Knowledge Level: Beginner
Cyclo-cross is one of the most accessible, fun and addictive forms of cycle sport. If you’re looking for a way to keep your cycling motivation high through the winter, add some top end strength and power to your sportive stamina and improve your bike handling skills, it’s definitely for you. Even if you don’t own a cyclocross bike, you can enter many races on a mountain bike and get a feel for the sport. Fortunately, especially if you’ve already cycled through a winter, much of your existing kit and equipment will be ideal for cross.
As with all forms of cycle sport in the UK, a helmet is compulsory for cyclocross and your regular road helmet is ideal. Despite the fact you’re racing through the coldest winter months, you’ll soon be overheating in a cross race so you’ll still be grateful of the cooling vents. Some racers will wear a cotton casquette under their helmet to wick sweat away and to provide some protection against the cold or, if it’s really bitter, might also wear a headband to protect their ears.
A combination of the mud and inevitable running sections make road shoes unsuitable for cyclocross. However, if you already mountain bike, the pedal and shoe combination you use for this is ideal for cross. The multi-sided pedals allow easy clipping and unclipping and will self-clear of mud. Mountain biking shoes have recessed cleats and aggressive tread on the soles to allow easy running on rough and muddy terrain.
Warm-up laps are an essential part of cyclocross racing. They allow you to prepare your body for the effort of the race, check out any technical or difficult sections of the course and ensure you’re running the correct tyre pressure for the conditions. As weather conditions are often bad though, you want to make sure you have extra clothing for warming up. A lightweight windproof gilet is extremely versatile but you might also want to consider taking a full waterproof. A windproof skull-cap will keep you head warm under your helmet and, although you might race in fingerless mitts or without gloves, full finger gloves are better for warming up. Arm and leg warmers are invaluable and can be kept on right until the gun.
Traditionally skin-suits are worn for cyclocross but regular bib-shorts and jersey will serve you just as well. One piece skin-suits are probably marginally warmer as they can’t ride up exposing your back and there are no pockets to catch handlebars or pedals in when carrying the bike. Not everyone feels comfortable wearing them though, there’s nowhere to put your car keys and last minute toilet stops can be tricky. Adjust your base layer according to the conditions but be careful not to overdress as you will be working hard. You don’t need to wear as much as when riding on the road as you won’t be generating the same chilling headwinds. A mesh style vest is often enough or, if it’s very cold, a lightweight merino t-shirt. You should aim to start feeling slightly cold. If you find you need long sleeves, keep your arm warmers on from the warm-up. Similarly, if you think you need to cover your legs, keep your legs warmers on but be wary of wearing too much. Some warming/protective embrocation on your knees is the traditional and surprisingly effective way to take the edge of any chill without risking overheating. Most racers will ride in fingerless track mitts or barehanded for a better and more sensitive grip on the bars. Without the chilling headwind of long descents your hands won’t get as cold as they do on the road and the constant braking, shifting and changing hand positions will also keep them warm.
Food and Drink
If you’ve eaten and hydrated well in the hours leading up to the event, as the races are only 45-60 minutes in duration, you shouldn’t need to carry or consume any food or fluids during it. Cyclocross races normally start mid-morning so breakfast will be your pre-race meal. Try to ensure you have breakfast at least 2 hours before the start of your race and then keep your energy and hydration levels topped up by sipping at an energy drink.
The laps on cyclocross courses are short (typically 1-1.5km) so, there’s no need to carry spares or tools. If you’re unfortunate enough to get a puncture or have a mechanical problem, just run your bike around the rest of the lap to the start/finish or pits and sort it there with the spares and equipment you’ve left there. This could just be the pump, inner tube, tyre levers and multi-tool combination you’d carry on the road, spare wheels if you’ve got them or, in the case of top racers, a whole replacement bike that will have been lovingly cleaned by their pit crew. At the highest level, slick bike changes to a clean spare and a well drilled pit crew can make the difference between winning and losing.
Post race kit and routine
Once the post race adrenaline has worn off, you’re going to chill rapidly so quickly put on some of the layers you used for warming up. Don’t hang around in your muddy wet kit, go straight to your car, strip down, towel off and get some warm clothes on. Fleecy hoodie tops, tracksuit bottoms and a beanie hat are ideal for getting warm quickly. Lay them out in an easy to grab order before the race as you’re likely to be feeling very tired afterwards.
Next go for a snack or a recovery drink you’ve left in the car. A hot thermos of tea, coffee or soup can be an absolute lifesaver and clutching the cup is brilliant for thawing out frozen fingers. It doesn’t need to be a huge meal, just enough to kick start recovery and to make sure you don’t have a blood sugar crash. It’ll almost be lunchtime so you just need something to tide you through.
If you’re having to put your bike in your car, a potable jet-washer that you plug into the cigarette lighter is an excellent upholstery saving investment. Get the worst of the dirt off, run the chain through a rag with some water dispersant spray and give the frame a wipe down. You can do a proper clean once your home, fed, warm and showered.