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Cyclo-Cross: a beginner's guide

Cyclo X – are you a mud lover?
The slippery slope into cross cycling

Lance does it!
One could say that cyclo-cross resembles mountain biking as it is done across rough terrain. Actually it’s the other way round; cyclo-cross was there long before mountain biking was as much as a glint in Muddy Fox’s eye. But while MTB has quickly risen (and fallen) to become the sensational sport of the cool, young and daring, with media coverage and its own off-road version of the Tour de France in its hey-day, cyclo-cross remains rather less glamorous – the Cinderella of cycle sport.

Cyclo-cross is a discipline that is used by many road cyclists as a way of keeping fit in the winter as most events are held between September and March. It can also help to improve your bike handling skills, an insight probably not lost on Lance Armstrong during the 2003 Tour de France, when, after Beloki’s crash, he saved his skin by cutting across a piece of rough grass. Last but not least there are those who really enjoy it for it’s own sake – and they usually love mud (at least in this country.

As most cyclo-cross events are held in the winter, it can get very cold (even in sunny conditions) and inclement weather is a major factor. You have to pack enough clothes to keep warm and dry. If it’s wet you (and your bike) are more likely to get covered in mud than not. Sometimes your gears can clog up with mud and undergrowth to the extent that gear changing can become a distant luxury, while at times you have to be grateful if you can still turn your pedals at all.

More clued-up riders carry de-clogging sticks. Maybe I‘m over-dramatising the mud issue a bit; the sun actually does shine on a lot of Winter races, but the muddy races tend to be the ones that stick in your mind (and not just because of the time spent cleaning your kit afterwards). This means the really serious ‘crossers use two bikes and have a team of helpers to wash their bikes and prepare them so they can swap every lap if needs be.

What makes a bike cross?
The cross bike looks like a sturdier version of a road bike with knobblier tyres, but not quite a mountain bike either, as it has drop handlebars, slimmer tyres, no suspension and less gearing. For increased braking power and greater mud clearance the brakes are cantilevers. There is a guide to buying cyclo-cross bikes on RCUK.

Local cross races are open to mountain bikes. The suspension and bigger tyres sometimes gives you a technical advantage, but as cross courses tend to be less technical and faster (on grass, mud or tarmac) than MTB courses, this may not add up to much. On steep climbs or difficult terrain cyclo-crossers tend to fling their bike over their shoulder and run up, which is a special skill.

MTBer’s with their extra gears may be able to ride those, but on occasion the organisers put in a set of stairs or a series of logs as obstacles, and unless you can ride or bunny-hop those, you’re reduced to pushing you bike over them, which can be quite a humbling experience. Having said that, using your MTB in a cross race is a good way of dipping your toe in and having some fun.

Whatever bike you ride, you are eligible to collect cross league points in local cross races. However, national and international cyclo-cross events admit cross bikes only, so if you want to take your competitive efforts to a higher level, you may want to think about adding one to your stable.

There will be one near you!
A good way to get started is entering local events, which are often held in city parks. They are open to all abilities and have race categories for senior men & women, veterans (plus 50+), juniors, youth and Under 12s. The London League also has an Under 10 race. U12s go free which adds to the attraction for that age group. Races are held over an hour for seniors and lesser distances for youth riders.

Many of these events are leagues which are held on a weekly basis, where the personalities involved, marshals, officials and fellow riders, are often regulars so you’ll get to know them. To get league points, you’ll need to affiliate, and if you are not a member of British Cycling you have to pay a surcharge.

Most local events are Entry on the Line (EoL) only, I don’t know many which aren’t. National and International events have to be entered in advance. The race categories are Premier (most national and international events), A, B, and down to C (the lowest cat), but most local races are cat C (sometimes B) events. As the prize funds get bigger the higher the category, Premier and A cat tend to draw the biggest hitters from across the country and sometimes visitors from Belguim, the true home ‘cross.

Join a club for added comfort!
Events are generally organised by cycling clubs , which gives you the opportunity to find out what clubs are around, and to join one that suits you. Joining a club offers all the advantages of meeting like-minded people for sharing information and transport to race events, getting advice or hands on help, not forgetting the social side; having friendly fellow club members is something to behold, especially in the Winter season.

A ‘Sport for all’
Cross races are a good way for newcomers to get into competitive cycling because the events are usually less frantic and more laid back than road races, with riders more spaced out and hence less opportunity for crashing into each other. They also tend to be technically easier than MTB courses with greater emphasis on faster, wider and smoother courses in recent years. As cross races are short, you can really let rip for an hour and still be home for lunch or tea. This “user-friendliness” of cyclo-cross events doesn’t mean that there is less of a competitive spirit or that it is taken less seriously. The fact that you can line up in the local senior races with the likes of Chris Young, Roger Hammond and Matt Ellis all adds to the appeal.

The leagues
One of the strengths of cyclo-cross is that many of its events are organised in leagues, each held in a specific area. To give you an example, the London League, sponsored by Mosquito Cycles, covers an area to the south of London (although some events are held at Eastway, London which is in the Eastern area) and reaches down to the south coast. The Eastern League covers an area that reaches from North London to Ipswich. Both run over 13 rounds.

Both the London and Eastern Leagues are open to all abilities and ages and novices will find a friendly atmosphere. The leagues may vary between 150 competitors, as in the Notts and Derby League (they draw people from all over Britain and run on Saturdays), the London League with about 80 to 90 riders plus a very strong youth entry, and other leagues which may attract 20 to 30 riders. Events usually cost about £10 to enter (plus a surcharge for non-British Cycling members).

National level and beyond
So, you are doing well at a local level, what next?
At national and international level there is no entry on the line, you cannot use a mountain bike and you will need a race licence from British Cycling.
Chief on the British cross calendar is the National Trophy, a series of 5 events across the UK (but not Scotland) and a series that draws the best seniors, juniors, women, youth and veterans. If you do well in Trophy races you may get selected on the International squad that will contest the UCI World Cup and World Champs.
In addition to the Trophy series are races designated by being called Cat A or Premier, most local races are Cat C and some possibly B (you get more prize money at a Cat A etc.). The Midlands Premier series, regional champs and the ScienceInSport.com Megacross held in Lancashire are such events.

The links below will take you to calendars and information on the leagues in your area:

for cross news on London and the SE

South West Cyclo-Cross League

West Midlands Cyclo-Cross League

Sussex Cyclo-Cross League

Eastern Cyclo-Cross League

Yorkshire Cyclo-Cross League

Wessex Cyclo-Cross League

Wales CU (inc. Cyclo-Cross)

East Midlands Cyclo-Cross League

Notts & Derby Cyclo-Cross League

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