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Surviving My First Cyclocross Race (and Tips for Yours)

Cyclocross is agonisingly rewarding, and here's why you have to give it a go...

Cyclocross season has well and truly begun. The air is cool and crisp, the ground is damp, and all the ingredients for muddy riding fun are coming together.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to try my hand at a variety of cycling disciplines. Having started out as a mountain biker, the trees, the dirt, and adrenaline were exactly what I was looking for in life, or so I thought.

Living in South Wales means I have pretty much everything on my doorstep, so it seemed silly to waste an opportunity to try new disciplines of riding. First, it was road cycling. Just getting used to the nearly-naked feel of wearing Lycra was somewhat of a challenge for me. Then there was the road bike fit with Trek. This is when I really learnt about riding positions, and just how wonky my body really is.

Before the pain really set in on the 100 mile ride

Having gotten used to the second skin Lycra sensation, and manipulating my body and bike to work together in harmony, it was time to test out my new found skills on the road. Now, there’s no point dipping your toe in, so I rode right into the deep end and threw myself into a 100 mile rideI don’t do things by halves!

Next up, was cyclocross!

What is Cyclocross?

World Champion Manon Carpenter getting muddy in cyclocross Photo: Short & Round

I first learnt about cyclocross at the start of the year when I saw Manon Carpenter race in her off-season. When I asked what cross was, this is the description I got: “It’s when you ride a road bike, off-road, doing as many laps of a course within a time frame” – Alright, let’s try that then.

Once I’d racked up the miles on the road bike, felt more confident clipped in, and totally owning every lump, bump and ripple my Lycra kit accentuated, it was time for me to try cross.

Finding a Race

The British Cycling website is a brilliant hub for cycling news and advice, and it’s also the perfect place to find races and sportives in your area. With that, I searched for a local cross race which had exactly what I was looking for: a novice category. From there, I found that the 4th round of the Welsh Cyclocross League was taking place in a few weeks at Carmarthen Showground, so I entered.

The Genesis Vapour Carbon CX10

Finding a Bike

You can race cyclocross on a mountain bike if you like, but the ideal option is of course a cyclocross bike. For the off-road terrain, these have clearance for wide tyres, usually disc brakes, and a high bottom bracket to help avoid collisions with roots and rocks. From the road world, they’ve got drop handlebars and a racey geometry (though not as racey as a road race bike, that’d put your weight in all the wrong places).

Having been super impressed by Genesis’ new 2017 range of bikes, I contacted them to borrow a ‘cross bike for the race. They sent over the stunning Genesis Vapour Carbon CX 10, in all its bright orange glory.

5 Tips to get you started in Cyclocross

For preparation, I took the Genesis Vapour out for some test spins to ensure the fit was right and I got more familiar with the handling. I checked out cross tutorials on how to dismount effectively, while searching through the TWC archives for other helpful hints and tips.

Race Day

Pre-race excitement

Race day came around quite quickly and I was relieved to see blue skies welcoming me to the venue. The nerves really started to kick in when I arrived to see just how busy it was. Crowds were lining the pits and the starting line, and the cheers and songs of encouragement filled the air.

It was amazing to see just how many children were taking part too. There were plenty of categories to suit all age groups, and every child from balance bikes up to their Pro Islabike were taking part.

The staff at the sign-in tent were really friendly when I told them it was my first event, and reassured me that it was great fun. So I paid my £6, got my number board and got ready for the start. Having only caught short sections of the course, it looked to be fairly grassy and not too muddy.

Lumped in with the novice category were the under 10’s and under 12’s. So all the young whippets lined at the front, while myself and the rest of the novice ladies took our places at the back.

Having chatted with a couple of the women around me, I was relieved to find out that I wasn’t the only total newbie to the scene. There were women there who had never raced, or ridden cross, and there were some women just taking part for fun because their child or partner were.

The marshals informed us that the course would be approximately 2km, and we would be looping it for 30 minutes. With the short safety announcements made, we were off.

The taped course was easily to follow, and some tight corners caused a couple of bottle-neck areas to stretch out the riders. From knowing a little about cross, I knew there would be features to jump on/off the bike for. About a quarter of the way in, there was a muddy mound which you just had to climb up. Every single man, woman and child was off their bikes and running up, and down the other side. At the point I was thinking: “Damn, this would be no problem on my MTB”.

The rest of the course was grass, but the mud was thick in places. My thighs burned trying to push through, and I was consciously trying to not lose momentum. I found the most challenging part to be the lumps and bumps in the course. Having been so used to suspension bikes and wider tyres, I felt as though I was being bucked around and my energy was getting zapped as I hit each rut.

