PrBy Matt Haughey
Cyclocross racing is amazing. In my home of the Pacific Northwest of the US, the sport is relaxed, fun, inviting, and a damn good time every single time you race.
If you’re reading this publication called “Bike Hugger”, it’s clear you love bikes. Bikes are great fun, make for wonderful transportation and exercise, and if you’re really into them, you’ve likely thought about racing your bike.
The trouble is, bike racing is difficult to get into and racers are typically on an entirely other level of fitness and expertise than beginners. Road racing has over a hundred years of history and even basic tactics seem impenetrable to outsiders looking to start in the sport. There are dozens of rules that govern how you draft, what happens when you can’t keep up with the pack, and how to interact with other groups racing at the same time. Mountain bike racing is much less pretentious but requires enough endurance and stamina that beginners are asked to ride for 2-3 hours at a minimum, in remote locations with support mostly left up to riders themselves. Most every discipline of bike racing requires expensive equipment and specialized accessories and good luck trying to figure out how to break into the lower ranks of any of them.
And then there is cyclocross.
If you haven’t raced in a cyclocross event before, I’m here to convince you to rethink every life decision you’ve made up until now so that you can figure out how to remedy this situation. You NEED to race cross.
Cyclocross racing is amazing. In my home of the Pacific Northwest of the US, the sport is relaxed, fun, inviting, and a damn good time every single time you race. The sport thrives on beginning racers and most areas offer free and/or cheap cyclocross clinics to teach you a few basic skills. Racing is cheap, typically around $20 per race, and you can use any old mountain bike or cheap cyclocross bike (most companies spec lower-end cyclocross bikes at the $800USD price point) to race. Courses are typically only about a mile long and races last around 40 minutes total for the lower racing classes, and even the pros only race for up to an hour. The sport is not only spectator friendly (and fans are typically super supportive, clapping and cheering all), but thanks to the short laps and small courses, a party atmosphere breaks out at most events. If anything goes wrong with your bike, at worst you have maybe a five-minute walk to get back to the race course’s start.
The key thing to know about cyclocross is that everyone is terrible at it, at first. There is no drafting or team tactics or any of the trappings from road racing. You simply pedal a bike around a marked off lap, occasionally having to dismount and run your bike up steep embankments and/or over small obstacles. Racing typically takes place in the Fall to Winter months, so the surfaces are often muddy and mucky (again, this is where a cheap old bike works great), but most courses include a little bit of asphalt but some might also feature deep sections of sand. You get to channel your inner 10-year-old as you ride through terrible conditions getting covered head to toe in dirt, sand, and water. There are lots of things to learn about the sport but everyone just fakes it on day one.
I like to think there are roughly 1,000 things you can do correctly in each lap of a cyclocross race, and I would say the best professional riders are likely doing 90% or so of those things right. Beginners are lucky if they are doing things 50% right. All throughout a lap, you are making decisions: should I pedal harder here, how hard is hard enough, how early should I turn in, when should I start my dismount as the barrier approaches. Every turn can be taken a dozen ways, every straightaway can be pedaled at a dozen different rates, and every obstacle presents a dozen different ways to get over it. Practice normally makes perfect, but there is no perfect in muddy cyclocross. Practice just helps you make a few better decisions.
The great thing about cyclocross is the learning curve gives you so much chance to grow. Your first race will be a disaster, as is everyone’s first race (don’t fret, you will have fun, you just won’t go as fast as everyone else). My first race was particularly muddy, and after a single practice lap I was almost ready to go home exhausted – I stuck around and ended up in 2nd to dead last in a field of 80 riders after completing just three laps. Racing a bike through mud feels like trying to run your first marathon in beach sand. There is very little coasting, almost no downhills, and no relief of any kind. You suffer, you get muddy, and you have fun. Your second race is likely to go much better, as your body gets used to the punishment of 40 minutes of anaerobic pain and your skills will no doubt improve the more you race.
Compared to other forms of bike racing, cyclocross is typically done on more affordable bikes, doesn’t carry the litany of rules and etiquette of road racing, and only takes a 30-40 minute intense effort. The crowds are supportive, the racing is relatively cheap, and there is great fun to be had riding a bike like you were a kid again.
Take my advice and find a clinic late this summer, get familiar with the sport, and come this Fall I guarantee you’ll have the time of your life on a bike.
Ed. note: Matt is the Founder of MetaFilter, cofounder of Fuelly and the Buy Local Cycling team. He’s a huge cyclocross, photography, and web nerd as well. We’ve ridden many miles together
Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog.
Also published on Medium.