Cyclo-cross originated as a way for riders to keep racing throughout the winter months instead of just plugging away at the boring base miles. And it worked.
The discipline is growing and adapting, and with adventure cross and summer leagues, as well as showcase events that cater for novice through to elites, there’s something for everyone.
Sustaining your enthusiasm on long rides is hard, especially in miserable weather, but mixing it up – riding on and off-road – helps you to stay sane. However, many are put off cross by the inevitable mud and dirt. But winter conditions make roads mucky, wet and gravelly anyway, so you’re likely to come back filthy from a road ride in any case.
There’s no denying that getting out on the cross bike for a ride brings a whole new dynamic to your training. Being able to switch between woods, road, fields and bridlepaths leads to a more interesting and fun ride. And you’ll become a better rider for it.
Ride whatever the weather
Buying a cross bike is a solid investment. Not only can these versatile machines switch between terrain types, but they can also cope with varying weather conditions. Fitting ice tyres allows you to keep riding even when snow hits. When the ground is very wet, you can still go off-road with some mud-specific tyres.
Having a cross bike as your only steed doesn’t mean you can’t venture out on the club run, as switching back to road tyres is extremely simple. Dabbling with a bit of cross riding helps to while away those winter blues, allowing you to get out and about, and avoiding sitting on the turbo for hours on end.
Cyclo-cross may seem daunting, but there is no need to worry. Just go out and explore! If you need inspiration, there are cross-specific sportives out there for you to try, and none better to start with than CW’s very own Lakeland Monster Miles event on October 6 in Keswick. So go and get a taster to see what’s needed for a good cyclo-cross ride.
With adventure-cross events on the rise, you should be able to find a fun route to give cyclo-cross riding a go without the worry of getting lost. Riding off-road means slower speeds, so don’t have to be as long in terms of distanceYou’ll be out for the same time and putting in the same intensity as you would on the road. Going slower while maintaining intensity is good news both for fitness and staying warm.
Become a better rider
Cyclo-cross riding is not only great for maintaining fitness and preventing boredom. It also helps with improving bike-handling skills and confidence.
Going off-road on a bike similar to your road bike really helps develop skills you might feel you struggle with if you started cycling later in life. Coping with technical terrain, getting round muddy corners, sliding over wet, slippery roots, jumping off and on your bike smoothly: these challenges reveal just how far you can push your bike, increasing your confidence.
When summer comes back round, hitting the road will seem like a doddle, as you’ve been tackling much tougher tests. What’s more, because cross riding is more dynamic, with more moving around on the bike to maintain your balance, your core strength will improve. Carrying the bike and having to negotiate tricky technical sections improves upper body strength, too. These areas are often neglected by cyclists but are important for staying balanced and stable on the bike so that more energy can be transferred through the pedals.
Winter is a great time for working on the upper body and core, as it’s a time when bulking up and carrying a little excess weight doesn’t matter – extra pounds will be quickly lost come summer.
AN adventure Cross to try
Get in some Monster Miles
The wild and beautiful landscape that inspired the Lakeland poets is just as alluring for cyclists, two centuries on.
If the bicycle had existed when Wordsworth wrote his most famous line in 1802, it might well have read: “I pedalled lonely as a cloud.” And if the Cycling Weekly Monster Miles Adventure X on October 6 had been run in his time, Wordsworth definitely would have whipped out his quill and made sure his entry form was there on our doormat on the very first day of registration.
So why are we so sure we could have counted on Wordsworth’s participation as our guest literary celebrity? Well, the two routes, designed in conjunction with bike excursion expert Rather Be Cycling, are aimed at people who, just like our friend WW, want the whole Lakes experience rather than just what they can see from the road.
But the great thing about this event is that it doesn’t exclude roadies. We think we’ve come up with the perfect balance of surfaces and created a unique sportive that is doable by regular sportivistes who spend most of their season on tarmac as well as by cyclo-crossers or even cross-country mountain bikers. Just over half of it is on roads – quiet, little-used lanes – and the other half is over terrain easily navigable by cyclo-cross bike or at a pinch a road bike with bigger tyres (think Tour of Flanders sportive spec).
