Intro to Cyclocross Racing

with SANDRA WALTER, Liv Racing Collective Athlete

In my view, Cyclocross is the punkrock of bike racing. It’s the cycling discipline where everyone can find their place. Whether you’re a roadie, a mountain biker, a gravel rider or a BMXer, a beginner or a pro, a kid or a masters racer, there’s a category for you. Cyclocross is a collision of cycling worlds where the skills, strengths and tactics from every type of riding you’ve ever done will help you crush on a ‘cross course!

Sandra Walter racing cyclocross

So what is cyclocross?

Now a popular sport, the story goes that the original cyclocross was a way European road racers trained in the off-season in the early 1900s. They would use modified road bikes and race across hill and dale, through farm fields and over fences, very literally making it a collision of cycling worlds long before mountain biking even existed.

Cyclocross (or “cross”/ CX) celebrated its first World Championship in 1950 and became popular in the United States in the 70s. It has since evolved into a fall/winter off-road cycling discipline that sees packs of riders tackle an often muddy track that also includes challenges like sand pits to plow through, barriers to jump over, steep hills and staircases to climb and tight corners to navigate. In North America in particular, cyclocross has also taken on a festival vibe that includes singlespeed categories, costumes, hand-ups and heckling with strong participation in amateur categories. In Europe, cyclocross is an extremely well-loved spectator sport that attracts thousands of beer-drinking, frites-eating fans with loyal fan clubs to every professional race.

Sandra Walter racing cyclocross

What makes cyclocross awesome?

  1. Everyone is welcome: Although all cycling disciplines accommodate novice riders, the skill, fitness and equipment demands are often very high. In ‘cross, that’s not the case! Plus, the vibe at ‘cross events is extremely fun, supportive, carefree and boisterous. 
  2. Anything goes: In the amateur races, you can ride any type of bike you want, wear anything you like, and no one will snicker at you if your technique is unconventional. 
  3. Race duration and course lengths are totally achievable: A cyclocross course is generally only 1-3 km in length and beginner races range between 20-40 minutes in duration.
  4. Wearing a costume is totally cool: Even if it’s not Halloween, donning a costume for a cyclocross race is not unheard of, but if it is Halloween, well then it’s expected
  5. Festive atmosphere included: Because the racers tend to hang around before and after their events, and beer gardens are often on site, cross races can quickly take on a party atmosphere.
three women at a cyclocross race in costume, two dressed as penguins, one dressed as a butterfly

Here’s what you need to race:

1. A Bike: In order to take part in a local cyclocross race, you just need a bike that can be ridden reasonably well off-road, like a gravel or mountain bike, (although I have seen road bikes, BMX bikes, townie bikes and bike share bikes in CX races). A true cyclocross bike is best, because it is designed specifically for that application with a light frame ideal for lifting over barriers and shouldering up run-ups. Many CX-specific rigs even have top tubes that are flatter underneath to make it more comfortable to carry while it rests on your shoulder when you’re using proper ‘cross technique.

Cyclocross bikes are also designed to be quick-handling for all of those tight corners, they have short wheelbases and high bottom brackets for maneuverability and good ground clearance. They also have lots of space between the frame and the tires, so the wheels keep turning, even if they’re caked in mud, because in cyclocross racing, there will be mud! They feature powerful brakes for the quick pace changes required and a wide range of gears to cover everything from the start/finish straight to short, steep climbs.

PRO TIP: A true ‘cross bike’s tires cannot exceed a width of 33mm and are actually measured on the start line at competitions in the higher categories. Tire width rules are generally not a thing in Novice and Intermediate categories, but the rules will vary depending on the race, so just make sure you’ve done your research before you tackle your first CX event.

Sandra Walter racing the Brava Advanced cyclocross bike

Sandra racing aboard the Liv Brava Advanced cyclocross bike.

2. Some Gear: In terms of gear for racing in non-pro categories, anything goes! For the most efficient power transfer, a mountain bike shoe with clipless pedals and soles with good grip will perform best, but if you’re not comfortable being clipped in (especially when there’s all of that dismounting and remounting going on), flat pedals and sneakers are perfectly acceptable. The “anything goes” theme is the same for kit – wear whatever is most comfortable for you and choose your attire with weather in mind, because it is a fall/winter sport. The pros will probably be wearing aerodynamic skin suits (a nod to the sport’s roadie roots), probably long-sleeved and made of thermal material, if it’s cold! Make sure to pack water and snacks for before and after, as well as towels and multiple changes of clothing, because you can expect things to get messy (in a good way)! Rubber boots are also recommended.

PRO TIP: Normally riders don’t carry water bottles on their bikes in ‘cross, because the races are so short and it’s usually not very warm out. The absence of a water bottle cage on the bike also allows for more room to shoulder the bike on run-ups.

Now you’re ready to sign up for a race!

women lined up at the start of a cyclocross race, wearing festive attire