Cyclocross Fever: How to Enjoy the Muddy Little World of Barriers & Off-Cambers
August 29, 2017
I can't believe I haven't yet posted my two bits about CX skills! I've been going nuts about it for a few years now and have posted a few general items but CX is about skill, so c'mon!
There are a couple books in print about the esoteric world of CX. Actually, it's not that freaky but fans do go nuts and so it's worthy of books. (Altho, I tried selling them here at OYB and my eBay store and never did move more than a couple, which is odd for a booming sport. But maybe not so odd in today's anti-book scene.)
WHAT IS CYCLOCROSS?
Cyclocross is about flow. It's about staying smooth and comfy despite the craziest of course conditions thrown your way.
It's a short course sport done often in an urban park setting. It's easy to spectate such events. And it's easy to practice because you can visit every part of a course repeatedly in a short amount of time.
It's a form of offroad racing done with roadbikes that have narrow but knobby tires and it involves obstacles that force most riders off the bike and into running a ways. But often there are portions of a course that are paved or feature a creative variety of non-trail surfaces -- mostly commonly mud, fields or sand. You wouldn't want to walk through quite a few of these places.
In short, it's a form of bike racing that is both on and off the bike. Steeplechase with a bike.
You can use a mtbike most of the time if you like. Sometimes they seem to be an advantage. It depends on how rough the course is and how much carrying there is. A fairly smooth course with a lot of dismounts and running would tend to favor a real CX bike. Such bikes are in general becoming more popular nowadays. In fact, they're a throwback to the versatile roadbikes of the pre-1980's eras. Race bikes used to have clearance for wider tires and fenders. They used to have clearance to also be less stiff and harsh. Then they lost all that. Today, riders are finding that wider tires and flexier frames can actually be faster even in road racing. And they let you do a lot more with the bike.
CX racing happens during a specific time of year: basically from Sept to March. Here in the USA it's more like Oct to Jan. ...It's the rainy, miserable, cold, slushy time of year that tends to not be good for anything else. In the midwest it's the time of year after summer biking but before cross-country skiing. Perfect!
It was developed because bike racers are freaks and they still wanted to ride and train during the late fall time of year. And it improved their skills and made them tougher. And they always knew it was awesome fun. And it's cool to watch and see how riders deal with absurd obstacles.
And it's a kind of racing where all skill levels can enjoy a practice course at the same time. Beginners can watch experts repeatedly do a section then hop in and try to imitate them a bit before being dropped. But unlike road racing getting dropped is no big deal. You can shortcut a course in practice and rejoin your friends pronto. Even in a race the drafting effect is much less. You can have a rough patch then maybe regroup and catch back up. There's no sitting in then winning a field sprint. At the same time it's not just about pure daring and power. It can be hard to explain the difference from mtbiking but basically CX is slower, tighter, trickier and involves more repetition and more tactical opportunity since a single corner can be studied and used differently at different times for different reasons. Yet CX is sometimes faster than mtbiking.
Another big thing is that a simple city park may not seem to present the most interesting bike riding terrain. And it doesn't, in terms of regular trails. But! With a little creativity one can lay out a LOT of twisty spaghetti turns for cyclocross's short early winter season. Indeed, CX often doesn't use trails at all. A temporary course is laid out. This brings up the issue of turf damage. We can't really call it trail damage. The great thing about CX is that it is seasonal. And it gets into full swing when other trail uses are dropping away to nearly nothing. Yes, the turf gets chewed up. But the trick is that after autumn's fallen leaves and the winter snow and a few months of lay-off before the next warm weather of spring we typically see a complete bounceback of the landscape. You often can't tell that the maniacs had been crossin' there earlier. Mtbiking trails become eroded over years of constant use in the same places from sometimes year-round use. CX isn't like that. CX courses are even laid out differently season to season for variety. This variety also reduces turf impact. Win-win!
