Cyclecross For Mountain Bikers: My First CX Race

Cyclo-cross isthe fastest growing segment of competitive cycling in the country right now. Chances are, if you don’t race cross (as it’s also called, or, CX for short) you know a few people who do. So what’s it all about? Why are so many people racing skinny-tired, road bike-esque bikes off road? I recently set out to answer these questions myself, and when there was a local CX race, I showed up, pinned on a number, and tried it out.

It might just look like a bunch of roadies riding around someone’s front lawn, but cross is actually a ton of fun.

What is Cyclocross?

Cross is a multi-lap race around a short course that utilizes a variety of surfaces (pavement, gravel, grass, sand, dirt, etc) and usually contains some obstacles such as barriers and run ups (super steep climbs that are usuallyfaster to run rather than ride). They’re usually set up at a park, and rarely feature real singletrack.

A proper cross bike is sort of a mix between a mountain and road bike. They look like road bikes, with skinny tires and drop bars but the geometry is a little different, the gearing is a little lower, there’s clearance for mud, and the tires are wider than true road tires and they have some tread on them. The UCI (the governing body of professional cycling) has some restrictions on what sort ofbikes and componentscan be used at the pro level, but you’re not racing in a pro class, so don’t worry about it – your mountain bike is fine, even if it’s full suspension. Bar ends are not allowed however.

Augusta CX: The Course

The Augusta CX is part of the GA Cross Seriesandwas held at the Lake Olmstead park in Augusta andhosted by the Augusta Cross Coalition. Part ofthe coursewas on a baseball field (using both the infield and outfield), there was a little pavement across a parking lot and on a paved bike path, and part of the course was off road through a grassy area. There were two barriers, and lots of tight switchbacks to test your cornering confidence. There was one beast of a climb, not long, but really steep with some rocks and no momentum going into it. A lot of people walked it, and some fell over trying to ride it.

There was a lot of grip on the infield, as long as you stayed out of the rutted loose spots.

The Bike

I raced my geared mountain bike, which has a lot of parts on it I’m either testing or have already reviewed. I made very few changes. I did have to get rid of my wonderful Ergon grips because they have bar ends built in so I put some cheap foam grips on for the race. I put an extra few pounds of air in my tires (the Specialized Ground Control and Fast Trak) to speed up the paved sections and firmed up the Terralogic function on my fork by a few turns. The course was pretty smooth, so I was perfectly happy to sacrifice some smoothness for efficiency. I’m still getting used to the lighter weight Fulcrum wheels I recently installed, and that light weight was greatly appreciated at the ‘cross race where there are lots of tight switchbacks to accelerate out of.

The Race

At the start I lined up near the back of the group, figuring I’d wait a little while to see how things went before trying to move up. There were 27 of us in my class, and one of my co-racers was my friend Drew, also doing his first CX race. My goals were simple: don’t get hurt, and don’t let Drew beat me by too much.

Off the pavement and back into the grass. Photo: brianW

A countdown followed by a whistle got us started. All of us took off as hard as we could on the narrow course, elbow to elbow, wheel to wheel.Soon we got to a set of tight switchbacks; hard on the brakes, hard (but slow) right hander, one or two pedal strokes, brake, then a hard left. Someone crashed right in front of me going into the first switchback and I got stopped just before I monster-trucked over his rear wheel. Lucky him.

Trying to make a pass on the outside. Photo: brianW

Once underway I started working my way forward, picking off a rider here and there. When we hit the first paved section I put it in the big ring and hammered, and surprised myself when I passed a few people. Shouldn’t they be faster on the pavement with their skinny little tires? The paved section ended with another test of handling: hard diving left down the hillinto an off camber right handed u-turn back up the hill, then, back into the grass, into the rougher section of the course. My high volume mountain bike tires were an advantage on this section since I could more comfortably bomb the downs and carry more speed through the loose corners.

