The Chainlink

Cyclocross 101: The Basics

To many of us, fall means raking leaves, Trader Joe's selling pumpkin-flavored everything...and our Facebook feeds being absolutely, completely overrun with pictures of our friends carrying their mud-splattered bikes over wooden things randomly placed in a municipal park.

In other words, fall means cyclocross season. And yes, I can promise this year's barrage of "riding awkwardly through sand" photos will look an awful lot like last year's. But, I can also promise that participating in 'cross is a ton of fun, regardless of your fitness, ability level, or competitive inclinations.

In fact, I believe cyclocross is something practically any cyclist should try, even those who don't remotely see themselves as "racers." Here's why:

  1. It dramatically improves your bike handling skills (which, in turn, can make you a safer, more competent rider on the street).
  2. Whether you come in first or last, you get a killer workout.
  3. You don't need a special bike to try it out.
  4. Races have a fun, party-like atmosphere, full of supportive and encouraging people.
  5. You're going at relatively low speeds on grass and dirt, so if you fall, you're much less likely to injure yourself or damage your bike.
  6. Random people standing along the course will be heckling you.
  7. Other random people will be trying to hand you a Twizzler or a shot of Malort (which you're not obligated in any way to take).
  8. If you wind up enjoying the competition aspect of 'cross, it's a great introduction to bike racing in general.

Most cyclocross courses feature barriers which force riders to dismount and briefly carry their bike.

So what is cyclocross anyway? For the uninitiated, it's a form of bike racing that takes place in the fall. Races are generally held in locations like parks and golf courses. You race on closed courses marked with tape. The courses are designed to use features of the park that challenge your bike handling abilities and endurance. And typically, there are obstacles placed on the courses which require you to dismount and run with your bike. Here are some examples of what you might encounter during a race:

  • Running up staircases
  • Awkward situations where you're riding along the side of a slippery slope, at the very limits of traction (known as "off-camber" sections)
  • Short, steep climbs
  • Short, steep drops with sharp turns at the bottom
  • Riding through sections of deep sand (e.g. volleyball courts or sand traps on golf courses)
  • Tall, wooden barriers that are too tall for most riders to "bunny hop"
  • Shorter barriers or logs which can be "bunny hopped"
  • Weather-related challenges like mud, wet grass and sometimes even snow

A "flyover" is another popular cyclocross obstacle. It's basically a small bridge with stairs on one side and a ramp on the other.

To properly navigate a 'cross course, you'll need to develop some specific skills. These include:

  • Dismounting a bike and seamlessly transitioning into a run
  • Properly carrying a bike for short running sections, such as over a barrier (sometimes referred to as a "suitcase" carry)
  • Properly shouldering a bike for longer running sections, such as up a really steep hill or a long staircase
  • Remounting a bike without losing momentum
  • Balancing a bike while navigating tight, awkward, sometimes slippery sections

Naturally, a "cyclocross bike" is the best tool for the job. While a true cyclocross bike offers frame geometry, brakes and gearing optimized for cyclocross conditions, it's essentially a road bike with room for slightly larger, knobby tires.

However, if you don't own a cyclocross bike and want to give 'cross a try, you can also race on a mountain bike (provided it doesn't have bar ends) or even a commuter bike (like a hybrid) with some slightly knobby tires. One time, a guy even did a race on a Divvy.

Mountain-bike style clipless pedals mated to mountain bike shoes are ideal. But platform pedals and gym shoes will work well too.

The races themselves are divided up by ability. All beginners are grouped in "category 5," so you can put any fears to rest that you'll be lining up next to a pro. Also, beginners race for a shorter amount of time than the higher categories. Thirty minutes might not seem like a long race, but trust me, you'll feel like it's plenty. As you gain experience and your skills improve, you can "upgrade" to higher categories (where you're rewarded for your hard work by an extra 15-30 minutes of suffering).

So, if you're wanting to give it a try, what's the best place to start? Glad you asked.

The Chicago Cuttin' Crew's Maria Larkin navigating a tight turn.

The Chainlink put together a cyclocross starter kit. Here you'll find everything you need to dip your toe in the muddy water that is 'cross.

Highlights of the kit include the following:

  • Information on the Chicago Cyclocross Cup, Powered by SRAM. This is the primary local cyclocross race series. Their website contains a full race schedule, registration information...and even listings for other races in the area that are not part of the series.
  • Since races are sanctioned by USA Cycling (USAC), you can purchase one-day licenses at each race ($10 I believe) or simply visit and purchase a one-year license. Tip: download the USAC app onto your phone so you can easily access the license from your phone.
  • The cyclocross starter kit includes information on area 'cross clinics and weekly practices. These are great because they offer drills that help develop specific skills (like remounts, cornering and starting), and also include some practice races.

The decision whether it's faster to ride or run a section can change depending on course conditions and traffic.

Before you get started, here are some helpful tips:

  • Category 5 races fill up quickly, so make sure to register a few weeks in advance if possible.
  • Get to the venue a few hours before your race. The reason for this is that you can pre-ride the course in between heats (you'll have time for one lap per pre-ride). Getting some practice laps in will help get you get warmed up for your race, make sure your equipment is working properly, and give you a chance to work out some of the more difficult sections of the course.
  • When you get there, pick up your number plate at registration as soon as possible. This helps prevent missing your race start in case there's a long line at the registration tent. And on the off chance there are any issues with your registration, you'll have time to work them out.

See you at the races!

More Cyclocross

Cyclocross Starter Kit

Cyclocross Chicago-Area Practice Schedule

Cyclocross Videos

About the Author
Brett Ratner began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. 


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Comment by Fai Mok on November 20, 2017 at 9:22am

Nice piece.  Thanks for the info.

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