A corollary to the compressed non-trail nature of CX is that boring terrain can be made as fun as possible with hardly any limits to course design. Include stairs if you like! But even then there's a limit to the fun one can have just from riding a bike in the twisties. Here's where the barriers come in! Forcing riders to dismount and do something with a totally different rhythm, which even though different still fits in, adds a fresh twist to every lap! It changes the action, it changes the workload, it changes the body posture. ...It gives you more to think about! Everything comes at you faster. Barriers are the icing on the cake for turning mild terrain into thrillsville for bikers!
(Try it and see. I often do. I'll start the season with a few days of just riding around my own yard course. My yard is mild, simple, small. I enjoy going around the corners fast and sprinting after each place where I have to slow down. It's a new burn in my biking and I eat it up! But after a few days of this, um, I'm ready for something new. ...Then I add in my portable PVC-tube barriers. I have 3 sets of them on my 1/2-mile course. Suddenly biking takes on a whole new dimension of challenge, rhythm and workout! Fun fun fun!)
THE KEY TO CYCLOCROSS FUN: TIRES!
If you attempt to do CX in the wrong way you will truly be miserable. The worst way to do CX is on a stiff road-type bike with tires pumped up too hard. You'll go slow and you'll get beat to death the whole time. Ugh!
The trick with CX is to use knobby tires about 30-35mm wide and run them as soft as conditions will allow. If it's damp out and there aren't a lot of sharp edges on the course this means plenty soft. Like, a 170-lb rider can get by with only 30psi clinchers.
This will give you a cushy ride that will reward sensitive bike handling. If you do things right the course might not feel harsh at all. In fact -- and this is what I love -- it can feel a lot like cross country skiing! You just glide, flow, and slide your way around. Yet you're still using very light gear.
Ideally on a given course you'll want to use a tire pressure where you feel your tire bottom out a few times per lap. There may well be quite a few harsh edges out there so finesse will be required. (More on tires later.)
CX races are on courses about 1.5 miles per lap. About 6-8 minutes per lap will do ya. The courses are often really narrow, but if a race is done to official specs it'll actually be more like 10 ft wide: this is to let racers choose their own best lines. The best lines can change during a race. A course should be bounded around the whole thing by thin yellow plastic tape on both sides. But that's just for official races. This seems like a waste to me, but really a 5-lb spool of cheap tape will do the trick. Still, it takes a few hours to set up and tear down. In the 70's courses were marked by corner flags and riders were allowed to get around each corner any way they liked. This is still done sometimes.
My story is a bit mixed up here but a big appeal to CX is this course concept: it lets people easily watch a race and to get really close to the racers at many places. This lets them holler at racers with both encouragement and a socially acceptable form of heckling. In CX it's OK to hassle and tease the racers: "C'mon you can do better than that!" would be a very mild heckle. Fans also give the racers various treats called "handups." These can range from a small cup of beer to a piece of bacon or cash money. There is usually loud music blaring, often from a live band. There are bonfires. It's a party scene. In the USA the racers are the fans and they take turns cheering each other on. The pro's cheer the beginners and the beginners cheer the pros. ...Each level of racer has their own event.
Races are short. The pros are only an hour. That's actually a long time and can feel like death if you're not a pro. Beginners are a half hour. The range of life of all CX is between those two time-frames. It might not seem like much...
It takes most of a day to have all the events needed to have Beg, Intermediate, and Expert men, women and juniors each do their thing.
So the trick of CX is to be smooth. But the course is designed to prevent that.
Another awesome thing about CX is that it brings out a combo of combativeness plus smooth problem-solving skills. It's great fun to watch the pro's race on YouTube videos. And the women are known to be just as dramatic as the men. It really comes down to displays of personal style and fortitude.
THE TWO FUNDAMENTALS: BARRIERS & OFF-CAMBER
The most common features that challenge riders are barriers and off-camber sections.
Off-camber means the slope of a hill goes away from where you want to go, tending to make you wipe out. It's the opposite of a berm that lets you enjoy G-forces helping you around a corner faster. You have to be careful riding off-camber sections or your wheels will come out from under you. ...Now try to ride it full speed while passing people!
