My life revolves around bikes. I love riding them, working on them, selling them, but most importantly: racing them. My first love was road racing, watching Lance Armstrong duke it out with Jan Ullrich, and then realizing there were (many) other races besides the Tour de France. Then, I discovered mountain biking, which is very much fun. But, I wanted something that molded both; road bikes on dirt. That’s cyclocross! After riding the 2014 Michigan Mountain Mayhem Gravel Grinder on my road bike, which is a horrible idea, I realized I wanted to try my hand at cross. So, I bought a cyclocross frame, put all my road parts onto it, and off I went! Four years later, I race the pro/elite category, and travel to race quite extensively, and I’m here to tell you about why you should get involved in cross!
For the uninitiated, cyclocross is often regarded as the hardest discipline of bicycle racing. It came to be in France and Belgium in the early 1900’s, but has been practiced in the USA for the past 50 years. Cyclocross is consistently the fastest growing race discipline in the USA, so much so that we held the World Championships in Louisville in 2010, and the first World Cup race every season starts in Iowa City at Jingle Cross. Races are contested in parks and woods, mostly on grass and dirt with sand, barriers, stairs, and other obstacles thrown in. Cyclocross bikes have drop handlebars and very similar geometry as road bikes, but with clearance for 32-40mm tires with tread on them, with some room for mud too! However, if the obstacles are too tough, or the mud and sand too deep, or the hills too steep, you get off and RUN! The bike is either carried, pushed or shouldered until the point where you remount and keep going!
Some people, like Greatest cyclocrosser of All Time Sven Nys, can ride the barriers.
The season runs from September through February, so rain, mud, snow, and cooler temperatures are often the norm. However, September racing in recent years has been routinely punctuated by extremely hot, dusty races. The race itself starts with a mad dash from the start line. In road racing, the sprint is at the finish. In cyclocross, the sprint is at the start for the holeshot on the first corner! Races are anywhere from 30-60 minutes long, with the elites racing for 50-60 minutes and beginners/intermediates for shorter amounts of time. With such short races, the effort level is ALL OUT, and many people race with their heart rate nearly maxed out the entire time! Laps are roughly a mile or two long and often double or triple back through certain areas, allowing for spectators to get plenty of views of their favorite racers.
Speaking of the spectators, cyclocross also has a special form of cheering, heckling! It is customary for cyclocross hecklers (often moderately inebriated) to hurl lighthearted jests at passing racers. Often good heckles can be based on riders’ bad cycling kit choices, if they’re riding a mountain bike in a cross race, poor form dismounting/remounting, or my personal favorite, poking fun at adults getting beaten by junior racers. Try to keep it lighter for the lower category races, but you can really let it rip for the elites, masters and singlespeeders! Just don’t be so bad you elicit a direct response from riders, like in this clip of some Belgian heckling gone too far!
On the opposite side of heckling, is the handup! The handup is one of the most fun parts of the race for some people, and consists of a spectator giving a rider something mid-race. Handups are usually a little bit of beer left in a can or cup, but I’ve personally seen whiskey, tequila, money, bacon, pickles, donuts, and even tacos. En route to winning my race at Mad Anthony CX last season, I took a handup on the final lap when I knew I had the race. That was the best tasting can of Black Label I’ve ever had.
Should you try cyclocross? Absolutely. The races are business in the front, party in the back, just like the mullet sported by US National CX Champ Stephen Hyde. There is a bit of driving involved if you live in our area, as the majority of cyclocross races in Michigan are usually in Grand Rapids, Detroit, or Marquette. Here’s a schedule of USAC sanctioned races, as well as the unsanctioned (read: more relaxed) Kisscross and UPCROSS series. Cross race entry fees are usually inexpensive, and you get a solid discount for signing up for a second race on the day. While mountain bikes are allowed, it’s certainly more fun on a cyclocross bike. We stock the Cannondale CAADX Tiagra. I personally own one, and it is an excellent bike. You can race it during the weekend, but also commute and train on it during the week, and it will never fail you. Some come on in and ask me about cyclocross! Or even better, I’ll see you at the next race!