Watch and learn. In 'cross races you usually get a warm-up lap. Use this time to learn from more skilled riders. Scope out a pro or more experienced racer and try to follow her. As you ride around the lap, notice what line she takes (choosing the most direct route is part of the strategy of 'cross racing) and observe how she dismounts/remounts, picks up her bike and handles the obstacles and hills. If you can't keep up, then plant yourself in front of a "run-up" or other major hurdle and watch how others tackle it.
Walk the hills. Short, steep hills are standard features on 'cross courses. Experienced cyclists will run up these inclines carrying their bikes, or even ride up them. But beginners should moderate their efforts. Push the bike up the hills rather than carry it, and walk rather than run.
Be considerate. In cyclo-cross you're allowed to pass on the right and the left, unlike road races in which you have to keep left. So, call out "On your left!" or "On your right!" to signal that you're about to pass. And if you're being passed, try to yield by slowing down and moving off to one side of the path.
Stay focused. With cyclists surrounding you and cheering crowds so close, it's easy to get distracted. Keep your eye on the trail to scan ahead for obstacles and riders who might stop abruptly in your path.
BICYCLE. A cyclo-cross course is mostly off-road, so you'll want to start out on a mountain bike, with its thicker tires and shock-absorbing suspension, even though the relatively heavy frame and tires will slow your progress going uphill and make lifting it over barriers more difficult. After a few races, if you find you're hooked on 'cross, consider getting a cyclo-cross bike, which is specially adapted to the sport. Usually made of lightweight aluminum or steel for durability, cyclo-cross bikes have dropped handlebars, like on a road bike, offering better control and more hand positions than the straight bars of a mountain bike. The tires (700 x 32mm) are thinner than mountain bike tires, but thicker than those of a road bike. A 'cross bike also has cantilever brakes, which work well in mud. Major manufacturers include Trek, Cannondale, Ritchie and Redline, with bikes starting around $900.
SHOES AND PEDALS. Cyclo-cross racers prefer a clipless pedal system, which involves stiff-soled, cycling-specific shoes with metal cleats that secure the foot to the pedal. They're a bit of a hassle to get out of when you have to dismount, but the trade-off is worth the power and efficiency you'll gain the rest of the race by wearing them. Choose mountain bike shoes over road-cycling shoes. The recessed cleats and tread of mountain bike shoes will help you scramble up the hills and over obstacles when you're off the bike. (Road cycling shoes are difficult to walk in, much less run in.) If you don't have a clipless system or prefer simple platform pedals, then wear mountain bike shoes without the cleats. Don't use clips or toe cages, however; they'll make it difficult to get in and out of the pedals fast.
HELMET. A cycling helmet is a must. Make sure it's comfortable, has good ventilation and adjustable straps. Generally the more expensive models, $100 and more, are lighter weight and have more vents. For cold days, wear a snug-fitting hat under your helmet.
GLOVES. To protect your hands, in case of a fall, and minimize chafing, wear cycling gloves. Long-fingered ones are standard for the winter racing season, but short-fingers are more comfortable if weather permits. Gel-filled gloves provide an extra layer of cushioning.
CLOTHING. Wear cycling shorts. You'll need the padding to cushion the often bumpy ride. And remember, skip the underwear. Cycling shorts are designed to be worn alone. Wearing an additional layer underneath them will cause chafing. Don't wear baggy mountain bike shorts, which can catch on the bike saddle or handle bars when you get on and off your bike. On the top, wear a cycling jersey or any other snug-fitting shirt made of sweat-wicking material.
Karen Kefauver is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, Calif. She started cyclo-cross racing in 2000 and has been reporting on the sport since 1994. To learn more about Karen, visit karenkefauver.com.