The best way to handle off-cambers is to steer your bike. Don't lean it. Keep it upright, or even tilted out away from the slope if you can. Steering is a great skill in all biking so here's a fine way that CX helps us be better all-round riders. ...Bikes turn in two ways: steering and leaning. Steering is limited by skid/plow traction, leaning is limited by slip-out slide traction. Usually we have more plow traction. So learn to steer more. Off-cambers will teach you this, if I can't.
Also, look where you're going. This applies to both off-cambers and corners. Look ahead. Don't look down. This will be hard to do in both cases, but especially with rutted, bumpy off-camber side-slopes. Still, keep your head up, your eyes up, and look down the course, not at particular details. You can usually ride off-cambers hard and fast! But the second you hesitate, or glance down at a detail, boom, it's over.
Many devilish courses will have downhill off-cambers. An awesome double-whammy. The course is both dropping and falling away to one side. Welcome to two-dimensional descending! You will of course be powerfully tempted to do the thing that will mess you up: brake. Sure, we might want to control our speed a little. Or we might not. For sure, tho, braking hard is the guaranteed way to wash out either front, rear or both wheels in a descending off-camber. Often, just lettin' 'er rip is the way to go! Victory favors the bold, right?
...Now make your dropping off-camber into a turn! Ah ha ha. Your perplexity is why spectators will gather at such a location.
In places like these, and many others, you might want to try a trick move called TRIPOD. ...Stick a leg out. It can act like a counterweight to let you tilt your bike a couple degrees more away from the slope than you could otherwise. That might be all you need to keep traction.
Because of all the trickiness built into a CX course, the reality of "full speed" is slower than in most racing. This makes CX more fun and less likely to cause injury when you screw up, which can be fairly often.
And also because of this same trickiness a smart rider can often beat one who is less savvy. This gives a natural advantage to the Elderly! It's a kind of racing where you can get better at it for decades. Or where you can start doing it and use your brains and possibly your ability to suffer for a slightly deferred pleasure to offset the power of younger riders.
The next famous feature of CX is barriers. A course will be set up to force you to dismount using various clever means. Often this is a simple low hurdle. So you ride as fast as you can up to the obstacle then get off your bike and carry it over then get back on your bike again. You try to do all this without slowing down hardly at all and while being among a bunch of rivals doing the same thing. Actually, maybe you think you're faster at all this obstacle stuff so you're trying to pass your pals in such sections. Is that a smart idea? You will find out!
Dealing with barriers requires the famous CX skills of dismounting, carrying and remounting. Each phase requires a lot of practice until you become super fast and super smooth at it. It's fun! Find a field and give it a try! Then do it over and over and see how much better you get. ...Ideally read some articles and books and watch some videos first. Heck, take a clinic, join a club, work with a coach!
I'll give you some basics.
NOW FOR A STATION BREAK...
...First, I want to say something more about tires. In CX you can end up being a tire freak. And for good reason. Good tires make it so much more fun. They give you control while letting you use lower pressures. Smooth joy! Generally spend as much $ on tires as you can. Probably consider using latex tubes or going tubeless: this lets you go softer. Use as wide of tires that fit your bike. 33mm is the UCI standard so you can pretend to be a pro if you like. ...Or you can go for a bit more cush. Your call. ...But if you want to REALLY catch the feel you're going to... go... TUBULAR! Yes, you'll ride sewups. Tubies. You'll GLUE YOUR TIRES on your rims! It's insane but it's awesome. If you get a chance give 'em a try. Maybe a friend will let you. Or don't. Because you might get hooked. It's not the common way to go. It's the pro way. It's a secret weapon. And it turns CX into a joy. It really makes it like skiing to me. I was cranky and pissed about CX when I first tried it using cheap clinchers -- heck, I just wanted to try it. Don't spend much, right? Then I somehow bumped into some old tubies. Because I'm an old racer I had a set of old sewup wheels around. I glued on the tires and my life changed. I was using an old touring bike and suddenly I was able to take 3rd place in my first real CX race. Yeah, they're a bit like cheating. I guess the magic is you can just ride em 5psi softer and they're super-round and super supple. When unmounted and uninflated they kinda feel like hankies. Like a cloth t-shirt. They just feel great to ride. But be careful. I've since started keeping my eyes pealed for hand-me-down deals on custom hand-made tubies -- and they've just been so much fun. Brand new such tires can cost $150.
