What Is Cyclocross?

by Jordan Austin

What Is Cyclocross"What is cyclocross?" you ask… Well, cyclocross is a tale of mud and fun.

Cyclocross features many challenges such as sand traps, barriers, and stair cases. And it makes use of tight corners, steep climbs, and off-camber sections to push the riders to their limits. Racers have to get through the obstacles and also ride as hard as they can to win.

Cyclocross Courses

Each rider must choose what they deem to be the fastest way through the obstacles. They can dismount and carry the bike—a practice that began to get blood flow back in the rider’s feet during the winter. Or they can bunny hop or ride through the challenge. In North America and Britain especially, singletrack mountain bike trials can get included in a CX course.

There are even a few long distance cyclocross races. The Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race is held in England, and the Barry-Roubaix is held in Michigan.

The purpose of the varied nature of the courses is to challenge the riders, push their bike handling skills, and to force them to strategize the quickest and most efficient way to navigate the course and best their rivals. Course design will keep each section short, forcing riders to accelerate and slow down regularly to effectively navigate the course.

Cyclocross History

Cyclocross is an on-road/off-road cycling discipline that originated in Belgium sometime around the start of the twentieth century, with the first formalized race being held in 1902.

It is believed that the sport began by road racers, racing each other from one town to the next by the shortest route possible, via cutting through fields and unpaved roads, the idea being that it would challenge the riders bike handling and fitness during the off season from road racing.

Cyclocross Rules

Officials enforce the rules at cyclocross racesTypically, courses are small and enclosed. The races take place over a set time frame, usually 45 or 60 minutes, depending on age group and racing category. Riders can get pulled for rule violations and for coming in too slow compared to the rest of the field.

The overall governing body of the UCI sets the rules and regulations and USA Cycling generally sticks with these same rules. The racing categories are the same as road racing with categories 1–5 and are also divided up by age group. Cat 1 racers can and often do race against professional cross racers. However, to race at World Tour level for points one has to have a UCI international racing license and be in the professional ranks.

At the Race

A typical cyclocross weaves all over the place.In the US, heckling and outlandish costumes have become very common at cross events. The sport allows fans and supporters to be close to the riders just as with all cycling events. Tape or fences keep the riders’ lanes open and encourage the riders to overtake other riders when they can. They also prevent shortcuts and crazy fans from getting onto the course.

Riders are also allowed to have a spare bike. There will be a section of pits where people can hand off the spare bike to the rider and clean up or fix the other bike. Due the races being held in fall and winter, the conditions can range from very dry to wet and muddy to snow, making equipment choice and tire choice very important.

In the Midwest, cross season starts in September. The bulk of racing takes place in October and November and only a few races in December. Most of the racing stops in January. However, in the Southwest, cyclocross events are held year-round.

Try It!

Cyclocross is a fun and challenging blend of road racing and mountain biking, and will push one’s bike handling skills and fitness to the max. It is a great cross-training (pardon the pun) for road racers and mountain bikers and is always a blast. Cross is welcoming to all people and to all skill levels, so do not be intimidated—just go and have fun and get muddy!

For help getting the right gear for your next (or first) cyclocross race, read our Staff Picks: Cyclocross article.

Experience the fun of cyclocross by reading the race reports in our Complete a Bike Race Challenge article.

We encourage our Iowa customers to check out the cyclocross portal at BIKEIOWA.com for current, local cyclocross events and news.

Photo credits: "Officials" and "Serpentine Course" by Eric Roccasecca

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Katherine is our Content Champion. She has done triathlons in the past, and now focuses on mountain biking and long-distance gravel riding. She still has a soft spot in her heart for weird multi-sport events like indoor triathlon and aquabike. She also teaches indoor cycling.