Fancy dipping a muddy toe in Cyclo-Cross, but don’t know where to start? Who better to ask for advice than European and 7x British Cyclo-Cross champion (and TWC heroine!), Helen Wyman?
CYCLO-CROSS – in a nutshell
Cyclo-Cross (CX) racing is a relatively new sport that was invented by road riders as a way of riding during the winter - although it now has a six month season.
Each event features head to head racing around laps of an off-road circuit that’s usually 2-3km long. The idea is to get round as quickly as possible and each course typically features obstacles such as planks, short steep climbs, steps and twisty corners and if it’s quicker to tackle them by getting off and running (while carrying the bike!) then that’s what you do. The events are usually around 40 minutes long and you’ll probably ride between four and six laps.
Expect to compete in all weathers, including rain and snow.
A CX bike is, basically, an adapted road bike: it’ll have more clearance around the forks to allow for bigger tyres, a higher bottom bracket to clear obstacles and easier gear ratios. Some have mountain bike style disk brakes. Unlike a mountain bike however, ‘cross bikes don’t have suspension as it’s not deemed necessary.
Helen, who currently lives in Belgium - the heartland of CX - has been competing in the sport since 1999 and is currently second in the world rankings. When we spoke to her she was in the US (where the season starts earlier) bagging some all-important UCI points to keep her ranking high and ensure she gets front-row starts in her European races.
She is absolutely passionate about her sport – and her enthusiasm spills over into every bit of advice that she gives:
1. You don’t need a special bike
“You can race on any bike unless it’s a UCI race (unlikely if you’re a beginner!). A CX bike will have the most suitable geometry and be easiest to carry over the obstacles but if you’ve got a mountain bike, a hybrid or a road bike that will take a tyre with a thicker tread then go ahead and ride it: no one will mind! Most riders clip in with MTB style SPDs or Eggbeaters, and you can put studs on your shoes for grip when running in mud but they’re certainly not obligatory – flat pedals and trainers are fine if that’s what you’re used to!
"If you do decide to invest in a bike remember that you can ride a CX bike on the road – you just need to swap the tyres – so you can do both sportives and ‘cross with the same bike.
2. It’s a great family sport
“ Most races last around 40 minutes and take place in a big field away from traffic so if you have kids with you they can have fun playing in the field while you’re racing and no one has to hang around for hours waiting for you!
3. Get ready for a workout!
“Basically you go as hard as you can: it’s high effort all the way so your heart rate will be higher than in road riding! Your running speed is the minimum speed at which you should ride the bike so if there’s an obstacle or part of the course that you can tackle more quickly by running then that’s what you do. One race I took part in was particularly wet which meant that we had to run 80% of the time - however that was an exception: races are usually mostly cycling!
4. Fine tuning your ride
“The best riders will be jumping off the bike at full speed and leaping back on but don’t worry if you’re not up to scratch with that yet as there are other things you can do to improve your chances of doing well. Remember that the course is 3m wide and you can use all of it: so often people just follow the rider in front even though they may not be taking the right line. It’s also worth making sure you arrive early enough to ride the course beforehand and to watch a preceding race to see how other riders get round.
5. The ‘Boy Scout’ tip: be prepared
“You don’t need masses of kit but it’s all important so double check your bag before you leave: forgotten gloves, for instance, may mean you can’t brake properly because your fingers are so cold. You need a helmet and shoes and I’d recommend wearing a long sleeve top or long sleeve skin suit, knee or leg warmers and padded shorts. Take two sets of gloves: one for the practice lap and then a second pair that will be dry for the main event. A warm over-jacket to wear post-ride is also essential if you’re going to be hanging around after the event.
6. Enjoy it!
“We ride laps in cyclocross so once the race has got going no one knows anyone else’s position – and there’s no chance of being left behind on your own either. Just have fun, race those around you and don’t worry about everyone else!
Stop Press: Helen will be running a series of cyclo-cross clinics in the UK next year: we’ll pass details on as soon as they’re available. See you there!
Catch up with Helen on her website: http://www.helenwyman.com/