If you and your machine can hack a gravelly fire road ascent, a stretch of meandering bridleway and a blast across the grass then that’s basically as technical as it gets. You don’t need suspension and there are no Three Peaks-style shouldering of bikes and slogging up slopes on foot.
It’s the views that are the breathtaking bit, especially at this time of year when the leaves are turning. However, as with any sportive, it’s as tough as you want to make it. Put your head down and hammer round if you’re chasing a time or sit up, take your time and enjoy a fabulous day’s pedalling.
The start and finish are in the town of Keswick and the route circumnavigates the enormous Skiddaw Massif – Skiddaw being the fourth highest mountain in England. There are two routes to choose from: the Massif at 100km with 46km of off-road or the Mini Massif at 71km and 30km of off-road. Do either of them and you will find yourself waxing lyrical about the Lakes for a long time afterwards just like Wordsworth, but if you’re seeing daffodils in October you’ll know you’ve gone a bit too hard…
Adventure cross – Gav McDonald
Director of Rather be Cycling
A cross bike is ideal for linking together those forgotten-about trails, bridleways, forest roads and road sections to make longer rides.
These cyclo-cross rides have rejuvenated my cycling. Getting in over six hours of winter riding and only seeing a dozen cars means stress-free riding.
Cross helps develop technical skills and builds strength and endurance, working the core in a way the road bike doesn’t. Above all, though, it’s got me right back to what I first loved about cycling: getting out and having an adventure rather than just a ride.
Three Peaks – Simon Scarsbrook
Mosquito Bikes RT
“The Three Peaks is not to be underestimated. It’s a unique race in the cyclo-cross calendar, with 38 miles and 5,000ft of climbing, in the Yorkshire Dales.
What goes up must come down, and the calf-stretching, bike-carrying, foot-slog up inhospitable slopes is interspersed with some not-for-the-faint-hearted descending.
It’s a love/hate experience, and there is an ever-growing hardcore of returnees each year. It’s always well supported, and the weather often plays its part in proceedings.
Though it’s tough, once completed, you look back on a grand day out.”
Summer cross – Philip Glowinski
Velo Club de Londres
“The Summer Series in south London is possibly the most friendly and welcoming – within a discipline already renowned for being inclusive.
Egos are left at the office, with serious racers leaving their spare bikes at home and lining up with first-timers and everyone in between.
Once the flag is dropped, though, racing is fast and furious on some excellent courses.
As a tune-up for the upcoming cross season or just for some fun evening racing, the Summer Series is extremely popular with novices and elites alike.”
Skills you need
Here are five skills that every cyclo-cross rider needs, with advice on how to develop them.
When riding cross, there are often a few lines to choose from. Picking the right one can lead to a much smoother and easier rider. What is the best line? This is determined by your level of riding, your aims and the conditions.
If you just want to enjoy riding off-road and are relatively new to challenging terrain, then trying to hit the ‘racing’ line doesn’t need to be your first priority. If you’re riding cross to hone in your bike-handling, challenging yourself with the harder line choice may be constructive.
Whatever line you choose, being smooth and relaxed on the bike is essential. Whether you’re negotiating a flat, muddy corner or a rooty descent, allow the bike to flow and move beneath you. On steeper descents, keep your weight back and use your arms and legs as suspension to soak up any bumps.
Pedalling through muddy sections helps maintain traction. Take corners as you would on the road: go wide, hit the apex, then exit wide. Dip your inside shoulder as you hit the apex, as this transfers weight through the bike and into the tyres, aiding grip, and lowering your centre of gravity.
This also gives greater manoeuvrability to whip the bike around where the corners are fast-flowing. On technical sections, cover the brakes and apply them gently where necessary. If you feel either wheel lock up, causing a slide, release the brakes to regain traction.
