In part one of our cyclo-cross coaching series from Dig Deep Coaching, we ran through the different techniques you need to master to race ‘cross – now we’ll turn our attention from the rider to their equipment, covering everything from tyre choice and tyre pressure, to what brakes you use and bike setup.
As we’ve already mentioned, tyre choice is crucial when it comes to cyclo-cross, and conditions can vary drastically from race to race, meaning what you need from your tyres on one weekend, when taking on a fast, hard-packed track, can vary dramatically from what you need the next, when fighting your way through thick mud and sliding around corners.
Ultimately, tyre choice comes down the course conditions and what you have available, so that’s not to say you need to be changing your tyres every time you race – and that’s especially not the case if you’re new to ‘cross – but there are a number of factors to bear in mind if you’re looking to change the tyres on your cyclo-cross bike.
A file tread is a really fast tread used for sandy races and on grassy courses where grip levels are high, with the Challenge Grifo XS, FMB Sprint and Dugast Pipistrello being three examples of popular cyclo-cross tyres with a file tread.
Meanwhile, an arrowed tread is preferred for grassy but slightly muddy conditions where grip levels are generally still high or you can ride a line where grip is still available on course. In cyclo-cross terms, an arrowed tread is still fast, with the Challenge Grifo, FMB SSC and Dugast Typhoon three options available.
Moving into trickier conditions, an intermediate tread is still fast in a straight line but has better cornering grip. You’ll choose a tyre like this for those courses where straight line grip isn’t key and you want to keep rolling resistance low but there might be a few off-camber sections or lots of corners where you need grip. Look for tyres like the Challenge Baby Limus, FMB Slalom and Dugast Pipisquallo.
Finally, full mud tread tyres are generally slower but offers much higher levels of grip in slippery conditions and heavy mud. The Challenge Limus, FMB Super Mud and Dugast Rhino are three favourites.
Ultimately, your skill level has a significant impact on how much grip you require. Generally, you want to be using the fastest tread possible across the entire course, and this means not having to sacrifice corner speed or your ability to ride up a long climb just so you feel fast down that one section of tarmac. Remember, you might be fine in the corners with a low heart rate at cruising speed but will that tread be OK with your heart racing at 180 beats per minute and a bit of added speed come race day.
Conditions can change
Don’t forget that in a cyclo-cross race, with dozens of bikes racing over dozens of laps, the course can quickly become churned up – but you can change equipment mid-race if that’s the case.
It’s common for experienced riders – and that’s the key here, really – to have two bikes available during a cyclo-cross race, with one in the pits while the other’s out on course. If need be, don’t be afraid to change the tyres you are using mid-race, particularly if you have a pit crew who can change your wheels and tyres while you’re out on course.
Also, remember that your front and rear tyres don’t have to be the same. If you need a bit of extra grip in the corners but the course is generally fast, using a front tyre with an intermediate or mud tread, combined with an arrowed rear, is a perfectly acceptable setup.
While tyre choice is important, what pressure you run those pressures at perhaps plays an even more important role when it comes to performance and grip. Here’s what you need to consider when selecting a tyre choice for any given course:
Tyre pressure really comes down to rider weight. A heavier rider will need more pressure than a lighter rider to get the same feeling from the tyre. Experimentation is key to find what works for you in what conditions.
Tubular or clincher
Your selected pressure also depends on whether you are running tubular or clincher tyres. With a tubular you can generally run a much lower pressure without having the fear of getting a pinch flat like you would with a clincher (as there’s no inner tube to pinch in a tubular tyre), which will aid grip. That’s one of the primary reasons why experienced cyclo-cross riders will always use tubular tyres.
If there are lots of kerbs, rocks or roots then the tyres need to be harder to minimise flats when hitting those obstacles.
Most riders generally run their tyres too hard. You need to feel the tyres squash and bite, looking for traction in the corners. As a rule of thumb, the more slippery and muddier the conditions, the lower the tyre pressure required to maintain grip. However, even in fast and dry conditions, it’s important not to have your tyres too hard as this can lead to you bouncing your way round the course. Every time the tyre leaves the ground you are losing grip and drive.
Working out what pressure you need in certain conditions will come with time and experience, but doing at least one recon lap of a cyclo-cross course before a race will allow you to get a feel for the conditions on that day and let you adjust your pressure accordingly.
Experience will also enable you to know when your tyre pressure is too low. You need to practise riding at low pressures, especially at race pace. If you feel the tyre folding rather than holding shape and using the tread to grip then you have gone too low.
Disc brakes or cantilever brakes?
While disc brakes are still yet to be officially approved for use in road racing, cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, gave the green light to use discs in ‘cross races ahead of the 2010/11 season. However, at pro level there’s still very much a split, with some riders using disc brakes and many still sticking with cantilever brakes.
Pros and cons
There’s been plenty of over the last few years as to whether disc or cantilever brakes are better are certainly over the past 18 months disc brakes have become much more popular.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both disc and cantilever brakes. With discs, every time you hit the brakes the braking is the same. Disc brakes always give you plenty of stopping power, even in mud and sand.
Cantilever brakes can be a little more hit and miss depending what is on the rim when you hit the brakes. Because of this, in muddy or wet conditions you need to brake much earlier on cantilever brakes compared to disc brakes.
However, disks are still generally heavier and there are some compatibility issues with certain wheel/frame options, although these are fast becoming ironed out as more options are flooding onto the market.
If you’re looking to upgrade bikes, it makes sense to go to discs now as it is quickly becoming the standard.
Finally, let’s consider bike setup and how your bike fits can fit your performance in the heat of a cyclo-cross race.
Bike setup is very personal and a good bike fit will help you find a position that works for your but in cyclo-cross comfort is absolutely key as you have to be well positioned to ride confidently across a variety of surfaces.
Cyclo-cross bike setup is generally much less extreme than a road setup, and the saddle-to-bar drop won’t be as big on a ‘cross bike. Set the levers a little higher so you are not too far forward over the front of the bike on downhill sections.
You need to be balanced on the bike for cyclo-cross and sat more upright into corners without too much weight on the front wheel as this will cause you to washout and crash. You need just enough weight on the front wheel to get the grip to bite.
Cyclo-cross racing is tough on your bike by virtue of the fact that it takes place off-road and through autumn and winter. Your equipment needs to be durable so that it stands up to all conditions – so don’t immediately go for ultra-light components that will break, but equally extremely heavy equipment will put you at a disadvantage so look for solid reliable equipment that’s not too heavy but will last.
Finally, you are allowed two or more bikes in a cyclo-cross so if you are lucky enough to have more than one race bike then make the most out of them. Even at a local race level, in muddy conditions you will benefit massively from changing to a fresh, smooth-running bike. Just make sure both machines have the same setup as it’s useless if you favour one bike over the other, and because of that don’t want to change bikes as you feel at a disadvantage.
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