The traffic lights are on red as you start your commute. Across the road the junction has narrowed to one lane; a quick glance to your right hardens your resolve – you’ve got company. Definitely two other bikes, probably more lining up behind and, to cap it all, a rattling, spluttering motorcycle courier.
Your heart rate is climbing, brakes are off, suddenly the lines from a film enter your head. ‘YOU ARE A PRISONER OF THE BLOCKS UNTIL THE SOUND OF THE GUN’. The lights change and metal, rubber and sinew explode into a Large Hadron Collider of effort and release.
Now, how about doing that, this Sunday, but with a difference? The difference being the start will be like nothing you’ve experienced before and you won’t be alone. There will be 80 to 100 others pushing their front wheels up alongside yours. All concentrating on that first corner, all possessing a thousand-yard stare and maniacal look on their faces. It could all go horribly wrong, but it rarely does.
You want a piece of that?
Good, for cyclo-cross is for everyone. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are – there are either separate races or separate categories within a race for every age group.
All of the racing is undertaken on private or public land well away from traffic or diesel-covered tarmac. In fact virtually everything that constitutes danger to the day-to-day cyclist has been eliminated.
The terrain that you will cover is typically a mixture of school playing fields or local parks. These can contain some challenging wood sections interspersed with surrounding banks and rough-stuff.
The whole family can enjoy a few hours out together. Events are based on a circuit that the riders will circulate on average every seven minutes. So if you are not racing, it’s fun to watch or walk the course as the racing takes place.
‘Cross is growing fast. Figures from British Cycling (BC) show that in the last three years the sport has grown by 10 per cent each year. BC’s schools initative is proving a real success thanks to the sport’s health benefits and its safe environment.
Cyclo-cross, like any facet of cycle sport, requires specific bikes and equipment. Having the right machine really helps and makes the racing more exciting and fun.
But what if your commitment or budget does not extend to a new bike? Is it possible to dip your toe in the water with the bike you’ve got? Yes it is.
First things first
To enter a ‘cross race, adults need a racing licence. Contact British Cycling, by phone or online. You can get a half-year licence just for ‘cross. If you are only likely to race once or twice a ‘Day Licence’ can be purchased at individual events. More info on day licence and contact details at www.britishcycling.org.uk
If, at this stage, you just want to have a go, then any number of bikes will suffice. ‘Cross bikes don’t have suspension so the most basic rigid mountain bike is ideal and suspension MTB’s can be ‘locked out’.
City bikes, touring/training bikes all are possible. Many have cantilever or ‘V’ brakes similar to ‘cross bikes. But if you really have to, there’s just about enough clearance on a touring bike equipped with long drop brake calipers.
Basically there needs to be enough room to accommodate a knobbly tyre and your two index fingers.
Today most top cycle manufacturers offer a ‘cross bike in their line-up. Scott, Specialized, Cannondale, even Raleigh have a cross bike in their range. Some are thoroughbreds others are hybrids
Bikes like the Specialized Tri-cross have lugs and fittings for carriers and mudguards. These are intended to double up as commuters. Don’t let this put you off; in fact there are advantages to these models.
All real ‘cross bikes should have more relaxed geometry, higher bottom brackets, and of course, serious clearances for mud.
Frame sizes will remain the same as your road bike but seat height will be lower and your bars will be higher by 10mm as a rule.
Everybody has preferences for manufacturer, colours and frame design and that’s fine. Manufacturers produce bikes as a complete package, equipment can sometimes be a bit basic, so look for the model with the best quality frame and forks in your price range.
You need no more than an entry level Shimano groupset; these work well and will last.
Wheels are generally the main area for concern. Unless you’re spending a lot of money or choosing the custom build route, yours may only last a season or be relegated to training in preference to a top quality clincher or tubular wheelset.
Manufacturers have been a bit slow to offer cross specific chainsets. Cranks ideally should be 175mm or 172.5mm. Forget compact 50t chainrings; a 48 is maximum, a 46 or 44 is ideal with anything from 39 to 34 inside.
‘Cross has a different riding set-up to the road. You need a lower saddle height in order to facilitate getting on and off the bike easily. Next you want to raise the bars or change the stem to make your top half fairly upright, not flat backed but about 45 degrees. Mountain bikes are probably set up as they are.
Conditions vary greatly from venue to venue and from year to year. So if it’s been dry and the circuit is relatively flat a well treaded touring tyre is fine. As a rule the more knobbly the tyre the better, mountain bikes have a huge choice.
Michelin, Schwalbe, and Continental all offer excellent tyres for a variety of conditions. The standard tyres that come with your particular bike may not be suitable for difficult conditions. Very quickly you’ll need a mud tyre.
Virtually every ‘cross race will require a dismount and a run. The simple reason that road shoes aren’t used is that the first item that has contact with the ground is the cleat which will inevitably clog with mud and grit. Secondly the soles are smooth and offer no grip. So any SPD type shoe with a hidden cleat is what you need. Look also a good tread pattern.
If you’ve never raced before then it’s a surprise how little you need. Put on your usual riding gear that you think is appropriate for the weather to warm up beforehand. Then when the course is opened up for practice, try a lap at a reasonable pace, if you are sweating you’ve got too much on. Thin layers are the answer.
The little big people
‘Cross is the cheapest and easiest cycle sport for kids. When it comes to race day costs, under 12’s are free and under 16’s no more than a fiver; all have free membership to British Cycling.
They can start on any kind of bike, mountain bike types are favourite. Youth racers can be as competitive and well mounted as their senior counterparts but slithering around on unsuitable bikes and tyres at this age will certainly hone their skills for later life.
Clubs and leagues
Where you live in the country will determine which cyclo-cross league runs your local events. In turn each league has its own competition with a championship and individual standings.
Talk to your fellow competitors if you’re in doubt or need advice. Usually they’ve learnt the hard way and most will happily dispense all manner of advice until, that is, you start beating them.
Not for you?
Well at least it will have improved your starts for the traffic light burn up!