For some riders, the advent of winter means it’s time to hang up the bike until the following year, but for many, many more the colder months herald the arrival of something very special: cyclocross season.
An intoxicating blend of criterium racing, steeplechasing and trench warfare, cyclocross racing (also called cyclo-cross, ‘cross or CX) typically takes place from October to February and consists of short-course, off-road racing on a mixture of surfaces including grass, mud, dirt, sand and Tarmac.
Competitors ride drop-barred, knobbly-tired CX bikes (think of the lovechild of a road endurance bike and an MTB XC bike) and courses are characterized by obstacles such as steps, ramps and even small fences which require racers to dismount and run with their bikes.
Races are short (usually less than one hour) and hectic, with fierce competition, drama a-plenty and for the most part – lots and lots of mud. The typical image of a CX racer is a muck-spattered warrior hoisting their equally muck-spattered bike over a series of railway sleepers, a curious mix of pain and pleasure etched on their (very) dirty face.
“Dealing with the aftermath of a messy race has to be one of the worst bits” laughs Nikki Brammeier, who as current British National Cyclocross Champion and one of the sport’s most successful female riders knows more than most about the pros and cons of ‘cross.
“The worst part has to be the cleaning up, but luckily I have an amazing support crew to keep me and my bikes spick and span,” says Brammeier, who rides for Dutch team Boels-Dolmans CT
If all of the above – mud included – sounds like your idea of a good time, you’re not alone. ‘Cross is growing in popularity with every winter that passes, while in its heartland of Belgium the sport excites spectator fervour like no other.
Routes into ‘cross are many and varied – lots of clubs participate in organizing local leagues, some riders may follow their mates into giving it a go and today, social media plays a big part in spreading the word about upcoming races. For Nikki Brammeier, her start in the sport came from an injury-prone father – and a sweet tooth.
“I started when I was pretty young, I was about nine years old,” she recalls. “My dad used to ride motocross but got fed up of constant visits to A&E and decided to take up CX. I went with him and started entering kids’ races, where the prize pot was usually chocolate or some kind of sweet treats.
“That kept me motivated for a little while, but it wasn’t long before I developed a massive passion for the sport.”
If you’re currently cyclo-curious and thinking of giving the sport a try, there are plenty of reasons to do so. Check out our top five below:
1. It’s a lot of fun – and as competitive as you want it to be
An electric spectator atmosphere is a par for the course at ‘cross events. Picture: Phil Roeder via Flickr
The one word that crops up again and again when cyclocross is mentioned? Fun.
Newcomers to ‘cross can sometimes be surprised by the festival atmosphere at races. Compared to the sometimes-staid environment of road bike racing, CX is an approached with a more relaxed attitude, making a race a chance to have some fun with friends, a great family day out or if you are in Belgium, a full-on party.
Because courses are short and looped, ‘cross makes for a great spectator sport with plenty of spots to catch the action, rather than see one fleeting glimpse of the peloton flashing past. And because courses are challenging, spectators are often in for a real treat with frequent spills and tumbles, full-gas sprints from every corner and elbows-out competition for positioning.
The pleasure extends to those taking part, with ‘cross racing the apotheosis to relentlessly churning the cranks at threshold on a pan-flat road.
“Every race is different,” emphasizes Nikki Brammeier. “From one course to the next can be polar opposites and will require a totally different set of skills… sandy, muddy, flat, hilly, twisty, technical, mounting and dismounting.”
While the top racers will be battling it out for podium places in their respective categories, many riders are there just to enjoy the day, make it around the course, have some fun and experience the post-race atmosphere. Unlike in road races, the short laps mean you won’t get ‘dropped’ in the classic sense, so there’s no discouraging feeling of being just ahead of the broom wagon on an off-day.
2. It’s a great way to stay fit and focused during the off-season
Finding traction on loose surfaces such as sand will help develop your leg power and pedal stroke. Picture: Phil Roeder via Flickr
The majority of road riders will make some effort to stay in the condition during the winter months and to build an aerobic base for the coming year, but the training options available can sometimes seem a little unappealing. Six-hour rides in winter drizzle are to be endured, rather than enjoyed, and while interactive apps such as Zwift have made indoor training more interesting for many, turbo sessions can still be viewed as tedious.
Enter CX – short, intense, outdoors, a great workout, an element of competition and the fun factor in spades.
“CX is an amazing and time-efficient way to keep fit doing the ‘off season’,” agrees Nikki Brammeier, air quotes reflecting the fact that for her, the winter months are very much the main focus of the competitive year.
“It’s something different and refreshing to the usual routine on the road, and it also makes riding in bad weather so much more enjoyable. You rarely feel the cold at all during a race or training.”
Because CX also works much more of the muscle groups that are typically required for road riding, it’s a super, cycling-specific form of cross-training that will improve your overall fitness, mobility and crucially, anaerobic strength.
