Have you ever considered taking up the sport of cyclocross? Cross is a fantastic way of keeping up your fitness levels during the cold/dark winter months. But what exactly is cross and what does it entail? Read our latest blog Cyclocross – the lowdown, to find all you need to know about this exhilarating and fun form of off-road racing
Cyclocross is a very specific type of cycle racing which is traditionally held during the winter months. However, thanks to its popularity and the demand for race places it is becoming more of a year-round form of racing. For the most part, the course is set on a short off-road circuit of approximately 2.5 to 3.5km (1.5 – 2 miles). This circuit will often consist of varied terrains such as wooded trails, tarmac and grass.
There are also various natural and manmade obstacles set around the course which test the riders riding skills to the maximum. It will often be necessary to dismount and carry the bike over or around these obstacles to continue on with the race. Steep grass banks, tree roots and mud are some of the most common obstacles. If the natural obstacles are not sufficient, you may see organisers throw in the odd log or sandpit to make things a little more interesting.
Unlike most road races which are based on distance, cyclocross races are instead time-based (measured by the number of laps). Dependent upon your race category, the race can be as quick as 30 minutes (for beginners), or as long as 60 minutes (for elites/pros). Another reason for the popularity of the sport is no matter whether you are a beginner or elite you still compete around the same course and face the same trials.
Cyclocross racing as we know it today can trace its roots back to early 20th century France, 1902 to be precise. Its birth is attributed to a French soldier by the name of Daniel Gosseau who organised the first-ever national championship race. However, it seems that a predecessor to cross was already in existence. ‘Steeple chasing’ as it was referred to was a very simplistic concept. First, a distant landmark on the skyline would be chosen at random. The protagonists would then race each other to be the first to reach this point. The event was very much as the crow flies, even if this resulted in riders clambering over fences or wading through streams.
Modern Day Cyclocross
Modern-day Cyclocross is one of the fastest-growing cycling disciplines. This is in no small part thanks to them being completely free from traffic. Most road races (but especially time trials) are hosted on open roads which can be daunting, particularly for beginners.
Cross races are not simply aimed at serious pro racers who are out for victory at all costs. Riders of all ages, skill levels and experience use this form of racing as a valuable training tool to help maintain fitness levels throughout the winter months. When the road racing season rolls around again, the fitness levels are close to where they need to be to hit the ground running.
But it’s not all about serious racing. Cyclocross is also about challenging yourself in the most testing of conditions. It’s about improving bike handling skills and sometimes falling off, whilst sharing a good laugh about it afterwards with likeminded people.
There’s also a number of obstacles to overcome. It becomes something of a personal challenge to surmount each obstacle without having to dismount the bike. But in doing so, it will almost inevitably result in the occasional ‘off’. Due to the nature of the course, it is almost certain to be a soft and perhaps mud-spattered landing!
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A path to World Tour cycling
The sport of cross can also be an important leg up into the world of professional road cycling. It has come to serve as an important bridge into World Tour road racing teams. Two of cycling’s current hottest properties on the road are former cross world champion Wout Van Aert and current world champion Mathieu van der Poel. Many other stalwarts of the road cycling scene also began their journeys in cross and have gone on to great road racing careers. Think along the lines of Zdenek Stybar and Tiesj Benoot to name just a couple. In the off-season, these riders are very likely to be found featuring in cross races across Europe.
Cyclocross bikes are manufactured in many different materials, Carbon Fibre, Alloy, Titanium and Steel. Like a road racing machine, they also need to be lightweight. This enables them to be carried more easily up steep slopes and when clambering over obstacles. Again like a road bike, they lend themselves to the more aggressive end of frame geometry. They have a relatively short wheelbase and head tube to which leads to razor-sharp steering control and increased agility.
Due to the nature of Cyclocross, riders will more often than not opt for a bike constructed from Carbon or Alloy. These materials are very lightweight whilst maintaining good strength to weight ratios. The underside of the top tube is flat to enable the bike to be carried over the shoulder with more comfort when cleaning an obstacle. The bottom bracket height is also increased to allow more pedal clearance over uneven terrain.