The most awesome brands are Challenge, FMB, and Dugast. The pros use those three brands probably 90%. But even each of these have their differences. I kinda like Challenge the best as being the most versatile. Dugast is thrillingly supple -- like a hanky! -- but they can fold in highspeed hardpack cornering. FMB are so handmade that you might not know what tread you're getting. The guy uses a variety of treads in each category! Which is fine.
Tires are grouped into three types: filetread, intermediate, and mud. Filetread are famous for speed and sand. They're best in hardpack. They don't have much grip but often you don't really need it. But when it's wet or muddy, forget it. Intermediates are the most common. They do it all. And most courses have it all! So you can't go wrong with them. But if it's rainy and wet! Well... Use a mud tire with big wide-spaced knobs for the most fun.
I've read advice to treat the sidewalls of elite cotton tires with Aquaseal sealant. If you don't, I guess they can rot. Why not just make sure you dry them instead? I used this sealant and it seemed to mess up my sweet tires! It made them stiff and heavy. Rats! Maybe use much thinner tent seam-sealant instead. A light, light membrane seal seems enough. Also, new tires are usually said to come pre-sealed, so don't even worry about it.
As for gluing, buy a big half-pint can of it at the beginning of the season. Never race on tires that weren't glued on that season! They will roll if you violate this rule. You will be upset! Instead, use your finger and wipe a thin layer of glue on a new tire base-tape and on a new rim. Let it cure a day. Then wipe a generous layer on both base-tape and rim and let them sit 5 minutes then mount the tire and let cure for a day. Mount lightly inflated. Make sure your tire is pre-stretched and will readily go on the rim! Inflate a bit more after mounting and spin and check true-ness of install. Then pump to 30psi and let sit. It's also impt that the tire mate nicely with the rim. If you pump too hard the tire can get too round and rise up from the rim. Let it cure to the rim at the pressure you'll be riding. Check that the tire is contacting the WHOLE rim out to the edges. Yes, there is lore to tires and gluing!
If you get a flat, repair it yourself. It's not that hard. Takes me a half hour tops. Yes, get out a needle and heavy thread and pliers and exacto-knife. Only unstitch about 3" of tire at the leak. Pull tube out to repair then re-insert. (Reglue the basetape using Barge Cement. Other contact cement might work. I've heard liquid latex is good. And that is what Carpet Sealer is. But this failed for me.) If you like you can remove the valve-stem and inject an oz or two of Stans before inflating and this will seal a tiny pinchflat or thorn hole without even wrecking your ride! Or you can try to do this after you get a flat. Sealant is great new stuff.
People are also enjoying riding tubeless clincher set-ups. They have their own feel that they come to like. No pro's are doing this (hint hint!), but it's better than clinchers with tubes! If you use tubes, try latex instead since they're much more supple. I've heard they resist pinches better than regular butyl.
So now we're flying around the course on our magic tires and we encounter a dread barrier! Actually, I love barriers. The whole hurdle thing is awesomely fun! You sprint right up to the barrier, don't hit your brakes, swing your leg around behind you and jump off the bike and pick it up at the same time. No, I have to tell this right.
MORE ON BARRIERS
As you sprint to the barrier, if it's firm, fast and downhill you'll have to brake, but if it's grass you really might power right on up to it. When you're honed you won't brake even though many of your rivals will. This advantage will already feel cool as you pass some of them. You will unclip your coasting foot before the barrier and take your last stroke on your instep. This is probably your left foot. (One in 100 US riders seem to be goofy-foot.) Then you'll coast an instant as you swing your right leg quickly around and behind your left and step down on to the ground. Your left foot then leaps forward and hits the ground. You pick up the bike usually by the top-tube and handlebar, keeping it pointing in line to the course. With your next stride of your right leg you'll hurdle the barrier. The barrier will be like 11-18" high. There are usually two of them. Run over them both. Carry your knees high so your head stays steady. Then on the far side take an accelerating stride and drive up and forward with your right knee as you wrap it over the top of your saddle.
