When I first considered racing CycloCross (CX), it appeared to offer an interesting format that could extend training through the winter months. This seems to be a common reason for trying the sport and at the roots of its origin in Europe. But I soon discovered CX was a very different animal, both when compared to traditional road racing and the popularized imagery of CX as a raucous environment of beer hand-ups and costumes. Along my short CX journey, I have: fallen off my bike, a lot; left races with bloody scrapes and bruises; learned to re-purpose public parks and open spaces for training grounds; developed new friendships; advanced my bike handling skills (a continuing odyssey); and discovered a unique racing culture brimming with camaraderie, esprit de corps, and yes, the occasional beer and donut hand-up.
Through the lens of these accumulated experiences, I wanted to share my perspective with fellow road racers that might be interested or are considering racing CX. Keep in mind this also comes from having no prior background in any kind of MTB or off-road riding. With that said, let me begin:
What is CX racing like? I often describe it as road racing meets MTB meets steeplechase. The course layout is somewhat like a criterium in that you repeat relatively short laps over a 40min to approximately 60min race. The course is laid out over varying terrain features and conditions, interspersed with obstacles that often force you to get off the bike and carry it. The obstacles are typically some combination of sand pits, mud pits, hill run ups, sequential steeplechase like barriers, and stairs. The course lane is narrow and fenced with ground stakes and construction tape. A course evolves within a race, and over the course of a race day, as lines get progressively rutted or loose, wet grass is torn up to reveal wet or sticky mud, and frost and snow melts.
So what is different from road racing? First, where a bunch sprint finish often determines the top places in a road race or crit, in CX, the starting sprint often plays a similar role. Unlike a road race where you strategically conserve energy by drafting and efficiently migrating up through the peloton to achieve a critical break away or sprint finish, you go full gas sprint out of the gate in CX (this is also known as making the “hole shot”). Racers are first lined up in an 8 column starting grid. Your position in that grid is usually determined by your USAC CX racing rank. Approximately 10 minutes before the start, you are “called up” to your respective position on the grid. Any remaining racers are then allowed to free-form line up behind those called up.
Unlike most road races I participated in, CX fields are large. In particular there are no age distinctions(SM and above) in cat 5 CX. Everyone is lumped into SM 5. Field sizes are often 50 to 75 racers deep! Now imagine going from an 8 rider width (shoulder to shoulder) short distance starting lane, quickly narrowing down to a 2 to 3 rider width lane course for the remainder of the race, combined with terrain conditions and features that effectively further narrow the navigable space down to a single line or track width. Now imagine imagine trying to pass 50 to 60 riders, single file, over the course of the race in narrow lanes or treacherous technical cornering environments. Do not miss your call up and get as far up as you can during the sprint start!
And at the average speeds of CX there is little to no drafting. Although I sometimes catch myself reflexively “drafting” or pacing someone to attempt to “recover”, in CX there is very little opportunity for recovery. You are basically going full gas redline the entire race. It hurts. It has been the most physically demanding discipline I have raced. And unlike time trialing, there is no evenly metered power output. It is more like a crit with never ending high intensity bursts of power. And what is deceptive about the race is that you are often hitting red lines on the aerobic system before your power limits, at least that has been my experience. Part of that is because of the demands on your body when you have to transition off and on the bike due to obstacles. In some of my past road races, I have thought,”I can’t wait to get off this bike” because I was so redlined or tired. In CX, I dread having to get off the bike because it hits your body and aerobic system hard. Imagine racing redlined and then having to jump off your bike, engage a very different set of muscle groups, run while carrying you and your bike over or up obstacles in clog like bike shoes, jump back on your bike and then do it all over again with an adjacent set of obstacles. It is unbelievably taxing. Don’t go to the light, stay on the bike! Having said that, there are many situations where getting off the bike and running around slow or bottle necked groups of racers or over obstacles is faster than trying to do it on the bike. That is a strategic decision based on the race situation. I can’t think of a road race where I said, “I can’t move through this peloton, let me jump off the bike and carry it around them to move up a couple of places.”
CX is equipment intensive, much more so than road racing. That shouldn’t stop you from trying the sport. But if you progress to more competitive categories and venues, you will likely end up with multiple wheel sets, tire combinations, and even spare pit bikes (not wheels) for entire mid-race swap outs. And to further complicate things, there is an evolving set of standards that must be considered: thru axle vs quick release, canti vs disc brake, 6 bolt vs Centerlock disc rotor attachment, and tubular vs tubeless tire setups. Most of these standards haven’t made it into mainstream road racing bikes. From my entry level racing perspective, disc brakes are nice but not critical. But if you are going disc (it is almost impossible to find a new release bike without them) then definitely consider thru axle, although it is becoming the de facto standard. Also consider the corrosive CX racing conditions. I wouldn’t get caught up in ultra high end components that will be subjected to corrosive environments and abuse over the course of a season, and offer relatively low performance gains.
