How to: cyclo-cross
Cyclo-cross, have you been tempted? Here’s some tips on kit for new riders
First off what is cyclo-cross? I’ll assume you’ve never seen or heard of cyclo-cross: really? Where have you been? Cyclo-cross – also called ‘cross or just CX – was a way for road cyclists to keep fit during the winter. Riders would tackle short, off-road circuits with natural or man-made obstacles. The racing was usually only an hour because it’s winter and who wants to be out for longer than that in the winter? Also a short intensive effort was perfect to keep your fitness ticking over. As time went by riders began to specialise, speeds went up and skills improved.
Nowadays, ‘cross is one of the most popular types of racing in the UK. The reason? It’s fun! The circuits are short and unlike a road race, where if you’re not fit enough you’re out, ‘cross races are full of people involved in their own race. Whether they’re at the front battling for top spot; mid-pack trying to beat your personal nemesis; or at the back getting in a hour of suffering in the fresh air.
Family fun for all!
The other big attraction is that it caters for all ages and types. I often see whole families racing. Kids doing the morning race, mum and dad yelling encouragement from the side-lines. Then the kids working in the pits while their parents race. There’s always a slight Lord of the Flies feel to some races, with gangs of muddy lycra-clad kids having the time of their lives! Many races will include some form of catering, as you could be there all day: can you beat a burger in bun on a cold winter day?
So, cyclo-cross is fun, it’s for all ages, all fitness levels and you want to have a go. Let’s look at what you’re going to need to take part.
What bike for cyclo-cross?
As long as you’re only riding your local league, you can use any off-road capable bike. Mtb, fat-bike, gravel or cyclo-cross bike: all are welcome. While early season races can be fast and dry, at some point you will be riding in mud. Unless you have spare bikes and a pit crew with access to a jet washer, you’ll want a bike with plenty of clearance around the wheels. The reason for this is that mud builds up around your forks and chain/seat stays. As the mud builds up it begins to clog your wheels and weigh your bike down. It’s not unusual for your lightweight carbon-fibre bike to become so heavy with mud that you’re reduced to dragging it around the course!
If you use a Mtb try swapping out your fat summer tyres for something a little thinner: 1.8″ if you can find them. With loads of clearance around the tyre you should be relatively clog free. They’ll also cut through the mud and hopefully find some grip. You could also dig out your old rigid Mtb, there’s not often a need for suspension on a ‘cross course: so why carry that extra weight around?
Do you really need a cyclo-cross bike?
However if you’re going to race cyclo-cross then you really want a ‘cross bike. Modern CX bikes are incredibly versatile beasts. You can fit mudguards for winter commuting or training: no issues around clearance! Come the summer they’re super capable on the road: you might need to change the gearing depending on the type of riding you do. Getting back to the racing though, a ‘cross bike will be lighter and easier to shoulder than an Mtb. If you’re just going to dabble in this crazy sport, you might want to try a second-hand bike. There’s always someone selling one and if you really get into it, it can become your second bike.
I started racing CX on an old 90s M900 Cannondale, it was a super-light, fully rigid aluminium frame. It had 26″ wheels and I fitted Schwalbe’s CX Pro tyres. It was fine for the first season or two, but when I got a chance to try out the Raleigh RX, I had to have a ‘proper’ ‘cross bike. That first bike was a real eye-opener and demonstrated how a bigger wheel rolls much easier off-road than a smaller one. Also narrower bars make navigating the hurly-burly of a ‘cross start a lot easier. Now I’m on a Handsling CEXevo an absolute weapon off road.
1x or 2x?
If you are buying a new ‘cross bike, one of the questions you will be asked is “1x or 2x?” Most riders are aware what this means, but for those that don’t, it’s the number of chainrings your bike has. As cassettes have got bigger riders realised they didn’t always need two chain rings, so they switched to just one.
While this created a simpler, lighter drivetrain, it also created some problems. Chains would jump off the chain-ring on rough ground. This was solved by the introduction of increased spring tension in the rear-mech and wide-narrow chainrings. Even with these I’ve ridden races where the mud is so thick it builds up and pushes the chain off the chain-ring. Some riders run chain-catchers to prevent this, but it is a rare occurrence.
As to which you should choose, I would say it’s a personal thing, I run both. Cyclo-cross courses can be incredibly varied, from flat inner-city parks to hilly woodland sites. With slower speeds than on the road – especially if it’s muddy – you’ll be using smaller gears. On a 2x set-up the standard is 46-36, on 1x it’s very much up to the rider: a 40 or 42 tooth is common. With modern bikes now twelve speed, the range cassettes cover is huge. You can go from a 10 all the way to a 52 tooth, if your bike/gears can take it.
A 1x is useful on muddy courses as there are less places for the mud to stick to. It also means that you are using all the gears, unlike with 2x where you have gear duplication. You also shed some weight, losing the front derailleur and a 1x specific left hand lever has simpler internals: marginal gains, but still gains.
