An Introduction to Cyclocross

Disclaimer: This may come as a shock to most of our reader base, but this story covers races involving skinny-tired bikes. If you can’t stand to see a bike with anything less than a 2-inch tire, click “back” now, as you may not be able to handle the words written below.

Somehow, I had not heard of cyclocross until a few years ago while I was following the internet cycling rabbit hole through its many twists and detours. I recall seeing a cyclist with what looked to be a road bike perched atop his shoulder, running up a hill, covered in mud. “Why didn’t that fool just ride a mountain bike?” I wondered. Regardless of my initial impressions upon seeing this wayward roadie’s sprint, the seed had been planted deep in my cycling psyche.

Here's a safety photo of a mountain biker, just in case you can't stand the sight of skinny tires
Here’s a safety photo of a mountain biker, just in case you can’t stand the sight of skinny tires

As I became more invested in cycling over the years, I never could forget the image of the mud-covered cyclist with the narrow tires. There had to be some reason for the masochism, some reason that he would have insisted on wearing a roadie kit while racing through a muddy field, some reason that he had shunned his mountain bike that day. I started researching this so-called “cyclocross,” and became intrigued by what I saw: droves of riders sprinting through what looked to be an obstacle course delineated and demarcated by drunkards, gracefully unclipping and leaping over barriers, then flinging themselves back over the saddle without the faintest pause.

After the ArcticMTB club’s race season ended, rather than seeing fellow riders grimacing and talking about how unbearable the off season’s going to be, I saw a spark in their eyes, a devilish grin, and heard talk about how they can’t wait for the first ‘cross race. I thought I’d try it out and see if all the hullabaloo was well-deserved. However, there was one minor detail–I had no bike to ride. Thanks to the wonders of social media, I had found my ride for the series within ten minutes of posting about my distinct lack of cyclocross bikes (thanks again, Katherine–you rock!) and was soon swapping pedals and getting ready for my first event.

A bit of a traffic jam at the barriers
A bit of a traffic jam at the barriers

Preparation

The cyclocross racer’s bike can be thought of as a burlier version of the road bike, as it keeps a similar shape but uses larger tubing diameters and geometry tailored to be fast across a variety of less-than-ideal terrain. The most important distinction between the cross bike and its estranged road-going cousin is the larger wheel clearances that allow riders to use wide, aggressively-treaded tires. For UCI-sanctioned races, the maximum tire width is 33mm, though most local events don’t adhere so strictly to the rulebook and one can often see 42mm or wider tires wrapped to riders’ wheels.

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Braking-wise, after an initially cold reception, the industry is now equipping more bikes disc brakes, though many still prefer using their trusty cantilever braking systems. Though every rider will have their preference on how a brake lever should actuate and how a pad should bite, one distinct advantage of a cantilever setup is its ability to quickly shed mud during racing.

A cyclocross bike by its very nature is simpler to setup compared to a mountain bike (unless you’re one of those crazies who prefer rigid singlespeeds), as there are no forks to preload or shocks to set sag on. All that was really needed to get the bike ready for its first event was to set the air pressure to around 45psi, adjust the saddle height, and make sure that the brake feel was dialed in. I also gave the bike a quick rinse, foolishly thinking that I would be able to keep it clean throughout the season.

As if the racing wasn't difficult enough, obstacles are added to the courses to keep things interesting. Sometimes, a T-Rex also makes an appearance to make things even more difficult.
As if the racing wasn’t difficult enough, obstacles are added to the courses to keep things interesting. Sometimes, a T-Rex also makes an appearance to make things even more difficult.

The main characteristic that differentiates cyclocross from both road and mountain bike racing is the addition of various unridable obstacles designed to force the rider off of the bike. Course designers for cyclocross seem to be cut from a much different cloth than those from other racing disciplines; it almost seems like their modus operandi is to throw as much at the rider as possible just so they can watch them flounder. Some may find these courses exercises in frustration, but many (including myself) find them to be hilariously fun. Obstacles that riders can look forward to facing include (but are not at all limited to) 10 inch barriers, unrideable steep hills, sand pits, and stairs.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at my first event, as I can’t say that I had spent much time off-roading a road bike and less time with trying to dismount and remount a bike with any amount of speed or finesse. After a short practice session running around a field and leaping on and off the bike, I felt that I was comfortable enough to crash an official event, and then found myself in the middle of the pack at the starting line. After a brief racers’ meeting covering all of the important aspects of the event (“There will be no handups, except if they are beer and bacon handups.”), each racer stood at the ready, with one foot clipped in, waiting for the starting bell to be rung. “What did I get myself into?” I wondered aloud.

A magnificently bearded cyclist deftly maneuvering through the infield
A magnificently bearded cyclist deftly maneuvering through the infield

The Race

As the cowbell-turned-starting bell clattered, the entire field of riders hurriedly tried to clip in and make their way to the front of the pack. The frantic mass start was much different than the comparably controlled starts that I had experienced during various road and mountain bike races–there seemed to be an overall feeling that everyone was in it for the fun of the sport, but still fully intended on turning their lungs inside out to win. It seemed appropriate, given how cyclocross seems to be full of contradictions–running with a bike, riding skinny tires off the road, praying for rain on race day–that everyone would be racing as hard as they could but without being serious.

A lovely day at the beach in Anchorage
A lovely day at the beach in Anchorage

Amidst the cat-calls, jeers, and whoops from both the racers and the spectators, a grin began creeping across my mud-speckled face and I found myself hollering right back. At the first barricade, I couldn’t help but feel a little schadenfreude at the sight of a pile of unfortunate racers who had just ever-so-slightly mistimed their jumps and found themselves entangled with each others’ bikes. Following the barriers, I found myself in a full sprint towards what I would shortly discover was an awfully-steep downhill slope. By the time I had clamped my brakes in an attempt to unsuccessfully control my speed, I had found myself having fits of laughter. After the hairy descent, a quick blast through a loose section of wet foliage led to an infield that could be best described as a labyrinth of course tape, lined by a cheering crowd with gracious handups at the ready for every rider.

Cyclocross is really nothing more than sanctioned, organized chaos and because of this, it can be summed up in just three letters: “fun.” After the first lap, I had realized that is the perfect way for cyclists to remind themselves of how much fun racing can and should be.

Trying to pick the fastest line though a steep, off-camber downhill section
Trying to pick the fastest line though a steep, off-camber downhill section

Who Should Try Cyclocross?

The appeal of cyclocross is pretty universal: there are bikes, mud, beers, and any number of other shenanigans, so who would have a good time at a cross race? Speaking honestly, anyone who is a fan of enjoying fun things is an ideal candidate for cyclocross racing. Think of a cross race as the rowdy office party where the mountain bikers and roadies finally socialize and find out that they’re actually all pretty cool and then start having more drinks and then things get out of hand and the cops get called so they all get on their bikes and take off… you get the picture. Essentially, all are welcome, and even if you don’t have a proper ‘cross bike, you’re more than likely going to be allowed to compete at your local race. In fact, several riders opted, in true Alaskan fashion, to use their fat bikes at all of the events, and still posted impressive results!

In this writer’s humble (and irrefutably true) opinion, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t get yourself out to a cyclocross event. Even if you don’t throw yourself into the mud, it’s easily one of the best types of cycling events to spectate. When you do opt to experience the race for yourself, don’t get all wrapped up in posting the fastest times or tell yourself that you need to get the latest and greatest carbon wonderbike; even if you don’t have a dedicated cross bike and all you have is a mountain bike, just get yourself out there and enjoy the ride. After all, isn’t that what riding bikes is all about?

Charging through the woods
Charging through the woods

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