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The features of a cross bike at a glance
- Tyre clearance – In competition, the tyre clearance is limited to a modest 33mm but there is also clearance for wider tyres for everyday off-road riding.
- BB height – The bottom bracket is higher than a road bike to improve pedal clearance.
- Geometry – Steeper frame angles and a shorter wheelbase offer more agility for steering around corners and obstacles.
- Top Tube – The top tube is flat on the underside and will slope less than some road frames. Also if the bike uses external cables they will be routed along the top of the tube. These features better enable the bike to be carried over the shoulder.
- Disc brakes – To handle the mud and debris the absolute stopping power of disc brakes is a must. All modern cross bikes now have disc brakes fitted as standard.
An important part of Cyclocross is the gearing, over the years this has changed drastically. Gearing selection is often dictated by a number of factors. Rider fitness, terrain and the rider’s style of riding all play a part. Are they a grinder who sits in the saddle and turns a high gear with reduced pedalling cadence or are they a spinner? The spinner prefers a higher pedalling cadence and doesn’t mind standing on the pedals when required.
Some riders may choose a double chainring system at the front, unlike a road groupset, these will be of a smaller ratio which is better suited to cross racing. This is then mixed with a relatively aggressively ranged cassette at the rear (11-28). Others will choose the new kid on the block, the 1 x system. Originally developed for mountain bikes, the popularity of gravel and cross bikes has led to a natural evolution to the road bike market.
The 1 x system utilises a small chainring (in the 32 to 42 range normally) and a very wide ranged rear cassette. The cassette will often have a large sprocket in the region of 42t to 50t to make up for the missing gear range at the front. The advantages of the 1x system off-road are numerous;
- No front derailleur – Because there is only 1 chainring there is no requirement for a front gear. Debris can lodge in a front gear and cause the chain to unship, which is less than ideal.
- Clutch system – Most 1x system rear derailleurs now feature a clutch system design developed for MTB’s. The clutch prevents the chain from bouncing unduly over rough terrain and reduces the chance for the chain to be ‘dropped’.
- Simplicity – The lack of a front derailleur means that the left lever is simply a brake lever. There is no front gear cable and the gears are easier to adjust and require less maintenance.
- Weight – Fewer parts means a lighter bike.
The tyres and brakes can be as important if not more so than the material the frame is made from or the overall weight of the bike. If you’ve ever heard Formula 1 teams and commentators go on about tyres so much it’s because, like cyclocross, they are that important.
Careful thought to tyre selection is necessary due to the variety of courses and their varying mixtures of surfaces. The professionals of the sport will have several wheels available for use. Each will be set up with “Mud Tyres”, “Soft All Condition Tyres”, or “File-tread Tyres” (designed for dry / gravel based terrain). However, for the average rider fitting something that can do a bit of everything is probably be the best option! It is also important to bear in mind what pressure the tyres are inflated to. Anything over 25 PSI should be avoided, they’ll be faster on the flat and in the dry but will suffer badly for traction in the mud.
Due to the current UCI regulations, all cyclocross bikes must be fitted with tyres of no more than 33mm width for competition use. Race commissaires will commonly check tyre widths at the start of a CX race to ensure that no rider seeks an unfair advantage. The 33mm width allows for optimal tyre clearance, maintaining a quick ride and optimal grip.
Traditional CX bikes were fitted with cantilever style brakes instead of road brake calipers for their better mud clearance. The superior braking performance of disc brakes makes it a no-brainer for all CX bikes to now come supplied with these as standard. Disc brakes offer far better-controlled stopping power, particularly when taking into account the often muddy conditions.
Cantilevers are very much on the back burner when it comes to braking and as a whole the industry is now geared up to hydraulic disc brakes.
Interested in starting Cyclocross? It really is a fun way to keep up the fitness over the winter months, make new friends and above all have some fun! The Ribble CX AL or the brand new CX SL carbon gives you the perfect starting point for entry into the sport. With a fantastic variety of specifications, designed and hand-assembled by our professionals you can be out competing with the best within weeks!
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