The Climb was really steep! I rode it every lap, but it really sucked the life out of me. Photo: Kim Jordan

When we reached The Climb I was behind a group of four, all of whom dismounted to run, but I rode the climb and passed them all. Then I immediately fell over at the the top, on the first bit of level ground. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I think my front wheel lifted slightly while I was torquing on the bars and mashing a pedal, and when the tire lifted the bike just swung out from under me. I bounced right up and got moving again; I think one person passed me back.

We did four laps (about 30 minutes total), and the pattern pretty much repeated itself. I would close in on people in the tight corners, and did most of my passing on the paved sections and going up The Climb. I rode The Climb each time, and managed to stay on my bike the rest of the race.

On the third lap I realized that I had closed in on Drew – he had gotten a better start than I did, but now there were only two people between us. There was also someone right on my wheel that I couldn’t seem to shake, a local named Mr. Johnson.You have to call him Mister because he is an older gentleman, about twice my age. He’s also a monster and routinely rides the legs off us younger folk. I met him at the Cohutta/Big Frog 65 a few years ago when he was using the race as training for the Leadville 100. I bonked and had the worst ride of my life, Mr. Johnson beat me by several hours, taking2nd in his class!

Mr. Johnson passed me, but I passed him back…and almost took us both out. I have no idea why I’m trying to lift my bike over my head to get over an 18″ tall barrier. Photo: Kim Jordan

Back to the cross race… he passed me a little before the barriers, but I was able to run him down (literally) through the barriers and then I almost took us both out when I fumbled the re-mount and swerved into his path – sorry about that, dude. Mr. Johnson was on me like white onrice for the entire 4th lap – I couldn’t get away! He got up next to me once or twice, butdidn’t go all the way around.Imanaged to get past the riders between me and Drew but Mr. Johnson stayed on my wheel the whole time.

I had Drew in my sights, but Mr. Johnson was right on my heels. Photo: brianW

When we hit the base of The Climb for the last time, Mr. Johnson was right next to me, and Drew was just ahead of us.Mr. Johnson dismounted and ran the climb, so I was able to (finally!) put some space between us for good, but I couldn’t catch Drew. Between The Climb and the finish he pulled away. I finished in 12th place out of 27. I made it into the top half and I was super stoked with how the race went overall.

When Mr. Johnson opted to run The Climb I was finally able to but some distance between us. Not sure I could have held him off if he had ridden The Climb. Photo: brianW

Afterthoughts

The race was a blast. It was short, and high intensity the whole time, riding wheel to wheel at high speeds through tight corners – a total rush! You’re either pedaling as hard as possible or pushing your luck in a corner, trying to maintain as much speed as your tires will allow. Luckily for me this particular course didnt really favor a cross bike over a mountain bike. The cross bikes were a little faster on the baseball field section, where the lower rolling resistance and quicker acceleration out of tight corners was an advantage. But on the other half of the course my mountain bike seemed quicker. It was rougher and there was less grip in the corners, so having bigger, knobbier tires helped. The extra traction and lower gearing were an advantage on The Climb as well. I thought I would be at a disadvantage on the pavement, but that didnt seem to work out. I think the fact that no one passed me on the pavement, yet I passed several people, speaks volumes to the rolling speed of the Specialized Ground Control and Fast Trak tires.

Cross courses are really compact, which makes them very spectator friendly since much of the action can be viewed from a single location.

The atmosphere at the race was great, everyone was having a good time, and no one was taking it too serious. It was just good plain fun. Cross races are really spectator friendly, so there was always someone there cheering you on, and when youre not racing you can watch one of the other classes. Besides being fun, its also a great way to work on your bike handling skills. There was nothing technical, but being able to corner hard was a big advantage, and there were lots of opportunities to work on that skill. Cross season is winding down, but you can probably still find a race nearby to try out if youre interested. And if you enjoy riding your bike, pushing yourself physically, and hanging with bike people, cross is right up your alley, so give it a shot. If you’re not so sure about racing, at least go and watch a race, it really is good fun.

A racer hangs his head in pain as he hits the pavement.

Have you ever done a ‘cross race? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Big thanks to Ross and the entire Augusta Cross Coalition for putting on a great race, and brianW and Kim for the photos.

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