Overnight, it snowed. When I first peeked out the window in Suffern, New York, I didn’t quite believe it. When I’d gone to bed the night before, it had been a warm 15°C — incredible weather for late November in this part of the country. When I woke up, it was -2°, with several inches of wet, slushy snow blanketing the ground. It was going to be an interesting morning for bike racing.
Yet that’s the pure joy — and madness — of racing cyclocross, that cold-season sport that typically takes place on dirt or grass, and that almost always features obstacles that require you to get off your bike and hop over them before leaping back on and pedalling like mad.
When I woke up, it was -2°, with several inches of wet, slushy snow blanketing the ground. It was going to be an interesting morning for bike racing.
When the weather is good — as it had been the day before — the biggest challenge is navigating sharp switchbacks, steep “run-ups” (just what they sound like), and knee-high barriers. When the weather is bad — as it is this morning — you have to contend with all of those features while they’re covered in slippery, crusty, ice-cold snow.
I’ll spare you the details. But let’s just say there were times when my bike shot out from under me and exited the course entirely, leaving me crawling under the tape in a frantic bid to retrieve it and get back on course — much to the amusement of the bystanders.
There were times when my bike shot out from under me and exited the course entirely, leaving me crawling under the tape in a frantic bid to retrieve it and get back on course.
There were also times when it was nearly impossible to make any forward progress at all — either via two wheels or on two feet — as the mud-churned snow quickly turned to the consistency of frozen peanut-butter. And, as I’d left the can of cooking spray in the car (where it had frozen overnight), I couldn’t even spray cooking oil on my cleats and pedals to deflect the mud and ice. As a result, I was soon sporting a huge block of frozen mud on my pedals that refused to dislodge itself — no matter how frantically I banged on it with my (now-frozen) feet. Did I mention that I raced at 8 in the morning and it was still below zero?
The mud-churned snow quickly turned to the consistency of frozen peanut-butter.
And yet, I love cyclocross, and so do a growing number of other amateur cyclists across the U.S. According to USA Cycling, cyclocross is the fastest growing discipline in cycling, with the number of riders nearly quadrupling in the past decade. It’s enjoying a similar boom in popularity in Europe, where the sport originated in early 20th century France as a kind of town-to-town cross-country race.
While cyclocross racing in the States concludes in January at U.S. Cyclocross Nationals, and the UCI season ends in February at the UCI World Championships in Valkenburg, the UK cyclocross season continues from now until early May, giving you plenty of opportunity to give the sport a go.
And you should. I’ve no idea why cyclocross has gotten so popular all of a sudden — but I do have a few theories. See below for my top five reasons to grab a bike and hit the mud.
Lindsay's top five reasons for giving cyclocross a try
1. The barrier to entry is low.
In the U.S., it costs between $20-$40 to enter a cross race — far less than a road race, and with a far lesser likelihood of crashing than in most mountain bike races.
2. The gear is fairly minimal.
The gear is fairly minimal. Yes, high-end carbon cyclocross bikes are out there. But most race organisers will allow you to race with a mountain bike if you don’t have a gravel or cross bike. Just don’t expect to ride your road bike; you need knobby tyres (and disc brakes are preferred).
3. It’s very spectator friendly.
Unlike road or mountain bike races, a cyclocross race consists of a series of short laps. Since races are often held in parks, there’s often an infield area that the race circles around, creating a perfect set-up for food vendors, spectators, and a beer tent. By the end of the day, the beer tent is typically filled with jolly spectators eager to heckle the remaining racers on-course (it’s no accident that the beer tent is typically located next to the gnarliest section of the course).
4. The races are short.
Most beginners’ races last for 30-45 minutes — long enough to get into a groove, but not so long that they shut out those whose fitness has been a bit neglected during the winter months.
5. It’s fun.
When it’s raining (or snowing!), it can be hard to get excited about racing your bike. But when the conditions are at their worst is when the sport is at its best — after all; how can you do anything but laugh when you’re face-first down in the mud, watching your bike slowly slide past you under the tape? And if you can’t find the humour in the moment, rest assured that a raucous crowd of hecklers — sorry — spectators — surely will. And they’ll probably have a few words of “encouragement” for you, too.
If Lindsay's blog has whetted your appetite and you want to find out more about cyclocross racing, British Cycling has lots of information on events, clubs and how to get involved, plus lots of tips for beginners.
For readers in the States, the cyclocross calendar can be found on the USA Cycling website.