Cyclo-cross is on the up in the UK, with more people buying all-purpose cross bikes and many long-distance adventure cross sportives being introduced. Brush up on your skills and enjoy the challenge of riding skinny tyres off-road
Riding off-road on a bike similar to your road bike really helps improve bike-handling skills. Being able to manoeuvre round muddy corners, slide over wet, slippery roots, smash through sandpits and jump on and off your bike smoothly makes you not only more confident in your own abilities but also in how far you can push your bike.
It presents new challenges, encourages you to develop new skills and takes you to places you can’t get to on a road bike.
The versatility of cross bikes makes for an exciting change to your riding as it allows you to switch from road to woods to bridlepaths without worrying that you’re on the ‘wrong’ bike. Adventure-cross sportives are run on routes specifically designed for cross bikes, where a wide variety of different terrains will keep you on your toes.
Before you take part in an event for the first time, here are a few skills to help you tackle anything the course designer throws at you, whether that be a fallen tree, a rooty descent or a section of loose rocks.
Coming to a steep downhill when off-road can be nerve-racking initially, so stay relaxed and go with the flow. Keep your brakes covered (which for people with small hands may mean getting on the drops in order to reach them) so you can adjust your speed easily.
Lean your weight back slightly and sit right on the back of the saddle, keeping your weight low as this will prevent you going over the bars on steeper downhills and gives greater control for manoeuvring. Look where you want to go, as you will inevitably steer to where you are looking, and if it’s a massive tree you’re looking at you may end up hitting it!
Keep your eyes on the terrain ahead to give you time to prepare for it. If you need to control your speed try to use both brakes together with the emphasis on the rear, as grabbing a handful of front brake could send you over the bars or send your front wheel into a slide. If you do feel the wheels locking up, let the brakes go as this will increase traction again as your tyres grip the surface.
Often in cyclo-cross there are a few different line options for one bit of trail. Choosing the right one is important as hitting a root or rut at the wrong angle can bring you to a standstill or take you off, while nailing the right line can send you sailing through a technical section with ease. Looking ahead at the terrain is vital to give you time to pick your line and make the right adjustments.
When riding cross you’re often hitting corners at much lower speeds than on the road. This enables you to pedal through some corners and in doing so you’ll find greater grip on the muddy terrain.
Obviously for sharper or faster turns which you can’t pedal through, employ the same procedure as you would on the road, keeping your inside pedal up while pushing down through your outside leg, keeping it straightened, to increase grip.
Any adjustment of speed should be done before the corner as hitting the brakes as you turn could cause you to slip out. As you hit the apex of the corner, dipping the inside shoulder will help transfer weight through the bike and into the tyres, forcing the tyres into the ground and increasing your grip. It will also lower your centre of gravity, giving greater manoeuvrability to whip the bike around the corners.
Dismount and shouldering
This skill is not often used outside cross racing, but being able to get off the bike smoothly is handy, as some terrain is too steep and muddy to ride and you may need to carry your bike for a short distance. Using the right technique will make it much easier than pushing your bike through rocks or mud.
Brake to adjust your speed ready for dismounting. As you come up to the point you need to get off the bike, unclip and swing your lead leg over the back of the back wheel. Bring this leg in-between the opposite leg, which is still in the pedal, and the frame of the bike and stride through as if you were starting to run. Plant this lead leg on the ground whilst unclipping the opposite leg and bring it down to follow through and continue running.
Once into your running stride, with the hand nearest the bike grab the middle of the down tube by passing your arm through the main triangle and lift the bike up onto your shoulder in one fluid motion. The top tube of the bike should rest in the groove between your neck and shoulder.
To hold it in place as you run, hook the forearm of your carrying arm under the down tube so you can hold on to the drop of the opposite side of the bars (see picture).