Beginner’s guide to cyclo-cross – part four: CX kit essentials

What do you need to race cyclo-cross?

What with the Christmas break, there’s not been much cyclo-cross racing since my last outing at Ford Manor Farm. I’ve entered the penultimate round of the London Cyclo-Cross League this weekend but, before that, I thought I’d use the start of the new year to run you through some of my kit choices.

It’s pretty easy to start cyclo-cross racing. The main thing you need is a bike – obviously – and most local league races will permit mountain bikes, so you don’t even need a dedicated cyclo-cross machine to get going. A hardtail mountain bike will work, and I’ve seen someone on a full-suspension MTB, but needless to say, a cyclo-cross bike is best suited to the demands of CX racing. If you haven’t yet seen the Ridley X-Night Disc I’m riding, make sure you take a look.

Beyond a bike, what do you need to race cyclo-cross?


Shimano Deore XT M8000 SPD pedals

Besides a suitable bike, the main thing road riders making the switch to cyclo-cross will need is a set of mountain bike pedals. Why not just use your road pedals? Put simply, both the pedal and cleat will quickly get clogged in mud.

There’s no shortage of mud in cyclo-cross races – it is a winter sport, after all – and even courses that start the day green will quickly get churned up by knobbly tyres unless it’s bone dry out there. SPD pedals are designed to shed mud and the simplified cleat mechanism works far better in sticky conditions. Also, unlike most road pedals, SPDs are double-sided so it’s easier to clip-in quickly.

Mountain bike pedals are designed to handle plenty of mud

If you’re just starting out, there’s nothing wrong with using trainers and flat pedals – that combination will also give you a bit more confidence if you’re worried about slipping on muddy corners or crashing – but otherwise clipless pedals will improve your efficiency on the bike.

I’ve been using a set of Shimano Deore XT M8000 SPD pedals I pinched from a gravel bike. As someone who is new to cyclo-cross racing, weight isn’t all that important to me, but these aren’t going to trouble the scales too much at 340g and entry/exit has proved easy enough on the muddy courses I’ve encountered so far.

Shimano S-Phyre XC9 and Shimano XC5 shoes

Off-road pedals need off-road shoes, which will have a treaded sole to house the recessed cleat, as well as the option to fit studs. Both will make life far easier when you inevitably have to get off the bike in a race. Try running up a muddy bank in your slick, carbon-soled road shoes – if you eventually make it to the top, good luck clipping in again.

I’ve been alternating between two pairs on the ‘cross bike. Admittedly, the S-Phyre XC9 shoes (£319.99) are a little over the top for local cyclo-cross races but we had a pair knocking around in the RCUK office, but the XC5s, which are a new addition to the Shimano range, are a bit more realistic at £119.99.

Shimano’s XC5 (left) and S-Phyre XC9 (right) shoes sport very different designs, but are equally effective for cyclo-cross newbies

Bearing the name of Shimano’s flagship S-Phyre apparel range, the XC9s are all-out race shoes and that’s reflected in the carbon fibre sole, ranked 11 out of 12 on Shimano’s stiffness scale, as well as the two micro-adjustable Boa dials. The centre and rear of the outer sole is covered in grippy Michelin rubber and there are enough lugs to provide a firm hold on slippery stuff.

I actually called in the XC5 to test for gravel riding – Shimano calls it a ‘multi-surface’ shoe – but it’s found its way onto the cyclo-cross start line and that’s testament to its versatility. The XC5 has a carbon-reinforced midsole ranked seven on the Shimano scale. Sure, it’s not as stiff as the XC9’s sole, but there’s a bit more give for all-round riding and, let’s be honest, it’s not the stiffness of my shoes which is stopping me from hitting the front in cyclo-cross races.

Aside from the exposed carbon reinforcement, the whole of the outsole is covered in Michelin grip, and the XC5 basically has the same tread pattern as the XC9. There’s also the option to mount toe spikes.

The demands of ‘cross are unique in cycling (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

I’m a big fan of the black finish and orange contrast laces – if I’m not going to win then I might as well race in some sort of style – and there’s a lace keeper to hold everything in place. As is often the case with lace-up shoes, the XC5 is actually lighter than its more expensive sibling (a claimed 301g to 330g).

All things told, if I had to pick just one pair to keep, it’d be the XC5s. They better suit my style of off-road riding (that is, not very fast) and, having experienced some heel lift with the XC9s, I prefer the fit, too. Generally, they are a stylish, well-priced option for commuting (the toe box and heel is finished with a reflective material), gravel riding, mountain biking and cyclo-cross. Top marks to Shimano with the launch of these shoes.

Lazer Walter sunglasses

We reviewed Lazer’s new Walter glasses back in June: “The Lazer Walter sunglasses tick all the boxes in terms of visual clarity, looks, quality and overall fit,” was our verdict.

Not everyone wears glasses in cyclo-cross races – about half of the field, I reckon – but I like to have a bit of protection from the inevitable mud getting flicked up from tyres. CX races can be pretty hectic with riders going elbow-to-elbow, particularly at the start.

Interchangeable lenses are a must and given the generally gloomy conditions at this time of year, I’ve opted for the clear lens supplied with the Walters. There’s also a semi-mirrored lens which hasn’t seen much action since the summer and a high-contrast lens for cloudy conditions.

While some riders prefer not to use glasses, a clear lens will protect your eyes while still enabling you to see

The oversized lens provides an excellent field of vision and the glasses are generally pretty good at staying fog-free. That’s important in a cyclo-cross race when the body is generating a lot of heat but the air temperature is generally cold – the ideal breeding ground for condensation. I did experience some fogging in my last race – at the top of a short, steep climb where I was working particularly hard – but that cleared quick enough, helped by four vents at the top of the lens.

Beyond a knobbly-tyred bike and your normal road riding kit, those are bare essentials you need to race cyclo-cross. While plenty of riders go without glasses, I’ve preferred to keep my eyes shielded, so even if you have eyewear for road riding, you’ll ideally need interchangeable lenses to cope with the varying conditions of ‘cross.

That’s it for now, time to get the bike ready for this weekend’s action. I’ll let you know how I get on.

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