Cycling Wed: A Cyclocross prologue…

For bike racers, the end of summer marks the beginnings of cyclocross season.

Cyclocross?

Yes, think motocross, only the motor is the heart, lungs, legs and cerebellum.

Here is my 2010 primer on the discipline of cyclocross.

  • Cyclocross (CX) originated in Western Europe and is extremely popular there, however, it is rapidly gaining popularity in North America.
  • “Cross” (CX) is bike racing on off-road terrain, including grass, sand, singletrack and even a little pavement.

Storm the greens--2009


  • There are man-made and natural barriers that require a rider to dismount and remount a perfectly normal bike, multiple times per lap.  This high-speed transition injects a large component of athleticism. Success in CX is not just about who can generate the most watts.
Photo by Tom Moran
  • CX races vary in time from 30 to 60 minutes. The distances vary in length from 1.5-2.5 miles, and are adjusted to be about 5-8 minutes per lap.
  • The skill set for CX requires a delicate balance of aerobic endurance, tolerance for repeated accelerations, athleticism, and determination in the face of adversity. Miniature-sized climbers often lack enough power, and big muscular criterium specialists find the dismounts and running a challenge.
  • Cross bikes are modified road bikes. They have higher bottom brackets for clearance of obstacles, wider knobby tires for traction off-road, special brakes for mud clearance, and beefier frames to handle bumps.
Not an atypical picture


  • Courses are taped off and spectators are extremely close to the competitors. The suffering and intensity of the race are witnessed at an arms-length distance.  Unlike a road race where a spectator might see a 4 hour race for ten seconds, a CX spectator can see the race from multiple vantage points numerous times per race.
  • CX spectators have a taste for beer.
  • Cross is a fall and winter sport, and so races are often held in difficult weather conditions. I have raced in ankle-deep mud, through puddles that submerged the entire drivetrain, and the most ‘slickery’ of all, snow and ice.  Such inclement weather greatly enhances CX’s adversity component, and for most participants, this only adds to the mystique of the sport.
CX Natz

Why is cross gaining in popularity?
  • Races are short, fast, and exciting to watch.
  • Bad weather conditions only enhances an adult’s craving to play like a child–the same sensation that drives one to stomp in the sidewalk puddle.
  • Shorter races foster a broader participation base, as 30 minute races are less imposing than multi-hour slogs. Four-hour training rides and three-hour runs are not required to excel at cross.
  • Each race day brings a smorgasbord of multiple races ranging from the 10 year old to the 50+ category, and from beginner to elite. Beginner-racers compete on the same course and same day as professionals. That’s sweet.
  • CX rewards athleticism. Good athletes who can run, transition smoothly and have endurance do well.
  • CX is family-friendly. Race days are carnival-like events, often with music, an emcee, a barbecue and kids races.
  • CX brings out the best in people.  It reminds me of collegiate rugby: on the field the competition is fierce, but off the field there are parties and celebration.  CX is like this.  The mutual respect shown to CXers, by CXers, is one of the sport’s greatest attributes.
  • Finally, for unclear reasons, CX seems to draw people who do not consider bike racing their raison d’etre, a refreshing trait for sure.
There are some downsides, however.  Off-road riding requires focus. Cell-phones not only distract auto drivers, they can also wreak havoc on off-road cyclists.

JMM