Here's a huge tip: the faster you're moving forward the less you need to jump up. As you run forward you're already moving up enough to remount. You won't need to jump. ...And then you won't come down very hard, either. Smooth is your goal! Driving forward with your body, and that right knee, keeps you smooth!
Contact your saddle with the inner part of your right thigh so you smoothly slide up onto it. You're constantly looking down the course, eyes up, chin up. Your hands are on the top of your handlebars pushing the bike rapidly back up to speed. You push the bars from the back of them. Drive with that knee. And suddenly you'll be back clicking into the right pedal and driving with it and then kicking at the left pedal. Sometimes it takes you a crank or two to get both back in. Work on making that into an instant. The main thing is a zero impact accelerating remount.
And there you have it!
...Don't tense up in barriers. Breathe deep from the belly. Don't be jarring and bounce up and down with either yourself or your bike. There are many ways to mess up barriers and end up messing up your momentum and fun and maybe even end up feeling, due to the misery, that CX just isn't for you. No! Keep working it and find your barriers flow! Don't flail at your pedals -- be calm. Practice til you just end up clicking in with zero wasted motion. Accelerate through the barriers! FLY! Feel that heart-rate bump and that extra burn. Actually, play with your effort -- try to use barriers to calm down, to even lower your heart-rate. It probably won't work but to have in your mind "now I'll rest a sec" "now I can stand up all and limber out a bit and calm down" can be interesting.
CX lingo is fun. Racers often talk about "burning matches." There will be so many places you might be tempted to get out of the saddle to sprint. Like to try to make up for a mistake, but the more you race or practice this sport you'll see that you can only do that so many times before you're cross-eyed. So be careful with your matches!
Then there's "openers." That's when you do a few short race-paced efforts in your warm-up to "wake up" your legs and get them ready. Speaking of which...
OH, AND *SAND*
Cyclocross courses are famous for sand sections. I mean they're infamous. Well, ya love it or hate it. What you really need to do is PRACTICE it. I haven't had sand hurt a bike yet. Thank heavens for modern sealed bearings. Supposedly sand likes filetread tires at lowest pressures. But that won't be realistic for the rest of the course. Evaluate how much sand you'll have and maybe drop your PSI a bit to accomodate it but not impair the rest of your fun. Often you'll simply need more horsepower to deal with sand. But you also must have a light touch on the handlebars. Let them float. Do NOT let your front end SLICE! Then you get to dismount or pick yourself up. The front must stay upright. You'll see pros contorting and flinching their bodies extremely, doing everything they can to keep the front up. Sometimes you can find a little packed, flat or slightly firm channel and ride it fast -- unless you deviate an INCH then you auger in. Good luck!
CX races are short. Half-hour for beginners. An hour for pros. That's it! It will seem long enough, believe me. Also, racers take off HARD in a sprint to get onto the course early. It's called "getting the holeshot." (Say, 50 riders all take off at the same time. As the pack settles into the first section of course the rider at the front is already 15 secs ahead of the back. Free time is nice time.) To get ready for such an event you want to be sweaty before the start. That's why you'll see so many CXers riding trainers in the parking lot. I just ride around. You want to be working hard before the start so it doesn't come as a shock. Oh, and you may well get a call-up to be "gridded." Officials will call riders up and put each one in a little box made of lines marked in the start area. The riders with the most season or series points beforehand get called up first. Doing good lets you keep doing good. And one reason for doing better is getting better and better starts. Another wrinkle in CX is the mystery start. You'll get a notice that after a countdown the start will happen any time in the next 10 secs. Suspense!
