Cyclocross Demands Specialized Gear and Skills

National cyclocross champion Mark McCormick was having a race to forget.

Struggling far behind the leaders on a horribly muddy and wet course in Seattle, the stars-and-stripes jerseyed McCormick was mired in fourth place.

His white-and-red GT cyclocross bikes, on the other hand, were running perfectly. Supported by a pit crew outfitted with hip waders and knee-high rubber boots, McCormick exchanged his mud-clogged bike every lap for a fresh, clean mount.

Perched at the top of a run-up hill, the three-man crew would wait for him to come by and smoothly exchange bikes. Eight minutes later, the crew would have the exchanged bike clean for the hand-off on the next lap. In fact, most of the contenders had a mechanical crew "handing up" clean bikes each lap.

Although McCormick would go on to finish the race wearing a scowl, his crew had performed to perfection. The real stars of the day were the bikes.

On that day, while the gear-clogging mud sat 6 inches deep in sections, the simplicity of the cyclocross bike was never more apparent.

Best of Both Worlds

A cyclocross bike is an exercise in versatility. Mountain bike cantilever brakes add stopping power, knobby tires give traction, dependable bar-end shifters rarely miss-shift and wide aluminum tube sets combine agile rigidity and light weight.

"When I look at a 'cross bike I see a bike that's kind of good at everything. A 'cross bike is fast on a flat, like a road bike, but it's also fast off road," says racer Matt Hill, owner of Kona and Cannondale cyclocross bikes. "The cool thing is how refined they are to do well in an esoteric sport, and a 'cross bike really does it well."

With a recent surge in cyclocross popularity, major manufacturers such as Trek, Redline and Cannondale have rolled out true-blue '"cross rigs." Cyclocross bikes also make extraordinary commuter rides—sturdy enough to take the worst potholes, agile enough to dodge traffic, and fender compatible for rainy climates.

Equipment Can Only Carry You So Far

Even with a great bike, it's the rider, not that ride, that wins races. Cyclocross coach and former U.S. national team member Craig Undem suggests short, intense workouts that include hill running and on-the-bike intervals. A good way to practice is to map out a course at a park, using curbs or natural barriers, and do a simulated race. Rest days are key to allow the body to recover from the high intensity of racing.

Include technical practice in your workouts:

For barrier dismounts, swing your right leg around so you're standing left of the saddle. Then, move your right hand to the top tube, unclip your left foot and leap off just before the barrier.

To get back on, leap (easier than stutter-stepping) and aim to land your right thigh onto the saddle before slipping your butt into place. Strive for a clean, one-step leap from left foot to right thigh. This move, needless to say, takes careful practice.

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