Skinny tyres, mud, short, sharp off-road races, with hurdles, obstacles and intense action. That’s cyclo-cross, a form of off-road racing that predates mountain biking by decades.
Cyclo-cross is also one of the most accessible forms of cycle sport with racing for everyone from young kids to grandmothers. Throughout the autumn and winter, it’s probably taking place in a park near you.
Although ultra competitive and technical at the highest level, cyclo-cross is one of the most accessible forms of cycle sport, with racing categories from under 12 to over 50 and everything from regional leagues in local parks to world-class events attracting riders from across the globe.
Cyclo-cross bikes are from a distance, very similar to road bikes, with 700c wheels, rigid frames and forks and dropped handlebars. However, there are significant differences; cyclo-cross bikes have wider knobbly tyres, slighter lower gearing, different frame geometry, more clearance for mud and either cantilever or disc brakes.
Cyclo-cross takes place in off-road venues such as public parks and other open spaces. Surfaces can include grass, mud, gravel and sand. Courses are short and winding, enabling multiple laps to be completed within a set distance. Courses often feature obstacles such as hurdles and sand pits, forcing riders to dismount and carry or run with their bikes. Some courses are more ‘technical’ than others, featuring tight single-track trails, tree roots and other obstacles.
At a local level, cyclo-cross races are multi-lap events usually lasting for an hour for senior riders, with shorter distances for other categories. At the end of the set time, a bell is rung signifying the last lap, known as the ‘bell lap’. Racing seldom sees large bunches forming due to the nature of the terrain, with groups of two or three riders forming at the most. Cyclo-cross is often a personal battle between the rider and the course, making it engaging for riders of all abilities. There’s no ‘getting dropped from the bunch’ in cyclo-cross.
Most local cycling clubs are heavily involved in the cyclo-cross season, which generally runs through the autumn and winter, although summer cyclo-cross leagues are becoming more popular. Riding club events is a great way to start, allowing you to build your skills and confidence and pick up tips from more experienced riders. Many clubs run cyclo-cross skills sessions for young people and adults. Contact your local club to see what’s happening in your area.
Cyclo-cross racing is an autumn and winter sport, with well-organised leagues throughout the country. Races are easily accessible, often only requiring a day licence to take part. For local events, you don’t need even need a dedicated cyclo-cross bike, you can have a go on any decent cross-country mountain bike.
Cyclo-cross events are great for spectators, as racing takes place in a relatively small, self contained area. The atmosphere is friendly and you’ll get to see plenty of the action, as courses often loop through the same area a few times per lap. All events from regional leagues to national championships are free to watch, so why not come along to the next one and show your support? You never know, you might end up riding the next one!
Support the sport by volunteering your time and skills at your local cyclo-cross event. There are opportunities for a variety of roles including timekeepers, judges, and scrutineers. British Cycling has a range of volunteer education courses to support your development.