And what about the bike frame? Certainly it has to be carbon, right? Most serious competitive road racers would immediately dismiss an alloy frame. I will suggest carbon is nice, but not critical, at least for a first season of cat 5 CX racing. Looking back, I could have saved some money by purchasing an alloy frame and used the savings to purchase more or better wheel sets, which have significantly more impact on race outcomes. This brings me to tire profiles, pressures, and format.
In CX it is largely about tire pressure and tread profile. The desired tire deflection and associated contact patch for typical CX terrain often implies low pressures, below 30psi. What road racer has purposely ridden at 30psi? Albeit these pressures are for 32+mm tire widths. The lower your bike and body weight, the lower the pressure needed to allow the desired deflection. So for a rider like myself, at a relatively low weight of 140 lbs, pressures get even lower, potentially down to 17 or 18psi. That’s where a lot of the tubular vs tubeless debate comes in. As a show of hands, how many road racers run tubular tire setups? I suspect a virtual hand or two at best is raised.
As you may know, both tubular and tubeless offer a specific benefit for low pressure tire setups: pinch flat avoidance. The downside to tubeless is that it can spontaneously evacuate all tire pressure, “burp”, when experiencing significant force inputs at the tire bead interface. This is usually an increasing risk below 25 psi, depending on wheel and tire combinations. Now let me say a word about tubulars: they are awesome. I am not completely convinced that there is as dramatic handling improvement as purported over modern tubeless. But specifically for my weight, they let me get down to a much lower pressure without the fear of “burping” a tire or the squirm of a tubeless tire.
The first time I rode with tubulars I instantly “felt” the difference. It was like going from a jeep to a cadillac in terms of road feel. Our awesome Pedal CX team captain, Gary Mullins, reflected, “Tubular wheels in CX are the equivalent of aero wheel upgrades for road racing.” They also allow for a lighter overall wheelset weight. The downside is that tubular tires are expensive, they must be glued up to the wheel (a bit of an art), and therefore effectively eliminate the ability to readily swap out tires with different profiles to match course terrain. I think the last point is less critical. I run a tread profile that is an all arounder for most terrain. I don’t think I have raced a course that offered one singular terrain profile, so I don’t think the advantage of specialized tire tread profiles is as critical. But it certainly can help in some instances. And from a road racing perspective, I am now considering picking up a lower cost carbon or alloy wheelset for running tubulars in criteriums.
CX season in Colorado runs through a sometimes unpredictable fall to winter climate. Cat 5 races are usually the first race or two of the day, so that means a typical race start of 8am. That’s not so problematic at the beginning of the season, but it can mean a 20ish deg F early morning warm-up as the year winds down. Now combine that with the strong potential of contacting wet to muddy terrain or ambient conditions, while going from 0 to redline threshold racing mode. Cold + wet = sucks. Suffice it to say you will also end up carrying a multitude of clothing options to span unpredictable ambient conditions, along with the worst case need for a separate set of clothing for pre-ride warm-up, racing, and post race beer drinking/hanging out. I see a lot of racers going with single piece skin suits to minimize interference with on and off bike transitions, as well as heat retention for cold weather environments.
While many road racers would jump on the trainer during a snowy, sub 30F day, many CX racers relish riding in that environment (I’m not yet sure if I fall into that later category). While I haven’t experienced the most severe part of the season, one cold weather advantage to CX is that you are not pushing 25mph+ road speeds. Therefore, the effective wind chill is often reduced compared to outdoor training for road season.
If there is one area that is simultaneously critical to race wins and largely foreign to the pure road racer, technical CX skills are probably it, at least from my experience and talking with other cat 5s. I feel this is less constraining, if someone has a strong MTB background. There are a number of technical skills, largely aligned with the course conditions and obstacles in a typical CX race: jumping barriers (on and off bike transitions and sometimes bunny hopping), riding sand pits, riding mud pits, running with and carrying the bike, running up stairs, choosing lines, technical turns (e.g. off camber, 180 hairpins, rough or slick descents into turns, etc), and general bike handling over varied terrain and road conditions. Now throw in the mix of changing ambient conditions of snow, ice, or wet, and you have a large set of course permutations that require specific and varied skill sets during a single race (“CX racing is boring” said no one, ever).
When I started practicing for CX, I thought to myself, “I’m a pretty good bike handler. I can handle high speed turns in crits, I’m ok at descending, and I have avoided some near race wreck catastrophes by smart bike handling over road hazards or around adjacent racers. In fact, I have never come off the bike during road training or racing. I’m good here.” WRONG!!! I started finding out that I was wrong early on. CX whipped out its pimp hand and gave me a hard slap to the ground (figuratively and literally). It turns out I had very limited bike handling skills when it came to the challenging terrain and course features of CX. I started out practicing aggressively, with poor technique, in loose dirt conditions. I came off the bike many times with lots of lovely road rash as evidence. There was then a negative reinforcement in future attempts that caused me to timidly approach technical turns and conditions. It was a downward spiral into mid pack finishes at best. I should have spent much more upfront time in structured technical practice, working up my confidence towards more difficult features, like staring down a steep descending sequence of switchback, hairpin 180 off-camber turns, covered in loose dirt and rock or ultra slick grass.
