Cyclocross – The Lowdown

If you’re relatively new to cycling you may have heard people discussing cyclocross racing in the winter months and wondered what it entailed. Or perhaps you have seen cyclocross specific bikes bikes online and wondered how they differed from road bikes?  Read on for our guide to cyclocross in the blog ‘Cyclocross the lowdown’;

Cyclocross is a very specific type of cycle racing which is traditionally held during the winter months. However, thanks to its popularity and the demand for race places summer leagues have also been set up. For the most part, the course is set on a short off-road circuit of approximately 2.5 to 3.5km (1.5 – 2 miles).  This circuit will often consist of a variety of terrains such as wooded trails, tarmac and grass. There will also be various obstacles set around the course which require the rider to dismount and carry the bike over or around them. Steep grass banks, tree roots and mud are some of the most common obstacles. If the natural obstacles are not sufficient you may see organisers throw in the odd log or sandpit to make things more interesting.

Unlike most road races which are based on distance, cyclocross races are instead time based (measured by number of laps). Dependent upon your race category, the race can be as quick as 30 minutes (for beginners), or as long as 60 minutes (for elites / pros). Another reason for the popularity of the sport is whether you are a beginner or elite you still compete around the same course and face the same trials.

Vintage Cross

Early 20th century cross racing was not for the faint hearted.

The Cyclocross racing we know and love today can trace its roots back to France in 1902. It’s birth is attributed to a French soldier by the name of Daniel Gosseau, who organised the first ever national championship race. However, it seems that a predecessor to cross was already in existence. ‘Steeple chasing’ as it was referred to was a very simplistic concept. A landmark on the skyline would be chosen at random. The participants would then race each other to be the first to reach this point. The event was very much as the crows fly, even if this resulted in riders clambering over fences or wading through streams.

Modern Day Cyclocross

Cross events will feature very steep slopes, some of which will be too steep or slippy to ride up.

Modern day Cyclocross is one of the fastest growing cycling disciplines. This is in no small part due to the events taking place away from traffic. Most road races (but especially time trials) are hosted on open roads which can be daunting, particularly for beginners.

Cross races are not simply aimed at serious pro racers who are out for victory at all costs.  Plenty of riders use cross racing as a training tool to help maintain fitness throughout the winter months. When the spring road racing season starts again they have a good level of fitness to take into their first races. Cyclocross is about challenging yourself in some tricky conditions and having a good laugh whilst doing so. 

There is also a lot of falling off involved as you navigate the obstacles. It becomes something of a challenge to yourself to conquer each obstacle without dismounting the bike. In doing so, it will almost inevitable result in an ‘off’. But, due to the nature of the course it is almost certain to be a soft and perhaps mud spattered landing! Another additional benefit of cross racing is that similarly to mountain biking it helps to improve bike handling skills.  

Click here to view the CX SL.

A path to World Tour cycling

The sport of cross can also be an important leg up into the world of professional road cycling. It has come to serve as an important bridge into the world tour road racing teams. Two of cycling’s current hottest properties on the road are former cross world champion Wout Van Aert and current world champion Mathieu van der Poel. Many other stalwarts of the road cycling scene also began their journeys in cross and have gone on to great road racing careers. Think along the lines of Zdenek Stybar and Tiesj Benoot to name just a couple. In the off-season these riders are very likely to be found featuring in cross races around Europe.

The Bike

Gruff Lewis puts the CX AL through its paces.

Cyclocross bikes are manufactured in many different materials, Carbon Fibre, Alloy, Titanium and even Steel. Like a road racing machine they also need to be lightweight. This enables them to be carried more easily up steep slopes and over obstacles. Again similarly to a road bike, they lend themselves to the more aggressive side of frame geometry. They will have a relatively short wheelbase and place the rider in a lower position for increased speed and agility.

Due to the nature of Cyclocross you tend to find most riders will opt for a Carbon or Alloy bike. These materials are very lightweight whilst also maintaining good strength to weight ratios. The underside of the top tube will be flat to provide more comfort when you have no choice but to shoulder the bike and clear an obstacle. The bottom bracket height is also increased to allow more clearance for the pedals over uneven terrain. 

The Ribble CX AL offers a cost effective way into the sort of cross.

Click here to view the CX AL.