When it comes to 2x while you do have more real-estate for mud to collect, you gain a wider range of gears. This can be handy on dry courses with fast sections. I’ve ridden courses where a higher top end has been useful and if you ride on the road, then it makes a lot of sense. So that’s 1x or 2x sorted, it comes down to how and what you ride: like a lot of things ‘cross, there is no definitive answer.
Now we come to the big one, the one that causes more internet action than anything else: tyres. Rock up to a CX race and ask “what tyres should I use” and you’ll not be short of company. Officially you are only allowed 33mm wide tyres, if it’s a UCI event, but most leagues will allow 35-38mm. The choices of tyre tread and type of tyre are bewildering. First up you have three types of tyre; tubular, tubeless and clincher, so let’s look at these first.
Tubulars are for the die-hard aficionado only. These tyres contain an inner-tube that is sewn into a tyre, creating a continuous tube. They are then glued onto a tubular specific rim and that is a whole dark art that warrants its own article. According to their supporters, tubulars offer mythical levels of grip and feel. They let you run crazy low pressures, which is important when the terrain gets sloppy.
Using low pressures allows the tyre to spread and grip the ground. Running too high a pressure would have your tyre bouncing off the terrain and spinning, or slipping out. Also, in the event of a puncture a tubular tyre can be ridden flat for a while: hopefully long enough to get to the pits. The rim’s shape also means that despite the low pressures, there’s little chance of getting a pinch-puncture. Pinch-punctures happen when the inner-tube gets trapped between the rim and tyre by a hard impact, usually something like a stone or root.
The downside of tubulars are the expense – although tubeless are catching up! – and the faff. What’s the faff? Well, do a search on how to glue a tubular tyre, this is not a quick process, so quick tyre changes are out. If you want to have a choice of tyres you’ll need multiple wheelsets. While you can run sealant in tubulars, if it fails to seal repairing the puncture isn’t easy. You’ll also need to look after your tyres, checking that the glue hasn’t dried or the sidewalls haven’t started to rot.
Tubeless tyres are still relatively new to cyclo-cross, although they have been used by Mtb riders for a long time. They work in the same way as a car tyre, where the tyre’s air pressure forces it against the side of the rim forming a seal. No inner tube is needed, which means no pinch punctures. They can be run at lower pressures than clinchers, but not quite as low as tubulars. As with tubulars you can use sealant to deal with any minor punctures. This allows you to continue without having to stop: often you’ll finish a race unaware you’ve had a puncture. Any large holes can be sealed with plugs, a quick process that can be done mid-race if necessary.
The problem with tubeless is that there is a huge variation in sizes between tyres and rims. This means that fitting can be a simple ten minute job, or major marathon. I use tubeless and once I have a rim-tyre combination that works, I tend to stick with it. I have often been able to perform tyre changes before a race. A tubeless tyre can also “burp” when pushed hard at low pressures. A burp happens when part of the tyre comes away from the rim, releasing air and sealant in a rush: a burp. This can happen just the once, allowing you to carry on, or multiple times leaving you with a flat tyre.
Clinchers are what most people will recognise as a standard bicycle tyre. This uses a rubber/latex tube that sits inside the tyre. The tyre hooks onto the rim via a bead that runs around both edges. The inner tube then forces the tyre and rim together. They are ok for for training or if you’re just having a go, but you can’t run them at low pressures without risking pinch punctures. The upside is that they’re really easy to change and repair.
Tyre tread pattern
You thought choosing a tyre type was difficult, now we get into tread patterns! Again this is another area where you have to find what works for you. Tyre companies spend a lot of time researching the tread they apply to their tyres and it’s not just the shape. Many tyres will have different layers of rubber, with softer compounds on the edges for extra grip. Harder materials underneath ensure that the tread holds it’s shape under pressure. You can also find specialist tyres for sand or snow/ice, but for this article we’ll stick to mud. So let’s look at some tread types, you can separate them into dry, mixed and mud.
Dry tyres have minimal tread – usually a diamond pattern – sometimes with taller added grip on the edges. The idea here is that you want minimum drag from extreme tread slowing you down over dry ground.
Mixed tread will get you through those early season races, where the ground is wet, but not full-on gloop. So the tread becomes more aggressive, allowing you to find grip. Mixed terrain tyres will get you through most but the muddiest of races, so could be the tyre to go for if can only have one.
Finally we get to the full on mud-tyre. These will have a tall, widely spaced tread. Tall, so that they can reach down through the mud and hopefully find some grip. Widely spaced to limit how much mud sticks to the tyre and allow it to clear. If the mud can’t clear the the tyre rapidly becomes a muddy, slick disc with no grip. If you live in an area that you know is very muddy and only have one bike, then go for a mud tyre: you’ll get more use out of it.
