Cyclo-cross terrain tips

Cyclo-cross terrain tips

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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

Throughout the course of a cyclo-cross season, you can expect to encounter a full range of weather, under tyre conditions and obstacles. Fortunately multiple-time national cyclo-cross champion Nick Craig is on hand to give you the knowledge to cope with the worst the British winter and course designers can throw at you.

Technique is King

In cyclo-cross, technique is the single most important factor. You could take a rider like Paul Oldham and put him on a bike with slick rock hard tyres and he’d still be able to ride a tricky off-camber.

Many newcomers to cyclo-cross struggle or get frustrated because their road fitness and power doesn’t necessarily match their performance. Work on your skills and technique as well as fitness in training. Learn during and from races. If a line didn’t work on your first lap, try something different on the next and don’t worry about making mistakes. If there were sections you didn’t manage in a race, identify what techniques you were lacking and work on them


Getting your tyres and tyre pressure right can really help but multiple wheel options and tubs aren’t practical and affordable for most people. For racing in the UK, a clincher or tubeless set-up with an open block pattern that clears well and has a decent edge to it will do the job in almost all conditions. If you’re riding clinchers, think about the whole course. Running them at super low pressure might gain you some traction but if it causes you to pinch flat on a rocky or root filled section, it’s not worth it. Consider your weight, riding style and technical ability and make a balanced sensible decision.

Hard, dry and dusty

Not something you see much of in Britain but it does crop up at early season races. It’s really tricky to ride, as it is more slippery than you think and, with the ground being harder, it’s the only time I really worry about crashing. There’s less room and time for correction. Like on the road, you’ve got grip one moment and then it’s suddenly and unexpectedly gone. Getting tyre pressure right can be a challenge. You want them soft enough for straight lines but not collapsing on the corners. If in doubt, err on the side of a little firmer.

Deep mud

Look ahead for what’s in front of you and try to scope out the best line. The most popular line will tend to be the deepest mud. In wet mud, this can often still be the fastest line but, as mud dries out and gets tacky, you want to try to hunt out alternatives and look for unworn grassy patches. Be adaptable and change line choice as conditions and the course change.

Wet grass

The staple of most British cyclo-cross courses and, when it’s wet and slippery, will really highlight good and bad technique, especially once you start hitting tight turns and off-cambers. Adjust your body position to maximise grip. If you watch a top cyclo-cross racer, they’re cat-like on the bike and constantly moving and adjusting their position. Getting power down efficiently to accelerate out of corners is an essential skill. Don’t just mash your pedals but apply and build power gently and progressively. Wheel spinning is just wasted energy.


Sand develops lots of ruts that are always changing. The secret is to keep your hands relaxed on the bar-top and not to fight the front wheel. Keep relaxed and let it move about. Push a big gear and hit the sand at speed. Watch some video footage of the Dutch and Belgian guys to see how it’s done. Cyclocross is all about maintaining momentum and you have to be clever and think ahead to maintain it. If there’s a section of the course, like a sandy patch or some deep mud, that will require a big effort, back-off and recover just before it.

Ice and snow

Fresh snow is very similar to riding through sand and the same tips apply. Ice or frozen compacted snow is always fun. I’ve raced in the winter and found myself doing 25 mph over sheet ice and the golden rule is don’t do anything. Don’t steer, don’t brake, keep relaxed and just hold a straight line. When you hit the corners, unleash your inner child. Slide, skid, use you inside leg as an outrigger and just have fun. Coming out of the turns, put the power down gently and feel for grip.

Rocks and roots

If there’s a rocky section, the most important thing is not to pinch flat. Ride lightly and cautiously and make sure you’ve enough pressure in your tyres. Be aware of where your rear is. It’s no good steering your front wheel around a sharp rock and then hitting it and gashing open a sidewall on the rear. With roots, lighten or unweight the bike and try to hit them square on. This is a key technique and is done by adopting the setup for a bunny-hop but, rather than leaving the ground, you skim over it.