It may still be August, but the first signs of autumn are already here if you look closely enough. Those of us who ride either end of the day will have noticed darkness drawing in. Lights are needed for my Thursday evening pub ride, especially after the inevitable “just one more”. As soon as the first acorns begin to hit the sun-baked summer ground, whispers of “‘cross is coming” can be heard in the northern hemisphere (apologies to our southern hemisphere cousins who are reaching the tail of their ‘cross season, trying to eke out another few races from tired mechs and chains).
‘Cross’s star has been in the ascendancy for a few years now. Year on year it seems to be becoming more popular, thanks partly due to the relative ease of watching live UCI racing, but there’s also been a groundswell at the grassroots level – local races are getting busier and busier. Rightly so, as well – cyclocross has a lot going for it… it is accessible to all and requires little in the way of specialist equipment to get started. If you’ve not tried it, why not? If you are tempted, then read on. Here are our top tips to ensure your first ‘cross race goes as smoothly as possible.
1- Prep the bike
For most local level ‘cross races, there are few, if any rules about bikes. A ‘cross bike certainly isn’t a requirement for most. So, if you’ve a gravel, mountain or cyclocross bike, you are good to go. There’s a few things that you may wish to do that will make the experience a little more pleasurable though.
- Think about new tires. The more you race ‘cross, the more you’ll realise how much people obsess over rubber. For the time being don’t worry about tubeless, tubular or clinchers. Just run what you brung. If you are lucky, early season races will still be dry, and gravel tires may even be more suitable than some mud-specific ‘cross tires. As the winter progresses, you’ll probably want a narrow 33c tire to cut through the mud, and an aggressive grip. Ritchey has a great range, but something like the Shield or Megabite are decent all-rounders.
- While we are on tires – pressure. There are no hard and fast rules around tire pressure, other than generally you want to run as low a pressure as you can, that avoids punctures or tires squirming hugely. What pressure that is will depend on your weight, the conditions and tire. In general though, you probably want to drop some pressure from your usual gravel set-up.
- Racing is hard on components. Take the time to make sure that everything is fully functional now. Check brake pads, cables, bearings etc and replace them. No one wants a mechanical mid-race, especially when it is preventable. Maybe treat your bike to some new bar tape and saddle. A fresh feeling bike is always faster than an a tired one.
2 - Prep yourself
It’s not about the bike, apparently. While training absolutely isn’t necessary, you can be sure that much of the field will have done at least some work. How much you want to do depends on how seriously you want to take things. There are plenty of training guides online, but focus on training for an intense 40min to one-hour effort with minimal recoveries. You may have been knocking off 100 mile road rides before breakfast all summer, but those base miles won’t count for that much when you’ve just warmed up after the finish line.
Aside from training though, what can you do?
- Eat a good meal the night before. You know the routine: some carbs, nothing too heavy, etc, etc. Stay hydrated (save the Belgian beers for after the event), eat a good breakfast and some mid-morning snacks (assuming your race is early afternoon).
- Make sure you’ve spent some good time on the bike you’ll be racing, and in the set-up that you’ll be using on race day, getting used to how it handles.
- Pack a bag with a few spares and supplies – I usually bring some warm layers for warming up/waiting around, snacks and drink, a basic tool kit and pump. Often parking isn’t super close to the race course, and it’s good to have everything close when you pick up a puncture on a warm-up lap, or have some other mishap.
- Practice a few ‘cross specific skills. Many ‘cross races have barriers that require you to dismount and lift the bike over and remount afterwards. Lots of time can be saved with the right technique. YouTube is your friend here.
- Think about joining a local club. Many have training and skills night and welcome newcomers.
3 - Race day
You arrive with a tingle of anticipation, the course is marked out, a few folk are spinning their legs on rollers while an announcer commentates on one of the early races. What next?
- Bring your kids! Seriously… that race the announcer is already commentating on is probably one of the age-group kids races. Fun for all the family. It’s not unusual to see mom and dad tag-teaming childcare in between their own races and cheering on Junior beforehand.
- Register and pin on your number. Depending on the race, you may need to register online first. Check the deal for your local series.
- Do a few laps of the course. You will need to pick your moment to make sure you don’t interfere with any of the other races, but the organisers will put aside time to allow you to pre-ride the course. This serves a few purposes. Firstly, when racing, you know what’s coming up (unless you have my goldfish-like memory… I’m frequently surprised on the last lap of a race). You can also get a feel for conditions. Is it fast and dry, or sloppy? Are there any faster or slower lines into corners (clue: yes!) and how might they change after a few more races have taken place on the course? Are there any points that you’ll need to dismount for? Finally, it’ll warm you up a bit.
- Keep those legs turning. You might want to bring rollers if you use them anyway, but find a bit of ground away from the action and keep riding. If you are here to race, you’ll want as good a start as possible, so warm up with some sprints.
- Listen out for the commissaire calling your race. Head over to the start line. It likely that racers will be gridded based on previous performances. It tends to be a bit of a free-for-all behind the gridded riders, with folk looking to get a good starting position. If you aren’t too worried about being competitive for your first race, don’t worry too much. It will just give you more people to enjoy overtaking once the race starts.
4 - Go!
- Listen for the gun and look to get away as cleanly as possible. Be aware of those around you and try and hold a steady line.
- Be aware that you’ll probably go into the first corner quicker than you had at practice, and might not be able to choose the perfect line if there lots of people around you. Be ready to brake and take evasive action if necessary.
- It won’t take long for the field to stretch out. Get your head down and pedal hard. It will hurt. It’s a hard balance to push hard enough without burning out before the end of the race. You probably won’t get things right first time, don’t stress and if in doubt, pedal harder.
- As the race progresses, be aware of riders coming around to lap you. The vast majority will give you good warning and a clear instruction saying “passing on your right”, for example. Do your best to not impede their progress. Equally, be courteous and clear when lapping others.
- Listen out for the bell. This means that there is only one lap to go when you cross the line. Give it your all and leave everything on the course.
5 - And relax
You cross the line, arms aloft, or more likely, barely hanging on the bars, sucking in air like a freediver who’s watch stopped. All the pain quickly fades and is replaced by endorphins as you roll slowly back to the car. Wait! Before you head home, there’s a few things you can do.
- Have a chat with your fellow racers. Most won’t bite and you’ll quickly make friends.
- Pull on some warm clothes, especially if the weather is grim.
- Support any races still to come. That cheer that you heard midway round that spurred you on? You can be the cheerleader now.
- Don’t walk off with a timing chip or anything that was meant to be handed back after the race. Easy to do, but a pain to rectify.
- Offer to help the organiser take down the course. ‘Cross races are mostly run by volunteers. Spending ten minutes to help lift the course stakes will make their lives immeasurably more pleasant.
- Wash your bike ASAP. Either bring cleaning kit with you, or wash it as soon as you get home. Dried on mud is so much harder to clean than when it is still wet.
- Keep an eye out for any mechanicals while you clean the bike, it’ll give you time to buy and fit replacements before your next race… Because there will be a next one…
Words by Tom Hill. Photos courtesy Karel Rowies and Ritchey.