Cyclocross 101 For Newbies

Cyclocross is getting more attraction by off season athletes looking to extend their season

Falling temperatures and wet weather dampen trails in the autumn months, but not the spirits of cyclocross riders. Growing in popularity, cyclocross gives cyclists a chance to extend their season, and offers a low pressure learning environment to those new to two-wheeled sport. 

Cyclocross has been around for nearly 100 years, and started off as off-season training for professional cyclists in the low countries of Europe. Athletes would chase each other from town to town, cutting through farmer's fields and jumping over hedgerows and fences on foot – a sort of human-bicycle steeplechase. “It's just fun,” said Cynthia Leung, who participates in the Midweek Cycling Club's fall cyclocross series in Toronto. “Every week is a different course, which keeps it fresh and it's a really friendly scene. It's not too competitive. Everyone here is really easy going.” Andrew Paradowski serves as the President of the Midweek Cycling Club in Ontario and talked about the fall series during one of their weekly Tuesday night sessions. Held at the Centennial Park ski hill in Etobicoke, park staff light things up with the hill's floodlights, and experienced club members help show newcomers the skills they will need to have fun in cyclocross. 

“It's an open training format where people can join the sessions we run, or do their own thing and ride the course,” said Paradowski. “As the season goes on, each night becomes less about teaching and more about practice. At the end of the night, we do a fun race. There's nothing really on the line, but it's a chance to try things out in a race environment.” Interest in cyclocross is growing. There's a class for just about everyone, from Under 15 to Masters classes and Elite level racers. A citizen license will allow you to race all season, and most classes allow just about any kind of bike. “The most important thing is to take a look at the weather channel and make sure you're dressed appropriately,” said Paradowski. “The last thing you want to do is come out in summer kit and find out it's only a couple of degrees above zero. Other than that, come prepared to put in a good effort.”

Paradowski breaks down the skills needed for cyclocross into three distinct subjects. Bike handling skills, dealing with barriers and race tactics. 

“Learning how to corner and turn and start and stop on grass is important. It's a different surface than dirt would be in a mountain bike race, or paved surface in road. Barriers are generally made from lumber, and require riders to get off and carry their bike as they run over the obstacles. Practicing how to mount and dismount your bike quickly is the key to success. 

“When is it a good place to attack? Where should you rest? Can you draft behind people? – all the things you can do in a road bike race,” said Paradowski, referring to the tactical considerations. These skills come with practice and observation. 

Developing techniques can be easy, and a lot of fun. Adam Morka, Head Coach of WFP Coaching suggests grabbing a friend or two and heading to a local park. “You can map out a course with a friend and include a dismount section, and a sandbox if you can,” said Morka. “Skills are a huge aspect of cross and can make or break a race, even going beyond the results, in terms of having fun.” While 'cross races often have a higher speed than mountain bike races, “it's as fast as you make it,” says Morka. Races often last 45-60 minutes, and can be a pretty sustained effort. 

Morka suggests getting aggressive tires for whatever bike you plan to ride. They won't slow you down much, but should offer cornering grip. 

In moving to a dedicated cyclocross bike, Morka feels the Trek Crocket (MSRP $1799) and Kona's Jake the Snake (MSRP $1699) offer really good value for the price. Most brands have budget-minded models starting at just over $1000. As with any other bike, prioritize fit and comfort rather than getting distracted by high end parts.

There's no replacement for getting out on a bike and racing. Hardwood, Hills, north of Barrie, Ontario, and host to the 2015 Pan Am Games mountain bike competition hosts a cyclocross series this fall. Known as Mountain Cross, the series is open to riders of any age, on CX or mountain bikes. Held Wednesday evenings, registration opens at 4:30, with races starting at 6pm. No lights are needed. 

The atmosphere at a 'cross race sets the sport apart from other forms of cycling. Costumes and cowbells, while not the rule, are certainly not just an exception. Friends and family can easily watch most of the race from one vantage point thanks to the tight course layout. With the popularity of cyclocross, there are clubs all over hosting clinics and races, and with minimal requirements for new gear, cyclocross is a perfect opportunity to get out there this fall. 
Visit out online event calendar for a complete listing on cyclocross events in your area.

By Dean Campbell


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