To get over small obstacles once into your running stride, grab the top tube of the bike midway along with your bike-side hand. Keep the other hand on the bars and lift the bike as high as is necessary to clear the obstacle.
If you need to run a longer distance with your bike or get up a bank, shouldering the bike is often the better option.
Again, with the hand nearest the bike, grab the down tube midway along 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 your arm through the frame and under the down tube, and hold on to the handlebar on the opposite side.
Once over the obstacle, ease the bike back on to the ground – don’t slam it down or drop it, as this can cause your chain to come off.
Many riders manage without needing to bunny-hop, but it’s a move that, when deployed well, saves a significant amount of time over a log or hurdle, compared to dismounting and running.
On approach to the obstacle, place your hands on the tops as this is a more stable position. Begin by straightening your arms and shifting your body weight back, pulling on the bars. Keep the pedals level in a horizontal position.
Once your front wheel is up, compress your arms and legs by pulling the bike up towards you. Once in the air, push down on your pedals and transfer your body weight forward. Your back wheel will naturally follow up into the air with relative ease.
Next, straighten your arms and push down to regain contact between the front wheel and the ground. Do this rapidly, especially if you are bunny-hopping two obstacles in quick succession.
A smooth dismount is vital in cross, whether doing so to get over a hurdle, negotiate a technical section or to climb a steep bank.
To begin a dismount, hold the tops of the bars is the most stable position, but holding the hoods is another option, and means you can use the brakes if necessary. The aim is to smoothly transfer from riding to running, so try to slow down to a running pace.
To dismount, unclip and swing your lead leg back round over the rear wheel and swing it forward between the left leg and the frame, and stride through as though you’re starting to run. Plant this lead foot on the ground and at the same time unclip your other foot so that you can continue running.
When you want to get back on to start riding, with both hands on the tops of the bars for stability, you need to take a running jump on to the saddle. Launch yourself with your outside leg (farther from the bike), swinging the inside leg over the saddle.
For a split-second, both legs will be in flight simultaneously. Brace against the saddle with the inside of your thigh, and slide into a seated position.
buyer’s guide – Which bike?
If you are thinking of giving cross a go, sort yourself out with a bike as soon as possible. Over the last 18 months, there’s been a flurry of innovative new products and bikes being launched in the ‘cross sector. If you are new to ‘cross, it’s a buyer’s market right now, with many fantastic options including lots of off-the-peg bikes.
Gav McDonald of Rather Be Cycling gives the lowdown in what to look for in a cross bike:
- Gearing Make sure the gearing is low enough for the terrain you plan to be riding.
- Bars If you prefer the more upright position and control that flat bars offer, make sure you choose a bike that offers this option as opposed to the usual drops.
- Tyre clearance Most cross bikes are designed with adequate gaps to allow the mud to clear easily. Check the tyres you’re thinking of using will fit the bike with lots of room to spin freely.
- Braking The biggest innovation in cross bikes has to be the brakes, with cable disc brakes rapidly becoming standard. These allow you to stop quicker in all weathers, offer more braking modulation and are easier to keep adjusted than rim brakes.
- Frame fittings If you’re planning on touring or commuting, rack mounts and mudguard eyelets will be useful. Similarly, some cross bikes come without bottle cage fittings, so if you’re going for long rides, check the bike can accommodate a bottle.
- Frame design Cross frames have unique features specific to meet the demands of cross.
1. Top tube with flat underside for more comfortable shoulder carrying.
2. Cables routed along the top tube to avoid mud-clogging.
3. Higher/longer head tube than an equivalent-sized road bike, giving less saddle-to-bar drop, useful when riding off-road on drop bars.
4. Ensuring there is no toe overlap is vital, as low-speed spills sap your confidence, especially off-road. Make sure your toes do not overlap with the front tyre when your foot is in its normal position on the pedal and the crank is at three o’clock.
This article was first published in the September 12 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!