The features of a cross bike at a glance

  • Tyre clearance – Increased clearance for wider tyres, though in competition they are limited to 33mm width.
  • BB height – The bottom bracket is higher to improve the clearance.
  • Geometry – Steeper frame angles to promote sharper handling to help steer around obstacles.
  • Top Tube – Flat on the underside and not a sloping (compact) design. Also if the bike uses external cables they will be routed along the top of the tube. These features better enable the bike to be carried over the shoulder.
  • Disc brakes – To handle the mud and debris the absolute stopping power of disc brakes is a must. All modern cross bikes will now feature this type of brake. 

Gearing

Shimano’s much anticipated gravel groupset is also ideal for cross use.

An important part of Cyclocross is the gearing, over the years this has changed drastically. The gearing selected is dictated by a number of factors. Rider fitness, terrain and he riders style of riding all play a part. Are they a sat in the saddle grinder or a spinner? By this we mean do they stay in a hard gear and grind or do they prefer to pedal at a higher cadence. Some will opt for the traditional double chainrings at the front (though a smaller size than a rad bike at something like a 46/36) mixed with a relatively aggressive ranged cassette at the rear (11-28). Others will choose the new kid on the block, the 1 x system. Originally released for mountain bikes the popularity of gravel and cross bikes has led to a natural evolution to the road bike market.

The 1 x system utilises a small chainring (in the 32 to 42 range normally) and a very wide ranged rear cassette. The cassette will often have a large sprocket in the region of 42t to 50t to make up for the missing gear range at the front. The advantages of the 1x system off-road are numerous;

  • No front derailleur – Because there is only 1 chainring there is no requirement for a front gear. Debris can lodge in a front gear and cause the chain to unship, which is less than ideal.  
  • Clutch system – Most 1x system rear derailleurs now feature a clutch system taken from MTB’s which prevent the chain from bouncing over rough terrain. This reduces the chance for the chain to be ‘dropped’.
  • Simplicity – The lack of front derailleur means that the left lever is simply a brake lever, there is no front gear cable and the gears are easier to adjust and maintain.
  • Weight –  Less parts means a lighter bike.

Tyres 

Tyres and brakes are actually as important, if not more than the overall bike when it comes to cyclocross. If, you’ve ever heard Formula 1 teams and commentators go on about tyres so much it’s because, like cyclocross, they are that important.

Careful thought to tyre selection is necessary due to the variety of courses and their varying mixtures of surfaces. The professionals of the sport will have several wheels available for use. These will be set up with “Mud Tyres”, “Soft All Condition Tyres”, or “File-tread Tyres” (designed for dry / gravel based terrain). However, for the average rider going for something that can do a bit of everything a pair of Soft all Condition Tyres would probably be the best option! It is also important to bear in mind what pressure you run the tyres at. Anything over 25 PSI should be avoided, they’ll be faster on the flat and in the dry but will suffer badly for grip in the mud. 

Due to current UCI regulations all cyclocross bikes must be fitted with tyres of no more than 33mm width for competition use. Race commissaries will commonly check tyre widths at the start of a CX race to ensure that no rider seeks an unfair advantage. The 33mm width allows for optimal tyre clearance, maintaining a quick ride and optimal grip.

Brakes

Disc brakes offer impressive stopping power and allow for later braking and better cornering speeds.

Traditionally CX bikes would always be fitted with cantilever style brakes over road rim brake calipers for their better mud clearance. With the superior braking performance of disc brakes it is a no-brainer for all CX bikes to now come supplied with these as standard. Disc brakes offer far better controlled stopping power, particularly when taking into account muddy conditions.

Cantilevers are very much on the back burner when it comes to braking and as a whole the industry is now geared up to hydraulic disc brakes.

Interested in starting Cyclocross? It really is a fun way to keep u the fitness over the winter months, make new friends and above all have some fun! The Ribble CX AL or the brand new CX SL carbon give you the perfect starting point for entry into the sport. With a fantastic variety of specifications, designed and hand assembled by our professionals you can be out competing with the best within weeks!

Welsh road race champion, gruff Lewis shows how its done with the Ribble CX AL

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1 Comment
  1. Excellent article I’m really new to Cyclecross with not too long a history in Cycling period…
    I have competed in one event this year unable to make the next two, and pulled out of my last owing to really unsuitable tyres. (I was spinning out and falling off too often so I decided to retire from the race I was really gutted.
    Awnyway you’re article was a wealth of advice for a 59yo Do you have a shop local to Cheshire or an on line shop where I could buy some much needed items
    Thanks
    Martin

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