A decade ago, there were nearly 32,000 racer days registered with USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body in the United States; nearly 10 years later, that number has more than quadrupled. Indeed, cyclocross—which involves racing your bike on laps around an obstacle-filled course—has become the new darling in the cycling world.
Attend an event, and it’s not hard to see why: Races are a marvelous mashup of serious workout, spirited competition, lively spectating, and, of course, beer-fueled post-race party. It’s an atmosphere distinctly different from that of road or mountain biking events—and one that appeals to a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts.
“There’s a big difference between what you see in a number of cycling disciplines,” says Thom Fox, a San Francisco-based cross cyclist who won the 2013 state championship in his age division. “I’m not going to say one is better than another, but I found it to be really supportive and inclusive, and it had a fun edge to it that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.”
Fox, who rides for Team Roaring Mouse in San Francisco, has been cross racing for about six years now. Previously a longtime runner and road enthusiast, Fox, 62, says he became intrigued by the sport by watching internet videos of its spirited events around the world. He was hooked after his first race.
“I immediately fell in love with it on a number of different levels—it just resonated with me,” he says. “It’s as competitive as you want it to be—that’s the thing I appreciate about it. You’re not being pushed to be the best, and people will cheer you on, no matter what.”
Interested in giving cross a go? You’re in luck—the season just started and runs through December. Here, some cyclocross tips for beginners, with everything you need to know and insider tips from Fox.
1. You don’t necessarily have to buy a new bike and gear for it.
Cyclocross itself is a sort of hybrid between road cycling and mountain biking, so it makes sense that you can get away with riding a road, mountain, or even hybrid bike, especially while you’re just trying it out. Most important is having knobby, wider tires—between 32-35 mm—to navigate the rugged course, which may involve sections of mud, sand, grass, and gravel. Fox says that most events have a number of racers on mountain bikes, but just keep in mind that mountain bikes are heavier and harder to carry up the steep (but usually short) hills in a cross course. And if your bike has bar ends, you’ll have to remove those—they’re not allowed in cyclocross.
Whatever kind of bike you ride, however, you will want to clip in: The power you'll get on the upstroke is critical on a cross course. And, as you'll definitely get dirty, wearing any brand-new gear isn't advisable.
If you love it, you’ll probably want to shell out for a cyclocross bike, which is similar to a road bike but with clearance for a bigger tire with small tread and, usually, cantilever brakes. Fox advises looking for used cross bikes on sites like Craigslist before investing in a new one.
And when you do buy a cross-specific bike? “You can ride it anywhere, any time,” Fox says. “I’ll ride my cross bike across to the Marin headlands, but in order to get there and back I have to do a lot of riding on the road.” All you need to know is how to switch out the knobby tires for slimmer road-specific ones.
2. NorCal is a great place to get into the sport.
There are numerous race series in the Bay Area and throughout Northern California, with a calendar that runs from September through January, and “each one has its own complexion, which is cool,” Fox says. Choose from any number of events and race series at the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association .
3. ** Cyclocross will most certainly improve your bike handling skills.**
Mounting and dismounting your bike, navigating barriers, steep hills, and carrying (or shouldering, as it’s known in the sport) your bike across mud, steps, and whatever else the course may throw at you all but guarantees you to develop some pretty impressive skills in and out of the saddle. “It requires you to learn a set of skills that you thought you might not ever want to on the bike,” Fox says. “Watching people that are really good at it, there’s a ballet-like grace that is really astounding.”
That said, there’s still a learning curve to consider, which brings us to No. 4 …
4. ** Taking a clinic is recommended for learning the basics.**
Starting off any new sport is intimidating, but you can lessen the fear factor with a beginner’s clinic or lesson, which are offered at many local bike shops across town. Clinics will help you learn cross-specific techniques like mounting and dismounting, navigating barriers, and some of the mental strategies that make cross so much fun. Says Fox: “It’s this full-body experience, because all these things are happening at once. It’s really a thinking person’s event in some regards.”
5. ** You’re not likely to get injured when you crash.**
First things first: You’ll definitely crash at some point with cyclocross racing. But compared to the terrifying wrecks that routinely happen in road and mountain biking, cyclocross is “probably one of the lesser-risk disciplines in cycling,” Fox says. “I don’t find it to be a dangerous sport by any stretch.”
Here’s why: The surfaces on a cross course are generally forgiving (grass, mud, sand) and you won’t get up to a high speed. In addition, Fox points out that while you’ll be grouped in with other riders at the start of the race, eventually the bunch thins out over the course.
6. Races are organized by skill levels within age groups.
Within age groups, you’ll self-grade yourself as A, B, and C, with A being the elites and C being novices. What that also means: You won’t get lapped by some little whippersnapper 20 years your junior. (You are likely to get lapped as a newbie, however, which is par for the course.)
7. Heckling is not only common, it’s encouraged.
Remember, this is a sport that doesn’t take itself too seriously—and good-natured heckling is all part of the fun. And it goes both ways between racers and spectators; even the pros like to get in on the action. And along with that harmless banter, racers can expect plenty of cheering and encouragement—especially at the finish line, where beer and revelry keeps the fun going.