Whereas road training can be focused on endurance (aerobic) ability, and pedaling at a consistent cadence for a long period of time, ‘cross often involves steep banks, sudden accelerations and multiple speed changes, all of which require (and build) strength and power, rather than endurance.
Dismounting and running also engages and exercises muscle groups that are not normally used in road cycling, while your core and upper body will benefit from the workout you get not only from carrying your bike, but muscling it over technical terrain (it’s well-known that MTBers benefit from more ‘whole-body’ fitness than roadies, precisely for this reason).
Specifically, CX will engage and strengthen your musculature outside of the frontal plane of movement. ‘Normal’ road riding primarily engages the muscles in forwarding motion, with glutes, hips, quads, calves and ankles all in alignment. This can lead to imbalances and potentially injuries, with some muscle groups over-developed, and others neglected.
With CX racing and all it involves – running, jumping, clambering, balancing, lifting, carrying, falling, getting up, falling again – you get a greater variety of stimulus and much more of a full-body workout.
Off-camber trails develop crucial balance skills. Picture: Phil Roeder via Flickr
Finally – there’s also the mental aspect. A season of riding and racing can take its toll, and a break from the norm can be refreshing. If the idea of another solo interval session on the road fills you with existential dread, try a chaotic, fun-filled hour in the woods. You might just find your biking mojo again, buried deep in the mud.
3. It will make you a better bike rider, period
As above, CX racing calls on a whole different set of skills to road riding, and the challenges of riding off-camber trails, negotiating twisting, technical singletrack, struggling for traction on slippery grass and mounting/dismounting for obstacles are a whole new ball game.
The good news is that sharpening and honing all the skills needed to compete in CX will make you an infinitely better rider on the road, especially when it comes to bike handling. Learning how to take sketchy corners in a CX race will teach you how far to push the limits of your tyres and bike; steep, technical descents call for expertise in weight distribution and mastery of the ‘attack position’; course bottlenecks and steep ramps demand surges in power that translate perfectly into sprinting prowess.
Struggling for traction on mud and grass will help to develop a fluid pedal stroke, with power delivered equally through all stages of the crank rotation, and even bunny-hopping comes in handy when a roundabout or kerb comes on you at speed.
CX will also improve your instincts when it comes to gear selection. On the road, being in too low/high a gear may mean a momentary dip in power or momentum, but on a ‘cross course being over geared going into a steep bank means loss of traction and balance and more often than not, a tumble into the mud, end of. Correct gear choices ahead of changes in gradient become ingrained when your staying upright depends on them.
It mightn’t look like it, but most of the things you need to be good at to ride ‘cross are transferable to the road, and will give you a definite edge over your competitors. CX obstacles and challenges aren’t easy for the beginner to master, but they can be conquered with patience and practice – and that effort will pay off.
“Practice makes perfect,” advises Brammeier. “Watch some videos or find a friend with some experience – go out there on your own (when no one’s watching) and keep trying until you nail it. It won’t take you long and will make you such a better bike rider in the long run.”
4. It’s short, sweet – and safe
Steps are a challenging obstacle for riders – and a serious workout for their calves. Picture: Phil Roeder via Flickr
For many of us amateur enthusiasts, time is precious, even more so during the winter months when the days or shorter. With CX races typically local, held on weekend mornings and lasting no more than an hour, they are a really time-efficient way to get in some quality bike training (and have a blast) without family time being unduly impacted. And because they’re fun for spectators too, there is the option to bring the whole gang and make a day of it.
Let’s also not forget the appeal of taking our cycling off-road during the winter months. At any time of the year, cyclists must share the road with drivers and other vehicles, with an inherent risk involved.
For many of us the months of winter – with poor road conditions, inclement weather, shorter days and reduced visibility – only see that risk increased. It’s nice to have a break from having to share the road with vehicular traffic and to remove the ‘what if?’ from the back of our minds.
5. It’s a good excuse for a new bike
Of course, if you are going to give CX a try, you’re going to need a new bike. Woohoo!
If you just want to dip your toe in the water many race organizers will permit participation on MTBs, but if you are bitten by the bug you’ll be keen to add a ‘cross machine to your quiver. The good news is that perfectly good ‘cross bike is available at great-value prices, and that you can do lots of other things with them.
Because weight isn’t such an issue with a CX bike, an alloy frame and basic specification will be more than enough to get you started, and bikes like this make great all-rounders for training, touring, commuting or off-road adventure.
“A CX bike also doubles up as a perfect winter training bike,” agrees Nikki Brammeier. “You can do anything with a cross bike, there’s no road or path too bumpy or muddy to explore.”
We’ll leave the final word to Nikki Brammeier, who has won multiple British national titles at U16, Junior and Elite level in CX, MTB, road and track racing and today races at the highest level of the sport in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup. But even now when talking about CX it’s clear that the fun factor is what keeps her racing.
“If you’re thinking about CX the biggest piece of advice I have is to get yourself a bike and give it a go. I can honestly say I’ve never had so much fun on a bike.
“It’s safe, time-efficient and most of all… so much fun.”
There’s that word again…