Cyclocross, or CX, is a cross of road cycling, mountain biking and running. Racers spend 45 minutes to 1 hour completing laps of a course that combines the venue’s tarmac, gravel, singletrack, grass sections, and sand pits. Additionally, there are always multiple locations where racers must dismount and carry bikes over barriers or up sets of stairs!
MFG#1: Lake Sammamish Beginner Photo Credits: Unknown Photographer.MFG#1: Lake Sammamish Beginner Photo Credits: Unknown Photographer.
I started racing cyclocross at the end of 2019 when I joined Spokeswomen Racing, a women’s cycling race team in Seattle, Washington just in time for CX season (September to January). I decided to try a beginner cyclocross race and my teammate spent a few hours teaching me the basics of cyclocross dismounts and remounts. On race day she helped me set up my timing chip and bib number, told me when to pre-ride the course, what to look out for during the pre-ride, and advised me to go warm up. When I returned from my pre-ride, I realized I hadn’t brought any water or food with me! Luckily, she had packed some to fuel her race cheering, heckling, and cowbell ringing.
MFG #5 North 40 at LeMay Collections, November 5th, 2023. Photo Credits: Benjamin Enbom.The race start was a mass start sprint with a lot of people. The 45-minute beginner race at 8 miles long was a great workout and a fun challenge, with barriers, runups, off-camber turns, sand pits and people cheering me on at every obstacle. My local CX races are not UCI sanctioned, so there are no limitations to what bike I could race on. Since I did not have a CX specific bike, I raced on my hardtail mountain bike. The wider tires made it easier for me to ride through the sand pits and muddy sections on the course, but I felt slow during the gravel and paved sections and struggled to smoothly carry my heavy alloy bike over the barriers. I placed 5th out of 17 beginners, decided that I didn’t hate racing and that I wanted to go do the next local race!
The next race was a week later, and within 3 days of the first race I had found a used Specialized Crux for sale and bought it. The second race, I registered for cat 4 and rode my new to me red CX bike. It was very wet and muddy and was the pure definition of a cyclocross race.
Every year since 2019, I have moved myself up a category, beginner to cat 4, cat 4 to cat 3, and this year am racing in women cat 1/2 open (you can read more about race categories here). I’ve learned that no matter what category you are in you are going to learn something about yourself and about cycling every single race. Racing is as much a mental workout as it is physical. I learned a lot of what to do and especially what not to do over the years, so I’ve thrown together a list of things that can help make you ready for a race....
The first step towards success in anything is committing. I still struggle with finding the motivation to sign up. But once that button’s been clicked, you’re in!
Bike and Gear: bike, helmet, shoes, kit / race clothes, glasses, gloves, layers. It is best to wear tighter clothes, baggy clothes tend to get caught on the bike when you pick it up. A pro move is to bring a 2nd pair of shoes, socks, and gloves for the wetter races; the first pair for pre-ride and warm-up, and the second for your race. Layers are important to wear during the pre-ride and warm-up.
Bike Tools: small multi-tool and a hand pump, these are my most used tools prior to a race for minor adjustments.
Fuel: practice fueling on your day-to-day riding, understand what kinds of foods your body likes. Research what options are out there. I personally love Skratch products.
Water: two bottles is great; I would suggest one with electrolyte mix (also recommend Skratch).
Chamois Cream: if you don’t know what this is, you should look into it.
GPS Tracking Device: if you’re reading this, chances are you use Strava…
Post-Race Clothes: CX is known for its muddy, wet, and cold conditions. Bring a towel, a spare change of clothes, and a pair of sandals in the car. You and your car will be happier.
Prepare Your Bike:
Bike Fit: make sure you are comfortable riding your bike, watch some YouTube videos for quick tips on how to DIY. If you get more into riding and racing, I would highly suggest getting a professional bike fit.
Remove Bottle Cages: if you have a CX frame style bike, removing bottle cages will make it easier to carry your bike over your shoulder while running upstairs or a hill. The majority of CX racers do not have water with them. Also remove any unnecessary bags or mounted lights, this just adds weight that you don’t want to carry when you pick up your bike.
Check Saddle and Seat Post: make sure your bolt connections for your saddle and seat post are tightened properly. One remount and you could have many laps dealing with weird saddle angles.
Check Tire Pressure: too high can be very uncomfortable over bumpy sections, too low and you might get a flat. Tire pressure depends on tire width, if you are running a tube, and course conditions. Research what tire pressure is best for your tire setup. During your pre-rides, notice how it feels riding over roots or rocks.
Check Shifting: make sure your bike is shifting properly; it’s never fun to get on course and not have smooth shifting.
Lube Your Chain!
If you have time, watch some YouTube videos on cyclocross dismounts, remounts, lifts, and barriers. Go find a grassy park and maybe a friend to go practice some basic skills!
Show Up Early:
Give yourself time to find the venue, find parking, unload your bike, etc.
Registration Check-In: for your first race in each category and each season you will need a new bib number. Find a new friend to help you pin your number to your shirt or kit. Remember to pin it to the correct side.
Pre-Ride: figure out when pre-rides are allowed, it may vary based on race organizers preference. While pre-riding, try and find the best line throughout the course. If you struggle in a section, don’t be afraid to walk back and try again. It is also helpful to watch what other racers are doing, they might have a better line picked out!
Warm-Up: once you’re done pre-riding, go do some sprints and harder efforts on the neighborhood roads to get your heart rate up. There’s nothing worse than racing without warming up.
Fuel and Hydrate: give yourself time to digest prior to your race.
Get to the start line 10 minutes before your race time. Everyone will stage according to their specific category.
Keep your layers on as long as possible. Stash your layers in a good spot near the start / finish line.
Stay positive, make friends, and have fun!
Do a cool down ride if you need to.
Put your layers back on.
Celebrate showing up and giving it your all! Congratulate your new friends.
Find some food.
Always wash, dry, and lube your bike after a muddy race, it will work a lot better during the next race if you do.
MFG #2 Starcrossed at Marymoor, September 23rd, 2023. Photo Credits: Benjamin Enbom.If you don’t feel comfortable diving straight into racing and still want to be involved, race organizers are always looking for volunteers to come help as crossing guards and for set up and tear down of the event. You can also go be a spectator but be sure to bring your best heckling lines, a cowbell, and some hand ups! Hand ups like shots, hot dogs, marshmallows, crickets, wet dollars, red vines on a fishing line are always welcome on course… Look out for the Halloween themed races, where there is a best costume competition!
Cyclocross is what got me into racing, and since my first cyclocross race I have done cross-country mountain bike races, enduros, road crits, gran fondos, and gravel races. It got me hooked on setting goals to show up, do my best, make new friends, and see results over 4 years of cycling as a hobby. I hope that cyclocross continues to bring more cyclists into the world of racing!