How to Prepare for Your First Cyclocross Race

with SANDRA WALTER, Liv Racing Collective Athlete

My first foray into cyclocross was as a teenager in the late 90s. I had no idea what it was all about and I didn’t have a cyclocross bike, but some friends convinced me to give it a shot aboard my mountain bike. All I remember about it now is that I fell into a creek, I had a lot of fun, I won a medal, and it was the provincial championships.

In the years since, I have gone on to invest in proper cyclocross bikes, tubular wheels and tires, toe spikes and multiple plane tickets to Canadian Championships, where I have won several medals. I even took the opportunity to compete in a World Cup when Las Vegas hosted one just a short flight away from home. That was a cool experience, but I honestly prefer to race on my local CX scene every fall. It’s a way to stay fit and connect with friends after a long season of globetrotting to mountain bike World Cups. That said, racing cyclocross in Belgium is still on my bucket list….

I love cyclocross, because it is the most welcoming community of all the cycling disciplines I’ve encountered. I feel it is the most approachable form of bike racing for first-timers. Race duration is super-achievable (typically less than an hour for beginner categories), you can still have a blast if you get dropped, courses are short (usually around 1-3 km in length), getting off the bike and running difficult sections is part of the game, the risk is generally quite low, you can ride virtually any type of bike, everyone looks kind of goofy, and the vibe is fabulously festive and family-friendly.

Sandra Walter teaching a CX clinic

Skills to practice for 'cross

  • Mud, grass, sand, dirt, gravel, snow - To prepare for your first cyclocross race, the best thing you can do is take your bike to a park and practice riding on every type of surface you can find, like mud, sand, gravel, dirt, and even snow (yes, cyclocross races happen even if there’s snow on the ground)! 
  • It’s okay to slip and slide - Learn how it feels when your tires slide around a little. Riding a ‘cross course is a constant quest for traction. 
  • Experiment with tire pressure - How much air is in your tires makes a major difference on the CX course and is one of the biggest determinants of traction. Even 1 psi can change how the bike feels and handles and how well the tires grip. Generally, the lower the pressure, the better the grip, but how low you can go is limited by a lot of factors, like the surface you’re riding on, how aggressively you ride, weight, whether or not you have tubes in your tires, and the type and width of your tires. Next time you practice your ‘cross skills, take a pump and tire gauge with you and play around with your pressures.
  • Go for green - In this case, “green” refers to grass, because it offers more traction for your tires than mud does. So when the course turns into a muddy mess, be on the lookout for elusive patches of green, even if they’re not on the main line that everyone else is taking. 
  • Turn, turn, turn - Practice turning corners every which way on those different surfaces! Hairpins and series of tight turns are commonly found on ‘cross courses. See how tight you can turn, then see how fast you can turn. Try high-speed corners and then try linking corners together by entering wide, cutting across the apex and accelerating out. Practice looking ahead to where you’re turning and using your shoulders and hips to turn instead of just your handlebars.
  • Explore how braking control is affected on different surfaces - Get accustomed to using your brakes on all of those different surfaces, because your bike will react differently depending what you’re riding on. On dry pavement, you’ll be able to stop quite quickly and maintain control, while on mud and snow, you’ll need to be very careful with how hard and when you hit the binders. 
  • Cyclocross is all about quick changes in pace - You constantly need to slow down for all of those aforementioned corners, but in order to navigate the track as efficiently as possible, you’ll want to re-accelerate right away. Practice pedaling when exiting corners, anticipate steep climbs by shifting into the correct gear, and attack straightaways that allow you to put down power. 
  • Practice sidehills - Off-camber terrain, often on grass and mud, is also common to CX and can be quite tricky to ride, because you’re fighting for traction and balance! Find a slope and practice riding across it. Once you’re comfortable doing that in a straight line, add difficulty by turning up and down it.  
  • Getting on and off the bike is a big part of cyclocross - Nearly every course includes sections that require dismounting, such as barriers or a run-up. The quicker and more comfortable you are in dismounting and remounting your bike, the faster and more confident you’ll be in your race. There are a few different techniques for these skills and you’ll find lots of informative videos online that illustrate them. Watch a few and then go to a grassy field and give it a go. You may feel silly and awkward at first, but the more you practice, the more natural it will feel. And don’t worry if you can’t get confident doing it “the right way”, just do whatever works best for you. 