And what can be more challenging is how your handling skills can degrade over the race, as you hit cumulative fatigue loads. Transitions off your bike, one legged, while simultaneously running and then jumping over a barrier can be affected when your muscles are overloaded and don’t have earlier reactions times. Even straightforward technical turns can get out of hand as you lose the ability to effectively absorb or react to bumps and wheel slides. You can suddenly find yourself off the bike. In fact, CX keeps its pimp hand strong at all times to remind you that no one is immune from course conditions and fatigue (humor intended).
Fortunately we have some terrific leadership on the team with Gary Mullins as CX team captain and our newly elected President, Dan Schrad. Both have been incredibly helpful in CX coaching and tips. Thank you both for devoting the time and effort to support the less experienced. This is a never ending journey for myself, and I still have much more to go. But I do feel like I am beginning to master enough of the skill sets where it isn’t my race limiter, at least until I upgrade to a more competitive category.
And if all else fails, consider the words of the character, Charles De Mar, from the movie “Better Off Dead.” As Lane Myer stood poised atop the treacherous K-12 ski slope, Charles looked down with him and offered the following guidance: “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”
I won’t spend a lot of time here other than to say, CX is often described as the perfect “working person’s” discipline. Because of the short duration of CX races you don’t often require the same amount of training hours that you might do for road racing. A number of training programs contain a couple of days of threshold training, a rest day or two, and skills training. I’m still not certain how impactful CX racing/training will be for my road season given that CX season winds down in December, which leaves January through March for road training transition. I guess I will find out. I do think that CX bike handling skills will carry over to road racing, and I expect the cumulative training load of CX to be there as well.
COME OUT AND WATCH A RACE
My earlier comments may seem to suggest that CX is a challenging, complicated, and difficult to master discipline. I think there is some truth to that. But I will also say it is one of the most forgiving disciplines for cat 5 racers. Yes, you may come off the bike. But you are likely doing so at low speeds in grass, or relatively softer dirt (it still hurts). There are races each weekend and lots of cat 5 riders all in the same early phases of development. I have raced as many CX races in the last month and a half, as I did the entire road season. You will not be alone in this journey and will have many opportunities to improve. And with this, I have experienced a significant level of camaraderie among fellow racers, significantly more than during the road season. I have developed friendships and acquaintances with multiple racers from other teams. In CX, at least at cat 5, there is limited “team strategy.” Everyone is ultimately experiencing the same individual pain and challenges and that shared experience draws people together.
While it seems the “seriousness” of competition has started to settle in to CX, there is still a festival element to events. I haven’t witnessed massive hordes of costumed hecklers and party goers evident in earlier eras of CX racing, but there are still bacon, beer, and donut hand-ups for racers. The overall culture of CX seems more open and inviting than what I experienced during road season. Road racing just seems to exude more competitive tension and seriousness. I think part of the culture difference stems from the immersive experience that comes from centralized viewing areas, purposely built in to CX course layouts. Even compared to its closest road cousin, criteriums, course layouts allow spectators to move “within” the race. Unlike crits, where you are typically at the periphery of a course with a few second window of racers whizzing by until the next pass, CX courses undulate in and around viewing areas that allow watching significant portions of the race by simply turning around. The lower race speeds also give you a birds eye view of racers handling technical obstacles along with supportive cheering (or heckling) and cowbells (did you know that cowbells sound a lot like the last lap bell, watch the lap counter). And Gary seems to strategically locate our team tent next to the Tenderbelly Oskar Blues team tent. The smell of freshly grilling bacon handups, Voodoo donuts, and chests of Oskar Blues beers is an alluring combination. And beyond those delicacies, food trucks and bike industry vendors will often setup tents around the race venue.
So if you aren’t ready to dive headlong in to a CX race, come out and watch one! You’ll have the chance to enjoy the company of teammates and their families, cheer on fellow racers, get an up close look at all phases of a typical CX race, and talk with other CX racers about their experiences. And this doesn’t just have to be for yourself. Bring your family along. There are a ton of junior riders that participate in these races, from kids on strider bikes to young teenagers. I often see a parent and child with numbers pinned on, both ready to tackle the same course (I’m pretty sure the beer hand-ups go offline during the junior races). While I am still a neophyte, a young padawan learner in this CX journey, I have zero regrets signing up and committing to CX racing this season. That feeling comes as much from the on-bike racing experience and associated challenges, as the off-bike CX community experience. Come out and discover CX for yourself!