Newbie's Guide to Cyclocross
For most of us in Central Texas, the cyclocross season ended with the Texas State Age & Skill Based Championships in Georgetown, TX. This was my first season racing cross, so I thought I’d take a crack at writing a guide for people thinking about getting into it. Cyclocross is an incredibly fun, completely insane sport. If you’re thinking about racing hopefully this will help.
I can only speak to my own experiences, so the following advice pertains to local USAC races in Texas. Other races may be similar, they may not be. The usual disclaimers apply - I am not an expert, take all of this with a grain of salt. Also keep in mind that I placed in the bottom 50% in every race I entered this year - I’m here to tell you how to survive and have a lot of fun, I cannot give you any advice on how to win!
Before your first cyclocross race, try going to a skills clinic or two. As the season nears, keep an eye out for clinics organized by your local bike shop or cycling club. This isn’t strictly necessary (A lot of people who regularly beat me never attended a clinic) but I found it helpful.
I was lucky enough to catch one put on by none other than Katie F’n Compton organized by the Texas Cyclocross Project. Katie discussed topics like choosing tires, tire pressure, race strategies as well as various cornering scenarios. We practiced a lot of cornering, riding off-camber and did a bit of riding on sand. I fell a few times, learned that riding off-camber is really f’in hard, and left feeling a lot more confident on my bike.
If you can’t attend a clinic in your area, go to a park and practice mounting, dismounting, run-ups, starts and riding off-camber. You’ll want to see people do this stuff properly - YouTube is your friend.
After you’ve attended a skills clinic you’ll probably want to ride as often as you can. Most local cycling clubs that cater to CX will host a weekly practice. Talk to folks, look at club Facebook pages, event listings, etc and find one that’s open for anyone to join. In Austin, Bicycle Sports Shop have practices on Wednesday evenings and Embros Bicycle Club have one on most Sunday mornings. Double check those days / times - they might change next year.
Practices, like shop rides, are a great way to learn from more experienced riders and meet people in your local cycling community.
YouTube / GoPro
GoPros are a blessing for those of us who are too nervous, lazy, busy or poor to experience something firsthand. I found it really helpful to watch GoPro videos on YouTube from people who have raced certain courses in previous years. My first race of the season was the Cyclocross Scuffle in Elgin, TX and searching YouTube paid off.
If you want to see what winning a race looks like check out Brandon’s video of the Cat 4/5 race at BSS Six Shooter this year.
What to wear
People talk about skinsuits for cyclocross. I wouldn’t bother. Just some bib shorts and a jersey will do. Do invest in some decent full fingered gloves with some padding though - you’ll be grabbing lots of things (beer, your bikes downtube, your top tube, beer) and you’ll want some padding when you’re on your brake hoods. Other than that, regular cycling attire will do - sunglasses included. You probably won’t need a water cage - if it’s hot and you need water, just stick a bottle in your jersey pocket. Water cages make throwing your bike on your shoulder a little harder anyway.
Registering for your First Race
Okay, so you’re ready to race, now what? In Texas, local races can be found on bikereg.com, txbra.org/events and a few other places. You can pre-register or you can usually show up the day of the race and register onsite. I’d go ahead and pre-register — it’ll be cheaper and some races use pre-registration dates to help determine your starting position.
To participate in a USAC sanctioned race you’ll need a USAC license. You can either buy a one-day license for this specific race or get yourself an annual one. If you know you’ll be doing more than one race in a season you might as well get the annual license. You’ll save money and there are other perks, like being able to use the USAC app and track your race history online. Also, you’ll never get bumped up in categories if you don’t have a regular license.
You might wonder what all these categories mean. All you need to know is that men start at Category 5 and women start at Category 4. You can read more about Cyclocross Categories on the USAC website.
Once you have your license, go ahead and register for your first Men’s Cat 4/5 or Women’s Cat 3/4 race.
Get your Race Number
I’ve participated in running races and triathlons in the past, so was used to showing up just 10-15 minutes before my race begins. Cyclocross isn’t like that. You want to show up early enough to be able to pre-ride the course and pick up your race number. Before you do anything else, find the registration area and show them your USAC license number and some id. You’ll get your race number and some safety pins. Your race number goes on your right with the bottom of the number closer to your stomach (so race officials can easily read it).
Watch a Race & Pre-Ride
I like to show up a few hours before my race starts. You get a chance to chat with people, scout the course, pre-ride and watch another race. A lot of the races will have Men’s Cat 4/5 racing later in the day so if you’re lucky you can catch the pro races to see how it’s supposed to be done.
There’s usually 10-15 minutes between races. If you time it right, you can get on the course and do a pre-ride lap. This is super useful especially on technical courses. You can get a feel for the more technical parts and see if you need to make any adjustments to your tire pressure. I also use the pre-ride to decide if I’m going to ride or run some parts of the course.
