Your Guide to Cyclocross Season

By Molly Hurford

Cyclocross racing has started in Ontario, and whether you’re new to the sport or you’ve been racing for years, you might be feeling a little intimidated heading into the season. Cyclocross racing—essentially a hybrid of road and mountain biking typically done in local parks on a 2-to-3-kilometer course—is an awesome way to spend weekends in the fall. But since many of us haven’t raced cyclocross in a couple years due to the pandemic, our skills and our race day planning might be a little rusty. Here, we’re talking about a few tips to help any racer make their way to the start line feeling confident.  

Prep your bike

If you have a dedicated cyclocross bike, it’s time to give it a quick check: Race day shouldn’t be the first time you’re dusting the cobwebs off! Check your tires, your shifting, and your brakes. And yes, you can absolutely try racing cyclocross with a mountain bike. You can also race cyclocross on a gravel bike, especially as a beginner, though you’ll want to go to your local bike shop and invest a bit in more cyclocross friendly tires, since you’ll be riding on grass and mud as often as you are on gravel in most races.  

Photo by Molly Hurford

Unfortunately for us Ontario racers (or fortunately, depending on your attitude towards snow!), the cyclocross season can have wild weather change week to week and even over the course of a weekend. Races are still held in snow and freezing rain—if anyone remembers Nationals or Pan-American Championships in 2019 in Peterborough and Midland!—which can make for fun racing, but very messy and cold cleanup. Bring multiple jerseys and shorts or skinsuits to ride and race in for a weekend, and add in jackets and warmup tights to keep yourself warm as you pre-ride the course and get ready to race. Cyclocross weather is challenging, so don’t add challenge by not having enough warm, dry gear! 

Bring the whole family 

If you’ve been trying to get your kids or spouse into racing, cyclocross is arguably the most beginner-friendly cycling discipline there is. Courses are short so you’re never far from your car, it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are, and the courses are challenging but rarely scary in any technical capacity. Compared to road racing where new riders often end up dropped from a pack and riding alone for long stretches of time, or mountain biking, which can be intimidating technically, cyclocross is pretty low-key. And the community is amazing! 

BYOC(Cowbell) 

Come prepared to cheer other racers on (assuming that you’re allowed to have spectators at the venue, check for current COVID protocols and regulations before planning a day around spectating!). Half the fun of cyclocross is the camaraderie that happens around the race venue: Enjoy your race, but also stick around to cheer other riders on, even if you don’t know anyone. Trust me, you’ll make new friends! 

Practice cornering 

Whether you’re a beginner or a longtime racer, it’s a good idea to get back into the cyclocross swing of things by practicing your cornering on different surfaces before heading to the race. Cyclocross races will have dozens of corners during the course of a lap, and the smoother you can be sailing around them, the less work you’ll have to do.  

Have a dismount/remount plan 

Again, whether you’re a beginner or a longtime racer, you should have a plan for how you’ll get on and off your bike. Cyclocross’s primary differentiating feature that makes it so different as a discipline is that almost every course will force riders to get off bikes and walk or run over certain features like barriers, a steep climb, a large log, or a mud pit. And that can be scary or intimidating, even if you’ve been racing for years.  

For a new racer, figuring out a way on and off the bike could mean attending a skills clinic or researching videos online for remounting and dismounting your bike comfortably, or just practicing quickly coming to a stop, stepping off of your bike, then stepping back on and restarting. Because you’ll only need to do it a few times in each race, don’t stress about this too much. Eventually, you’ll want to hone your skill, but just get started by dismounting and remounting in a way that feels comfortable for you.  

For a longtime racer, this could be just checking that your remount and dismount skills are still intact after a long break from racing CX. It could also mean doing a course pre-ride where you decide if certain features are worth dismounting for versus bunny-hopping over.  

Photo by Molly Hurford

Do a course pre-ride 

Make sure you get to the race early enough to do at least one lap of the course. Not only will this help give you confidence that you’re going to make it through the 30 to 60 minutes of racing, it will inform you of gear choices if you’re a veteran racer debating tire pressure or which wheelset to use. Not pre-riding means that when the start whistle blows, you’re racing without any idea what’s coming up ahead. You’ll get through, but you’ll be slower on corners and over obstacles, because you won’t know what to expect. (And yes, even if you’ve done this specific race before, it’s worth pre-riding to test your gear and to double-check that the organizers haven’t added any tricky segments!) 

Have fun! 

The most important part of cyclocross, whether you’re racing a local weekly series or crossing the finish line at World Championships, is having fun. The sport was literally designed for that purpose: It started in Europe 70 or so years ago when pro road racers, bored of training on the road in bad weather in the fall and winter, took to riding through farm fields and local forests, challenging each other to do whackier and whackier things. There are even early photos of cyclocrossers fording rivers and streams, throwing their bikes down into the water and jumping in after them! So, keep the spirit of the sport alive and enjoy every muddy minute of it.  

Want more cyclocross tips and tricks? My podcast, The Consummate Athlete, just covered cyclocross basics and advanced tactics and you can listen here: https://consummateathlete.com/get-started-or-return-to-cyclocross/ 

About the writer:

Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.