Grassroots cyclo-cross racing: how to get started

We’re taking our inspiration this month from that start of the cyclo-cross season.

The combination of mud, sweat, and gears is irresistible to thousands of riders across the country. Among them is Mike Cotty, who works in a consultancy role for Cannondale.

Mike enjoyed his first competitive ‘cross outing in 1991 on a circuit at Southampton Sports Centre; a venue to which Britain’s elite cross riders will return on November 18 for the second round of British Cycling’s National Trophy Series.

So began a love affair with ‘cross that has lasted over 20 years. Mike won the fourth round of the Wessex League nearly a fortnight ago and placed twenty-first in  last Sunday’s opening national in Abergavenny.

We asked Mike to describe the appeal of cyclo-cross, the skills required, as well as for tips for newcomers on physical preparation and pitfalls to avoid.

Mike’s love affair with cyclo-cross stretches back more than 20 years

When did you start cyclo-cross racing?

“Crikey, I now feel rather old. My first ‘cross race was at the Southampton Sports Centre back in 1991, clad head to toe in a stylish array of fluorescent lycra (if only I’d kept hold of that kit I’d be in fashion again now!) aboard a trusty steel British Eagle mountain bike. Great days indeed!

What was the appeal?

“At the time I was playing a load of schoolboy football, but when I started cycling I immediately felt a sense of satisfaction with the individuality of the sport. My older brother, and some of his friends, were into ‘cross racing. It was always good to see how long I could hang on to them for before it felt like both lungs were going to puncture and my head was going to explode. I’m not really selling this very well, but that was kind of the appeal: hanging on for an extra minute each week. Oh, and the freedom. Cycling was the pleasure, racing was the pain. Together, it’s all I wanted to do.

Avoid running tyre pressures too high, says Mike. Hard tyres can reduce cornering grip

What skills are required?

“Cyclocross really is the ultimate when it comes to honing your bike handling skills. Think every type of surface you can imagine – wet grass, dirt, dust, Tarmac, mud, sand, gravel – now throw in a series of banks, switchbacks, hurdles and stairs and to top it off make it a winter sport so by the middle of the season you have to do all this while you can barely feel your hands and feet. Redlining your heart rate for 60 minutes with a continual stop-start power output is an art form that the top ‘cross racers possess. They make it look so easy, but believe me it’s anything but.

How should a newcomer prepare for the physical challenge?

“Fitting a regular skills session into your working week will stand you in good stead: practicing cornering, dismounting and shouldering the bike at speed, for example. Short sharp intervals sessions designed to improve aerobic threshold will help a newbie cope with the demands of ‘cross but at the end of the day nothing comes close to the experience of the race itself. You just have to go for it and remember whatever happens…..enjoy!

Well organised summer races could provide a further boost to the growing popularity of cyclo-cross, says Mike

What is the most rewarding aspect of cyclo-cross?

“For me it’s pretty simple. I like the individual aspect of ‘cross racing. The fact that you get to hammer around on a slightly amped up road bike on terrain that is continually trying to trip you up or push you off is a bonus!

What common mistakes are made by newcomers?

“In general, I’d say running tyre pressures too high. A lot of folk may think that ‘hard means fast’ but in reality ‘hard’ means less grip, slower cornering, less control. So my top tip would be to experiment with your tyre pressure to get the right balance for the conditions.

Cyclo-cross has grown massively in the USA in recent years. Do you see the same potential in the UK?

“I definitely think that there is potential for the sport to develop further in the UK, although we’re not in a bad position at the moment from what I can see. It’s amazing how many riders of all ages and abilities are at the local events week-in, week-out across the country. I’ve always thought a few well organised summer races could help bring more people to the sport and appeal to those that get withdrawal symptoms come March when their ‘cross bike is in hibernation.

Want to get started in cyclo-cross? Take a look at our cyclo-cross buyer’s guide.

Discuss in the forum

Mike Cotty


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