You’ll fall. Don’t worry about it.
Heckling is a big part of cyclocross. Consider it mental training - you’ll nail that 20th place finish despite their attempts to phase you!
You’ll probably have some mechanical trouble during your season. I had a rear derailleur malfunction that resulted in me shifting my chain into my wheel at Six Shooter and I had some trouble with my crank after a crash at Webberville. I’m not looking to podium, so whatever – but some people will keep a spare set of wheels or even a spare bike in the pit for things like this. In that event, you’ll get your broken bike to the pit (you may have to run for a good bit of a lap) and swap out what you need.
This is also where I’ll suggest you get to know the mechanics at your local bike shop. Having a good local with friendly people who care about their customers is really important when you’re gonna mess up your bike on the regular. It’s also a good idea to get your bike checked out a few times during the season just to make sure things like spoke tension are good - cross takes a toll on your bike. I’m lucky enough to live close to Cycleast and Russell, Jacob, Blake and Jarod all helped me out in some way this season. They also built me some amazing wheels for my cross bike. If you’re in Austin, consider giving them your business.
Surviving 30 Minutes of Hell
Cyclocross races are 30-60 minutes of hell. This isn’t like triathlon or a stage race where you pace yourself, it’s going to be full on for the duration of the race if your fitness allows it.
Prepare for this if you can. Do interval work and threshold training during training rides. In Texas most races will be hot (this is supposed to be a winter sport, right?!) so acclimate to the heat through the summer. Running helped me out here. My first race had 11 people DNF (did not finish), so it’s not uncommon for people to get caught off guard by the heat. It’s rough, for sure.
To drive the point in, here’s my heart rate on a regular 25 mile training ride:
And here’s my heart rate at this years Cross of Ages Cat 4/5 race:
So yeah, expect to floor it for the duration of the race.
About 10-15 minutes before the race begins, you’ll want to get to the staging area. Just look for where the crowd of cyclists are gathering near the start. The race director may or may not go over a few things before the race (confirm the time, number of laps, etc). A few minutes before the race they’ll start doing call-ups. These are usually based on USAC rankings and pre-registration time. After the last call-up, they’ll say “everyone else”. If this is your first race, this will probably be you. One of the hardest things about this sport is getting over your starting position - just focus on picking people off one at a time if you can.
Barriers are one of the most common obstacles on a cross course. These are usually roughly 30 - 40cm wood stands. Some rare creatures are capable of bunny hopping these - if you’re able to get this down, it’ll definitely help shave some seconds and get some oohs and aahs from the crowd. For the rest of us mere mortals, you’ll want to swing your leg over your bike, dismount and jump over the barriers carrying your bike like a suitcase, then remount. As with most things, YouTube is your friend here. Also practice. Lots of practice. My worst crash of the season was the result of coming in too hot to some barriers at Webberville CX. I couldn’t find my balance when my feet hit the ground and I went crashing bike first into the ground, bending my crank. That sucked.
Most courses will have one or two steep hills you have to get up. The general rule of cyclocross is: do whatever is fastest. If you can ride the hill and get traction and this is the quickest way, do that. If you can’t, you’ll want to dismount, throw the bike on your shoulder and run up the hill. There’s a specific way to hold your bike that involves putting your arm under the down tube and grabbing your handlebars. Obligatory YouTube link.
Here’s me running up a hill at Six Shooter this year, holding my bike the wrong way:
Other skills you’ll want to practice are cornering, riding off camber and dealing with things like ditch crossings. Cornering especially is an extremely important skill - the main advice I can give is keep your head up, look where you want to go and use your bodyweight. You can shave a second off every turn if you get good at this. It’s the thing I struggle with the most and I often find myself stumbling or riding into the tape on sharper turns.
Handups were a surprise to me. As I mentioned, my first race was the Cyclocross Scuffle in Elgin, TX and it was 100F. I’d raced triathlons before where outside help is a big no-no, but I noticed all these people holding out cups along the course. After crashing in a ditch, I got my bike up and decided to take one of the cups thinking it was water - chugged it and to my surprise discovered that it was actually beer! At first I thought this was a terrible idea (beer dehydrates you!) but it was actually lovely and I think it gave me a bit of a boost. Handups are your friend, especially when you’re losing anyway.
Beware though - at Georgetown I grabbed a cup of something, chugged it and realized it wasn’t beer at all, but pickle juice with some kind of alcohol. That was gross - I was so happy when someone handed me beer later on the course.
Cyclocross can be a bit intimidating at first, but hopefully some of what I’ve put here will help you out. It’s an amazingly fun and crazy sport and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who likes riding a bike and is at least a little crazy.
Photo Credits: Corvin Alstot & Jim Hicks