Brakes, disc or rim?
Only two choices here, much easier eh? Traditionally ‘cross bikes used rim brakes, much like road bikes. Unlike road bikes they used cantilever or mini-V brakes. Both these brakes used cables that pulled on the brake arms, which then pushed against the rim. Disc brakes work when brake pads press against a rotor, which is attached to the hub, away from the mud. The force is applied either by hydraulics or cable: go with hydraulics, much better.
If you are buying a new ‘cross bike, it will come with disc brakes and for off-road riding they are my first choice. Why? Power and control is the answer. With hydraulic disc brakes you have more than enough power to bring your bike to a stop. You also have the ability to control that power so that you don’t slide out, unless you want to. Being able to initiate and control a skid can be a useful skill off-road.
Disc brakes also free up space around the top of your wheel where rim brakes and their cables sit. This area is a prime position for leaves, twigs or bit of course tape to get trapped and then fill with mud: eventually bringing you to a halt. Also, not using your rims as the braking surface saves them from the wear and tear they would normally suffer. Lightweight aluminium rims don’t last long when constantly being rubbed with sand and grit.
Rim brakes are still an option for cyclo-cross, they just suffer when the mud is bad. If you have a spare bike and a pit crew you can get them to clean it: however most of us don’t. Something in their favour is maintenance. Maintaining rim brakes is pretty simple, which is a plus. You can adjust them out in the field with simple tools: ever tried a last minute bleed in a car park, in the rain? While they don’t have the power of discs, you could argue that with the slower speeds of ‘cross, maybe it’s not such an issue?
What else do you need?
Cyclo-cross started as a winter sport: in fact there’s a push to get it into the winter Olympics. This means you are going to be spending a lot of time outdoors in cold wet weather. So let’s take a look at clothing. When you arrive at a race you’re going to want to do a sighting lap, this gives you a chance to check ground conditions and race lines. Which means getting covered in mud and possibly wet before you start. So take along something to warm up in.
For your legs a pair of leggings like Nopinz’s are perfect, they’re warm, waterproof and can be whipped off just before the start. A warm waterproof jacket is a definite, you’ll often be hanging around before the start, so make sure you keep warm. It’s not just the start either, try and have something to change into as soon as you finish. Don’t assume you can use the same gear as you warmed up in, it might have gotten wet and muddy while you were racing.
When it comes to what to wear when you’re actually racing, I would generally just wear my normal cycling kit. Here in the UK we don’t have super cold winters, so I generally wear shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. Occasionally I’ll add arm or knee-warmers, especially if it’s really muddy as it helps with the clean up later! Many riders will use a skinsuit, which makes sense: no need for pockets on these short races.
Occasionally you will be racing in bright winter sunlight, but not often. Mostly a pair of clear glasses can be useful for keeping dirt out of your eye. I’ve gotten conjunctivitis from mud in the eye a few times, so I would recommend them. The only problem is that if it’s really muddy you end up not being able to see. Which leaves you with what to do with them, throw them to a friend on the side-lines? Stick them in your helmet and hope they don’t fall off? Which is why I tend to buy cheap glasses, that way losing a pair isn’t a big deal.
Cyclo-cross and Mtb shoes are pretty much the same. You’ll want a pair that are stiff enough for racing, don’t worry about flexibility for running. While a ‘cross circuit may have some running, it’s usually a pretty short section, so I would favour a stiff shoe. However you will want a shoe that can take spikes, most organisers will include a steep slope that cannot be ridden. So you will be off and running up a hill, which will probably be slippery with mud. Toe spikes will let you dig in and get some grip. It would be nice to have something similar on the heel for steep descents, like Lake’s MX331 shoes.
I wouldn’t worry about any getting water-proof shoes either. Running through muddy puddles means water will fill your shoes from the top and it then can’t escape. Remember the races are short – especially if you’re a vet – so you’re only going to be wet for a while!
There are loads of pedal systems out there, I assume you’ll be using clipless? Some riders do ride on flats or clips and strap, but it’s rare nowadays. You’ll be able to put down a lot more power with clipless, plus you feel more connected with the bike.
Most pedals systems will work fine in dry conditions, but add mud, grass, gravel and so on and you can soon find yourself struggling to clip in. Riders will try and knock them clear on the side of their pedal, but that rarely works: worth trying though. I’ve used Time, Look and am currently using Crank Bros Eggbeaters. The Eggbeaters seem to deal with mud the best, but even they can get overloaded.
Now get out and ride!
So there you go, that’s my kit advice. I’m no expert, theses are just things that I’ve found to be useful during my time in the mud. If you’re just starting out you won’t need everything at once: who knows you might not like it. However my bet is you’ll be hooked. What could be more fun that chasing your mates around a muddy field on a cold, wet Sunday morning? If you live in the UK head over to British Cycling’s cyclo-cross page for advice on how to get involved.