The great thing about mass starts, multiple categories and doing laps is that you lose all sense of where you are in rankings. For me, I found this comforting as there’s nothing worse that knowing you’re at the back, and seeing everyone lap you.

It was on the 3rd lap that I felt the worst. With a race like this, you genuinely feel compelled to just stay on the bike, no matter what. Usually when I struggle with a climb, or fatigue, I get off for a break, but you just can’t do that in ‘cross. It was during this third lap that I really felt my fitness was being tested.

As I crossed the line heading into lap 4, the marshal called last lap. With that came a final spur of energy and I pedalled my legs as best as I could to just make the last lap count. I could feel my lungs straining, my face hot and my legs were burning, but I pushed through to the end.

Post-Race Comedown

It was incredible to cross the finish line with so many strangers cheering you on. The atmosphere was brilliant, and I found it to really help get me through those flagging moments.

For a 30 minute race, it was over so quick, but my body was depleted. I gave it my everything, and while I definitely didn’t win, I don’t think I came last for the women either (still awaiting results).

My adrenaline was pumping, and I was just so chuffed to have completed my first cyclocross experience. The women I was chatting to on the start line congratulated me and we shared our joy and relief for the event.

Having sat down and recuperated from the event, I can honestly say it was such a buzzing thrill. Just as quickly as it started, the race had ended and it was like taking quick intense shot of adrenaline. I’m usually out on the trails for a couple of hours and I get home tired, but this was like cramming all that into 30 mins, feeling tired but seriously accomplished as well.

The atmosphere was probably one of the best I’ve been apart of. Everyone was cheering on each other. Children was shouting out words of encouragement, and even the marshals standing for hours on end along the course were really enthusiastic, and that helped me so much.

My Top Tips for your First Cyclocross Race

So now you must be thinking: “If she can do it, I can do it”… For you, I have some top tips which I’ve learnt from my experience, and ones that I will carry through to my next CX race:

  • THE BIKE: Cyclocross bikes are similar to road bikes in that they tend to hand drop bars and no suspension. Because of the 0ff-road terrain, the tyres will tend to be more nobbly for better grip. However, I saw a lot of women and men riding hardtail MTB’s, and this is totally acceptable too.
  • THE KIT: I noticed a lot of hardcore cross riders wearing full skin-suits, but a majority of riders were in road cycling Lycra, with a few people in baggies and even active leggings. At the end of the day, wear what you’re comfortable in (but remember baggies can get in the way when mounting and dismounting!).
  • BIKE SET-UP: Ensure that whatever bike you’re riding fits you. Conditions vary. On my day, it was pretty dry. If you’re racing alter in the year, it’s likely that you’ll be pedalling your way through gloopy thick mud. You want to be able to carve your way through the mud, and not sink in or deform to it so play around with tyre pressure in training to get it right for you. Ensure your gears transition smooth and your brakes are responsive. It’s always best to give the bike a once over before any race, or ride.
  • THE COURSE: If you’re able to do a course walk before the race, or the organisers release course info prior, then it’s a good idea to get as familiar as possible. Even though I rode my race blind, I would have felt more confident practising the loop, or at least walking it first. This will give you a good feel for where features are, dismounting sections, and potential areas to make the gains.
  • PRACTICE: I wish I had more time with the cross bike before my race because I definitely think it’s important learning to dismount/mount the bike with efficiency. It was surprising how many valuable seconds are lost in this process. It’s also quite important to learn how to effectively handle ruts, steps and mounds in order to maintain rhythm and pace.
  • FITNESS: Oh my gosh. As much as I loved the race and the ride, I really noticed where my fitness was lacking. It’s essentially a 30 min sprint, so your cardio and endurance need to be pretty good. It was towards the end of lap 2, and during lap 3 that I was physically suffering and mentally angry at myself for not being fitter. Hop on a turbo, do some internal training and get out and ride as much as you can to build some stamina for cross riding.
  • HYDRATE: Because the races are so short, not many riders take drinks with them. It’s also forbidden to hand them out during the race too. Many riders will guzzle down the fluids before a race, along with an energy gel. After the race, get on those isotonic drinks to replenish the lost salts.
  • HAVE FUN: It goes without saying really, but you need to relax and have fun. If you enter a race with a novice category, you can pretty much guarantee that you won’t be alone. It’s a new experience to enjoy and learn from, and who knows… you may become a convert too!

My first foray into cyclocross will definitely not be my last. It’s immensely fun, challenging and super rewarding at the same time. I’ve met some wonderful women, made some friends as well which in itself is a good enough reason to get involved with something new.

So now I’ve ticked the MTB, the road and the cross boxes… what’s next?

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Mountie to Roadie: My First Trek Bike Fit

Mountie to Roadie: My First 100 Mile Road Ride

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