PRO TIP: Usually barriers are found in the form of two planks set 4-6m apart. The maximum height of barriers is 40cm, but they may be lower. Navigating barriers requires a combination of dismounting the bike, lifting it over the barriers while running, followed by re-mounting the bike. To practice the timing and skill combination, start by placing sticks on the ground. 

Practicing a cyclocross carry

Make a plan for race day

When I get to a cyclocross event, I like to arrive early so I can sign in, pin on my number, and pre-ride the course. Because the courses are so short, you can usually complete an easy lap in less than 20 minutes. Depending on the event schedule, you may not be able to ride whenever you like, especially while other races are going on, so look at the schedule and plan ahead for when you are allowed to ride the track.

I like to log multiple pre-ride laps to learn the course, but the schedule, length of the track, and conditions will ultimately determine how much time you’ll have. Even if you just have time for one loop, here are a few key things to keep in mind that will help you learn it quicker:

  • Break the course down into key sections - Identifying chunks of the track by the feature or skill they require will help you remember it and be ready when you’re racing. When you’ve finished a lap, try and visualize what you remember of the course.
  • Re-ride tricky sections - If you’re short on time, you can get more out of your pre-ride by going back and re-riding a challenging section multiple times to get it right. Try different lines, play with your gearing, speed or timing to determine the best way to navigate key bits of the course. Just try not to break the course tape when you’re ducking under it and be aware of other riders on course.
  • Use your pre-ride as your warm up - For me, the most time-efficient and practical way to warm up for the race is by incorporating my pre-ride. After all, it doesn’t get more real-world than the natural intensity, skills and movements you perform while riding the track! If you can’t get on course right before your race, try and fit in a warm up off the track that includes some easy spinning as well as higher intensity efforts.

PRO TIP: I like to practice some race starts during course pre-ride to determine which gear allows me to get off the line the quickest and get my body primed for the all-out effort that is CX racing.

at a cyclocross clinic

What to expect during a cyclocross race

  • It’s a mass start - That means everyone in your category will start at the same time, generally at the sound of a whistle.
  • Listen up - Before your start, a race official will give instructions with details about the length of the race and other important things to note.
  • How many laps - If the number of laps aren’t pre-determined, officials will set the number of laps based on the leader’s first lap or two. Keep an eye on the lap board located at the finish line so you know how many more laps you have to go.
  • If you are lapped by the leader - If the leader laps you once, you will complete one less lap than them, but you’ll still receive a result. In some cases, officials may “pull” lapped riders out of the race, but this is not common practice in beginner categories and it would be announced before the start.
  • If you get confused about laps, listen for the bell at the finish line - The officials at the finish line will ring a bell when you start your final lap – not to be confused with all of the fans ringing cowbells out on the course!
  • Pit zone - CX races generally have a designated pit zone on the course where you can stash tools, spare wheels, or even a spare bike in case of a mechanical problem. Pit zone rules: You may not cut the course to get there or go backwards to get there.
  • Lines change - Due to weather and the sheer volume of riders on a course throughout the day, a CX track can change dramatically – even from lap to lap. This means the line that worked well for you in pre-ride may no longer be rideable once you’re racing. So be adaptable and dare to forge new lines! 
  • It’s called a “hand-up” - If someone offers you a drink or a treat from the sidelines, feel free to take it! Hand-ups at cyclocross races are a fun tradition, but be aware – hand-ups can be anything from candy to whiskey to money!
  • What did they say?! - “Heckling” is another wacky cyclocross tradition. The definition of the word makes it sound negative, but in cyclocross, it’s meant to be good-natured ribbing from spectators.  

Anything goes! Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have the right gear, skills, or technique – honestly, everyone around you will be so supportive and no one will judge you if you don’t dismount, remount or carry the bike like the pros do. The important thing is that you’re out there and you’re having fun. If you want to improve your CX skills more quickly, take a clinic or grab some friends and practice together!

Sandra Walter leading a cyclocross clinic over barriers