tyres.

You'll find second hand bikes for sale on eBay and all the usual places, but complete bikes new are not that expensive. As with all things cycling you can, if you wish to, spend a small fortune.

A serious rider will have two bikes so that he can swop bikes mid race whilst his helper cleans the spare.

Any sort of road wheel will do as the softer ground is fairly forgiving. You can use clinchers quite happily, but you'll notice the top racers go for tubulars. When it is very slippery you need to run your tyres really flat (about 30 psi). Tubulars are much less likely to suffer pinch flats.

What should I wear?

You must wear a helmet which is standard for all British Cycling registered events.

You can wear normal cycling kit, but you'll notice that many riders wear skinsuits. It might seem a bit odd to wear something quite thin for winter racing, but there are advantages. Being tight fitting and one-piece there is less opportunity for it to snag on branches or for mud to find its way through any gaps.

Personally I use a long sleeve skin suit which means that when it is cold I can wear a thicker long sleeve undervest.

You'll need mountain bike shoes and pedals so that you can run in them. Studs fitted to the front of the shoes give extra grip. Popular pedals are SPDs, Time Atacs and Egg Beaters. SPDs tend to clog up more with mud so Atacs and Egg Beaters are better.

Where can I race?

Most of the events take place in parks or the grounds of schools, although one uses the grounds of a mental health establishment. There are two leagues that promote events that can be considered local: the Wessex League and the London League.

The Wessex League covers everything from Swindon in the West to Southampton in the East and as far north as Oxford. There are usually a number of events in the Southampton area.

The London League covers from Lancing in West Sussex to Kent and up to outer London.

You'll find all of the events for the South, South-East and South-West on the British Cycling website.

How do I enter and how much will it cost?

Apart from the top events, you can only enter on the line. You don't have to be a member of British Cycling, but it's a bit cheaper if you are.

Wessex League events cost £10 for seniors and juniors, £5 for under 16s and £1 for under 12s.

London League events are £12 for seniors, £7 for juniors, £5 for under 16s and £1 for under 12s.

If you are not a member of British Cycling it costs seniors and juniors an extra £3 per race

What happens during the race?

It's always best to ride around the course a few times if you can so you can avoid any nasty surprises.

When you are called to the start you will find the race is gridded so that the faster riders are at the front. If it's your first race you'll be gridded at the back. Once you are told it's the start you just keep riding as hard as you can until you hear the lovely sound of the bell and you know it's only one lap to go.

You might get lapped during the race so listen out for riders coming up behind you. It's usual for a rider who is being lapped to move over and make sure they don't impede riders who are a lap ahead.

After the race is over don't be afraid to chat to other riders and try to learn about different techniques and equipment.

Most of all - enjoy yourself!

Where can I get more help and advice?

You can ask me, Tim Costello, how I have gate crashed into cyclo-cross with immediate success. Or, more honestly, I can explain what I have learnt in two mediocre years which will help you to avoid the most basic mistakes. You can also invest in the "Cyclocross Training + Technique" which was written by Simon Burney who is the GB cyclo-cross team manager. Make sure you get the third edition which came out in 2007. Simon also has a blog.

The Wessex League organise evening training at Southampton Sports Centre from late August.