Entering a cyclocross race is a bit like jumping into a time machine that will transport you back to childhood again for one quick, raspy, high-energy hour.
Racing is as hard as you make it – everyone carries on riding short laps until the bell goes, so if you find yourself on the slower end of the field, you’ll just ride fewer laps. On the other hand, if it transpires you’re an absolute natural, you’ll be able to measure yourself against your closest rivals as the end of the race draws closer.
You can take part on a mountain bike or a cyclocross bike and one of the beautiful things about cyclocross racing is the sense of community. No one barmy enough to want to go out on a Saturday morning and race laps of a muddy field is going to hold any airs and graces. Most people just want to have a good time, and enjoy a slice of cake and a cup of tea after.
So – if you’re thinking about having a go (and you really should!) – we’ve compiled a short list of tips to help make sure your first experience is a good one…
Learn to dismount and remount
Cyclocross races usually feature some ramps and obstacles that may be quicker to defeat by jumping off and running than by attempting to ride over them.
You can have all the fitness in the world – but if you lose valuable time at every obstacle you have to get off the bike to cover, you’re going to lose all the benefit. Yes, this skill does take a little practice, but it’s a bit like riding a bike - once you’ve got it, you won’t forget. Check out our guide here.
Practice makes permanent, so keep on trying until the flying leap comes naturally to you, and don't be disheartened if the pressure of a race situation makes you forget it all first time round - just keep at it.
A word of advice: If you're using clipless pedals, don't be surprised if you find there's so much mud in your shoes you can't clip in straight away when jumping back on. Simply place your feet on the pedals, and then whack the sole of the shoe against the pedal until the mud clears.
Get the tyre pressure right
Many road cyclists come to cyclocross racing over winter as a way to keep fit. If you’re primarily a roadie – forget ALL of the things you know about tyre pressure. Except that one about reading the number off the tyre side wall.
When racing on mud, lower is generally better, as long as you don't go so low you suffer pinch flats. Tyre pressure is weather, weight and course conditions dependant, but you should be looking at the 20s and 30s in the PSI stakes.
Check out this guide on mountain bike tyre pressure for some advice, or start at about 30 and add or subtract a little pressure after your pre-race recce..
Do a pre-race recce
So you’ve been riding your mountain bike or cyclocross bike lots over the past few weeks – and you’ve ridden in plenty of different conditions and on different surfaces. Why do you need to recce this one? Because you’re going to be racing it at full gas.
The odd root, ridge or muddy patch might cause you no problem when you’re riding within your limits, but cross these obstacles with your heart rate thudding in your ears and they could be the difference between staying on the bike and finding yourself stuck in the mud!
Make sure you get to the venue early, and try a couple of circuits. Look out for tough patches, any that look like they’ll churn up easily after a few laps, practice the lines you might take to avoid the muddiest sections, and check your gears and brakes are working as you like as well as thinking about adjusting your tyre pressure to suit the course.
Take care what you wear
For starters, it’s probably going to get muddy – even if there hasn’t been much rain recently some sections might still be holding moisture. Therefore, don’t wear your very best kit unless you’re racing for a sponsor who will provide you with another full set next weekend!
Paying attention to layering is also essential. With races usually taking place over winter, you will likely be chilly in the warm up – but once the race gets going it’ll be just a 40 to 60 minute effort, so you’ll probably find you get pretty warm. If it’s freezing, stick with your extra layers, but if on the start line you have an inkling that you’re going to get too hot, shed the warmers.
Cyclocross champion Helen Wyman has created a great range with Velocio, which is carefully designed to be perfectly in-tune with cyclocross requirements (we particularly like the thermal shorts).
Glasses are another thing to consider - clear glasses will prevent muck from flicking off wheels and into your eyes, but it's best to treat them with something like Muc Off's anti-fog spray..
Be ready for a fast start
Cyclocross races are short, and hard. Those that want to win don’t want find themselves behind anyone that might cause them to slow down as their opponents ride away - so they will absolutely smash it from the get go.
You don’t need to be in for a podium place to want to do your absolute best, so adopt the same mentality - give yourself a chance at a good placing by getting ahead of the crowd.
Start with your strongest foot clipped in, at the 3 o’clock position where it’s easiest to drive down to move forward. Push with the leading pedal at the gun, and swing the other round so that your other foot can clip in. Hold the bike straight and steady, and give it all your beans for the first half a lap. Then hold it as long as you can!
Bonus Tip: Have fun!
At the end of the race, it's all about having a good time. Enjoy yourself. Oh, and if you drove, take a jet wash, a large pile of old towels, or locate the nearest petrol station with a hose (and get there before everyone else!)
For more advice, check out: