Cyclocross 101

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The 2007 USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships took place in Kansas City from December 13 though 16.

It was muddy, icy and snowy—in other words, perfect conditions for great 'cross racing. America's best professional riders competed for the stars and stripes jersey, in addition to competitions for junior, collegiate and masters athletes. Katie Compton of Colorado Springs, Colorado, earned her fourth consecutive elite women's title. Tim Johnson of Middletown, Massachusetts, earned his second title (his first came in 2000) in the men's elite division.

Cyclocross 101

For cyclocross rookies, here's a breakdown on the basics of this fast-paced combination of mountain biking and road cycling (with a little bit of running thrown in for good measure):

What is cyclocross?
Cyclocross is a cross between road racing and mountain biking. Competitors race laps around a course featuring a variety of surfaces (pavement, grass, sand, gravel, dirt, etc.) while negotiating a number of obstacles that may require them to dismount and remount their bicycle.

Beginning in the fall and running through the winter months, cyclocross used to be mostly popular for off-season training, but has become a very popular sport in its own right. Races are very exciting to watch because they consist of adrenalin-filled laps around short courses—typically less than two miles in length.

How long are the races?
Elite-level racers compete in hour-long races while beginning and intermediate-level racers often race for 20, 30 or 45 minutes. The first two laps are timed and an average lap time determined. From that number, the race officials determine the number of laps remaining. Each lap of the course generally takes between five and seven minutes, making it an extremely spectator-friendly sport.

Can races be cancelled due to bad weather?
Cyclocross races are run in all weather conditions. Obviously, rain can severely diminish the course conditions, but muddy races are quite common, particularly when a course is used for a number of races over a short period of time.

Inclement weather is something many athletes enjoy about this discipline, and experienced racers know how to use certain bad-weather conditions to their advantage.

How is a cyclocross bike different from a road bike?
Cyclocross bicycles are lightweight but durable. They feature mountain bike-style clip-in pedals, which allow racers to wear shoes they can run in when they are forced to dismount. Wider, knobby tires provide better traction on all surfaces and cantilevered brakes allow clearance for those wide tires when they become clogged with mud.

What is a typical course?
Cyclocross courses vary widely in terrain and difficulty, but all of them include some common elements. Rules state that 90 percent of the course must be rideable. When the terrain is too steep to ride or there are barrier or obstacle sections (either man-made or artificial), riders dismount, sling their bikes over their shoulders, and then jump back on their bikes, all of which require skill and speed. The width of the course never measures less than three meters wide and there is at least one equipment pit.

What are equipment pits?
The equipment pit is located along the circuit where riders can change wheels or bicycles. There is a race lane and a pit lane. A rider who is actively using the pit (to change bicycles or make a repair) rides into the pit lane while other competitors stay in the race lane. Each rider may have an attendant in the equipment pit to clean or repair bicycles. High-pressure water sprays allow the attendant to clean a spare bike and have it ready for an exchange on a subsequent lap.