In rounding corners you'll want to look where you're going. Often the corners are very tight, as in 180's. So you'll enter the corner looking back the way you came and swinging the front end of your bike around while still pedaling even as you might be braking a bit. The bike will go where you look. If you look "Wow the outside of this corner is coming right up awfully fast!" you will be smack thru the tape to the outside of it quicker than you can have that thought. So don't do that.
Here's what the pros do: Start your turn as wide as possible and PAST the actual apex. That way you don't hit the apex as sharply and there's a LOT less tendency to hit the outside tape while exiting.
You will learn to enjoy sliding your front and rear wheels. They can both slide without you falling down. Work on STEERING your bike. This will pay off in all the biking that you do everywhere. When you steer a bike all it can do is skid but it won't fall over. When you LEAN and slide you might fall down. When a steered bike loses traction all it does is run wide off the course because the front no longer is grabbing but if you haven't leaned it much it's not going down. And if you keep some power on the rear will grip better and bring you around.
You'll become a savant at appreciating the tackiness of the turf. You'll look closely at mud. Hmmm... You will ponder.
Work on not losing speed in the corners. Work on handling your gears so you can regain any speed you do lose for whatever reason.
...Work on riding as fast as you can while still paying attention to tiny things. Or just float over the details and try to stay aware of the big picture.
Run in the red. Enjoy.
You'll find you can zoom through the challenges without losing a beat.
Sometimes you might have to run for quite a ways. In such cases you'll want to shoulder your bike and then you get to be a true 'crosser. You'll want to practice doing this, too. As you dismount and stride forward with that left foot you'll reach down with your right hand and grab your downtube then put your bike on your shoulder and across your back and you'll reach across with the same hand and grab the left handlebar. You might also reach UNDER the downtube. The bike should then be easy to run with. You reverse all that to set it down again.
The trick in remounting both after a barrier and after a run is to set you bike down gently and with fast, accelerating forward motion. Don't drop it or bang it down. You'll go slow and you'll probably drop your chain. Bad.
In general in CX, the rule is: "slow is smooth and smooth is fast." Practice like that. If you find a corner or obstacle to be tricky, do it again slower and smoother. Slow it all the way down to walking if need be as you work on your motions, then gradually flow the speed back up while never losing whatever smooth you find.
CX racing is often about whoever screws up the least. You'll find places where you feel good and want to go hard. Figure out what places are the smartest for you to do that. Your race might have 3 to 10 laps. You'll have chances for strategy. You also really want to pre-ride the course and get in a really good warm-up so you're sweaty at the start. Oh, also the start of a CX race is always fast. Everybody goes for the holeshot. It's fun! It's an advantage to ride at the front. Corners often have logjams of riders waiting to get through them. Win the start and you'll have clear sailing! Anyway, get a feel for how many times you can go hard in a race and keep that in mind. Don't overdo it. Ideally go steady throughout but now and then you'll have opportunities. It truly is more of a game than other bike racing. You'll notice how your rivals are handling certain parts of the course and you might get chances to take advantage of that. Don't miss any of those. Sometimes decisions have to be made in an instant. They are called gambles. A rival might dab a foot, or even just pause for a second or might brake a bit before a barrier. All these things can spur you to hit it and try to pass in that instant, to suddenly move up 6 feet in their moment of hesitation. They take one way around a root, you take another: can you turn that into a pass?
Sometimes you'll realize that you can pass someone in a place but they can always pass you back. So... Wait until the last lap until you do that again. Maybe the location of this place is just right so that you can hold them off that one last time. You may want to keep several such places "in hand" for various rivals to deal with them each on the last lap. You can often see who is doing what and where and then figure out a way to handle each one.
So you're going all out, and you're also trying to think. You're going as smooth as you can, you're attacking several times, you're trying to not make mistakes, you're sorting out what lines are faster ... and suddenly your race is over. How did you do?
Bring spare clothes and hot beverages. Your riding will keep you warm during your short event even if it's nasty weather. But once you're done, change out and get dry.
Welcome to cyclocross!