Cross is coming. For some, cross is already here. Heck, there are places where cross never leaves. If you are reading this, you probably already know what cross is all about or at least understand the theory behind all that barrier hopping and flying mud. Maybe you’ve been thinking about trying a race but are not sure how to begin. What are the rules? What do I ride? What do I wear? How do I even sign up?
Many have made the mental commitment to try a cyclo-cross race but now the season is upon us and it’s time to roll up to the start line. If you’ve joined a team or race club, you’re likely to already have plenty of support from fellow beginners or seasoned upper category racers. The rest of us, whether through circumstance or by choice, race as a team of 1. This is especially true for the first season, which can make learning a new sport that much harder. I recently held a women’s basic cx skills clinic and during the Q&A session, the same basic concerns came up again and again. So, here are a few quick tips for surviving your first year of cross, especially if you decide to tackle it solo:
Step 1: Find a bike shop who knows cyclo-cross. Notice I didn’t say “a shop who sells cyclo-cross bikes”. It’s hard to find a shop that doesn’t sell cx bikes, but make sure someone there knows what it’s like to race them. As a shop owner, of course I hope to be the place my customers buy their bikes but I can’t possibly offer every bike in the market in every size and at every budget. Instead, we can offer a first-hand knowledge of the sport. So you might not be able to buy a bike there, but you should at least find a shop where, in exchange for buying your race season consumables (tubes, cables, pedals, nutrition, bike wash, etcetera) you get ask for racing tips, course insight, tire pressure advice and current news about your local scene. Plus, you’ll have a shop that can service your race bike and keep it in tip top shape all season. You get the chance to get to know them and the next time you shop for a new bike, you’ll already have a solid relationship with a shop you trust.
Step 2: Find a bike…that fits! FIT is way more important than FANCY. What I mean is, don’t sweat it if you find a bike that is a few seasons old or is brand new with entry level components. Bikes and drive trains are upgradeable. Don’t buy a “sweet bike from a friend-of-a-friend because it is a killer deal and has carbon tubulars” and blow off the fact that it is a size too big. You will be miserable. Most shops offer a free fitting with new bike purchase, so take advantage of that service. If you are buying used on the private market, invest in a professional fitting from a reputable shop (see Step 1). That way, you know what size works for you and what doesn’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cognizant of the functionality of your components. If you buy used, take the bike to your local shop for a performance evaluation. A good question to ask them is “will this bike’s mechanical parts perform properly for a season of racing?” They won’t have a crystal ball and can’t guarantee that you won’t rip a rear derailleur off in the mud, but can and should tell you if your bike’s parts are in good working order for the job at hand. Also, talk to them about whether your bike and/or your gear is appropriate for racing cross. Yes, you can race a mountain bike. No, you can’t even race your road bike if it has discs. (I’ve heard this question more than once). Yes, you can race in flat pedals. No, you shouldn’t race with toe clips even though they did it in the 1980’s. (You’d be surprised).
Step 3: Learn the basics…and the rules. Even if it’s a casual meeting at a park with friends, find a way to practice skills. I never attended a race clinic before I pinned on a number for the first time, but was lucky enough to have a husband and some co-workers who had raced. They were invaluable in showing me the ropes and answering all my questions. They helped me set up water bottles and twigs to mock up barriers and were around to untangle me when I forgot to unclip during a dismount and landed in a heap. If you are able, attend a clinic. Whether it is a free clinic put on by a shop (See Step 1) or a paid clinic put on by a professional, clinics help solidify the basic skills needed to be successful at a race. You can never have too much practice and having someone on the ground to help you nail your remount is essential. The most rad thing about cyclo-cross is that it has the lowest barrier of entry of any form of bicycle racing. Almost anyone can participate, if they can conquer these basics: Dismount/Remount/Portaging/Barriers/Cornering. If you don’t have friends or family or a partner to help you practice, you can at the very least get your hands on a how-to book for cyclo-cross. There are many good ones out there. Don’t let all the super technical chapters overwhelm you. Just stick to the bare essentials. You’ll learn a little each time you practice and a lot each time you race. If you are motivated enough to race a whole season, usually lasting September to December, you’ll be amazed at what a difference a few races make. Lastly, take some time to learn the rules. Your local race organization should have a list of rules online. There is also the national organization, USAC, who outlines the rules for every discipline of bicycle racing offered in the US. You can also email the individual race organizers or ask your local bike shop (See Step 1). Rules may vary from local races to national events so familiarize yourself with them before you race. Some rules are punishable by disqualification, though most races and race officials will help you avoid those mistakes, especially as a beginner. Don’t be surprised if you get friendly, but valuable race-day input from your fellow racers if they see you committing an official or un-official faux pas. Cyclo-cross is a very supportive discipline and folks will always be willing to lend a hand.
Step 4: Fitness. Get some, even if it is a little, but don’t stress about needing to be “race” fit. Be realistic about your approach. For those of you looking to have fun, then just go out and have fun. If you want to win, you need to be fit and well-practiced. If podiums are your goal, then figure out a fitness plan that works for you. There are myriad approaches to getting fit, from books to online training plans to hiring a professional coach. I had specific goals a few seasons ago that I knew I couldn’t meet without the help of a coach. Not only did they keep me motivated but they helped me learn how to be a racer, not just do work-outs. Cyclo-cross is hard. Even if you go “slow” and enjoy hanging out at the back of the pack (some of the best racing action and the most fun happens there) it is still 30-60 minutes of effort and you might find it a more enjoyable experience if you aren’t gasping like a codfish. You don’t have to do intervals, you don’t need to have base miles and you don’t need to warm up on a trainer. You can do all these things if you want and they each have their benefits, but you should be more focused on being competent with your basic skills and comfortable enough on the bike to ride (and maybe some running) for the length of your race at your desired speed. It is also possible to “race into shape”, gaining fitness along the way just as you gain ability and improve your skills. There will always be someone faster than you just there will always be someone slower, so don’t worry about where you finish your first season. Podiums are a bonus.
Of course, the more serious you get about racing, the more there is to learn and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. But there’s plenty of time for that. The first race should be about exploring a new sport and a new scene. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Lastly, remember that racing doesn’t have to just mean you against everyone else. Race against the course. Race against yourself. Or just pin on your number and enjoy riding your bike around a fun and challenging course with dozens of your new friends. Either way, take a breath and get ready for the whistle. Once it blows, start pedaling and remember to smile. After you cross the finish line, high-five a fellow racer and congratulate yourself on a job well done.