With the success of Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel on the road racing scene, more focus has been shone on the discipline in which it all started for them – cyclo-cross. Involving a varying degree of fun, mud, and pain, it may look like a daunting sport from afar but once you get involved, you’ll be hooked.
What exactly is cyclo-cross? Well, cyclo-cross combines both off-road and on-road cycling so you can get the best of both worlds. Racing cyclo-cross involves a two-to-three-kilometre course across terrain like grass, pavement, woodland trails, steep hills and obstacles. Primarily done during the autumn and winter seasons, it’s a great way to hone your bike handling skills along with maintaining or improving your fitness during the colder months.
A simple guide to cyclo-cross:
- What is cyclo-cross? A discipline for all ages and skills involving a short course with riding and running across a mixture of different terrain
- What bike do I need? You will require either a cyclo-cross, mountain bike or gravel bike*
- What gearing do I need? Gearing will be lower than a road bike to deal with the differing terrain
- Will I need new tyres? Wider tyres cut through the mud and difficult terrain much easier
- Can I wear what I want? Whatever you want as long as you don’t mind it getting dirty
* if you are planning to race check your race organisers’ rules on bikes allowed
What equipment do I need?
Although the equipment looks very similar to that of road cycling there is a varying degree of change that makes all the difference. Many attributes of a cyclo-cross bike can be used in other disciplines too – like commuting or winter road riding.
Due to the ever-changing terrain of cyclo-cross, bikes have to be lightweight and strong; often produced from carbon fibre or alloy material that provide a good strength-to-weight ratio. Cyclo-cross bikes typically use an adapted frame geometry that allows for the bike to be easily lifted and carried over your shoulder. They also feature an increased bottom bracket height allowing extra clearance across the rugged terrain.
Look out for the following:
- Increased tyre clearance: Cyclo-cross bikes can go through a multitude of terrains like mud, sand and grass that can all get caught up around the frame and fork. The frame is designed for an increased clearance on the front and rear of the frameset allowing you to add larger volume tyres as well as stopping dirt and debris building up.
- Cyclo-cross specific geometry: With geometry designed for off-road riding, the relaxed angles give a more upright riding position to help soak up the shock and give you more control of the bike. On most cyclo-cross bikes there is added clearance from the downtube to the top tube to allow for riders to easily and comfortably position the bike over their shoulder whilst running.
- Relaxed riding position: Unlike road bikes that focus on aerodynamics and speed, a cyclo-cross bike is designed for control and comfort. A less steep headtube angle, higher bottom bracket and longer wheelbase ensures that the rider sits upright, reduces the risk of touching the front tyre when turning and stops the pedals from touching the ground.
The gearing on a cyclo-cross bike tends to be lower than that of a road bike to ensure the gearing can deal with the steeper terrain. In recent years, cyclo-cross gearing has seen a switch to single chainrings with wide cassettes, often 11-36 – a trend inspired by modern mountain bikes. This removes the need for a front derailleur, so less mud and debris build up. A single chainring setup will also reduce the chances of mechanical problems and provide a lighter system.
Unlike road bikes, cyclo-cross bikes often have cables routed inside the frame or along the top tube. This is designed to keep the mud out of the way of the gearing and allow you to keep shifting even when riding through the mud.
You may hear cyclo-cross riders have long debates or complaints about their tyre choice. With a wider tyre than that of road cycling, cyclo-cross tyres are generally between 30-40mm, allowing for more traction and better grip across the varying terrain. Manufacturers offer a wide variety of cyclo-cross tyres to suit dry hard trails/tarmac to wet and loose fields.
If you are racing, note that there are Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for cycling, regulations around tyre width. The UCI stipulates that all cyclo-cross bikes must be fitted with tyres of no more than 33mm width for use. Commissaires will check your tyre width at the start of a race therefore it is important you fit the correct tyre before competing. Don’t be put off however as it is important to check with your race organiser as different rules apply, many offer mountain bike races too.
Common amongst cyclo-cross racers are tubular tyres. An all-in-one unit that includes a tyre and tube that is glued to the rim, saving weight and can be run at a very low pressure in order to absorb the impact and reduce punctures.
Like all cycling disciplines, the transition to disc brakes has been slowly making its way into cyclo-cross. Disc brakes provide low maintenance and high-performance especially through muddy and wet conditions that often cyclo-cross riders will experience.
Clothing in cyclo-cross doesn’t vary much compared to other disciplines of cycling and is something that is down to personal preference. In recent years, the skinsuit has made an appearance as riders try to gain those valuable seconds, they are also excellent at keeping you warm and have no pockets to catch on your handlebars or pedals when lifting your bike.
The classic bib shorts/tights are often worn but personal preference is required with changing temperatures due to the time of year that the discipline gets popular. Coupling bib shorts/tights with your standard baselayer and jersey is more than enough to enjoy your ‘cross experience.
Base layers are important: it’s vital you adjust your baselayer according to the conditions. Unlike road riding you won’t be riding through miles of biting winds/headwinds so that’s something to consider. It’s important that you wear exactly what you will need during the race as you probably won’t have the time to take off any clothing during the race.
Most cyclo-cross riders will use clipless mountain bike pedals due to the amount of mud and running involved. Mountain biking shoes have recessed cleats and the ability to fit studs (yes like football boot studs) which allow you to run up those steep slippery banks. With the use of multi-sided pedals this allows you to easily clip in and unclip and will clear of mud easily.