The first time I saw a cyclo-cross race it was pouring rain on a chilly December afternoon in northern California. I expected the race to be canceled, but despite the downpour, the cyclists charged through puddles, ran up bumpy hills and pedaled fast over paved surfaces.
Inspired by my friend's smiling, muddy face, I signed up for my first cyclo-cross race the next weekend. I muscled through a fun, fast 40-minutes of jumping on and off the bike, lifting it over 12-inch wooden barricades and running for short spurts.
Cyclo-cross originated in Europe about 60 years ago as a way for road cyclists to stay in shape during the off-season. Lately, it's enjoyed growing popularity in the United States. "We've seen an increase in both the number of competitors and events over the past few years," said Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Cycling.
'Cross, as it's called, differs from other cycling races primarily because riders get off their bikes and hurdle various obstacles, both natural and manmade. Typically, a 'cross racer will dismount and remount multiple times during each lap around the 1.5-mile, mostly off-road course. The cyclist who completes the most laps in a preset time wins the race.
Although cyclo-cross races last only about an hour or less, they'll put both your aerobic endurance and bike-handling skills to the test. And thanks to spectator-friendly courses, spirited crowds gather inches from the action and will cheer you on the whole way. As for rain, mud, snow and ice -- the more, the better.
If you're ready to tackle cyclo-cross, these tips will help get you ready to roll.
Run. Include running in your training routine, especially some speed and hill work. This will not only build your aerobic endurance, but also help you charge up steep hills, called "run-ups" in 'cross-speak.
Pace yourself. While the races take less time than other endurance events, like triathlon, the intensity is high with all the getting on and off the bike, clearing obstacles, running in bursts and pedaling fast. But don't feel pressured to start riding too quickly, and be sure to monitor your effort so you don't overdo it.
Practice your mount/dismount. To avoid having to come to a full stop every time you get off your bike, practice a "rolling dismount." Coasting slowly on a flat surface, stand up on your pedals, swing your right leg back over the frame and bring it to the other side between the bike and your left foot. Unclip your left foot from the pedal and start running, right foot first. To remount, push the bike forward, grasping the handlebars with both hands, and in one motion, throw your right leg back over, hop onto the seat, and place both feet on the pedals simultaneously. Always dismount/remount on the left side to avoid contact with the chain ring.
Have a hydration plan. Cyclo-cross racers don't have bottle holders on their bikes or wear hydration packs (a sure sign of a newbie.) These things can get in the way of hoisting the bike and getting over obstacles. Instead, 'cross races usually have feed zones where racers ride by and grab bottles for a quick gulp, and then toss them to the ground for someone to retrieve and refill for the next lap. So, recruit a buddy to help you keep hydrated. You may even want to practice slowing down and grabbing the bottle from your friend beforehand to ensure you don't miss the hand-off.