What the hell is cyclocross?

…And why should I care about it? That’s pretty much exactly what I thought when I first started seeing cyclocross articles once the end of the road season came closer. Frankly, I was pretty dismissive of it at first – what’s exciting about riding in a circle (it’s a circuit course)? And I don’t like mud – it’s gross, not a novelty (mud is definitely a novelty in cyclocross). But I came to realize that ‘cross is like the crazy (drunk) cousin to road racing. People go for good a time, good beer, cowbells, and cheering. It is both a very serious sport and a very ridiculous sport. Those in the top tier are tearing it up and really fighting for the podium, but those further back in the field aren’t afraid to have a little fun! Racers will often grab beers being held out by spectators, or even money thrown onto the course!

Cyclocross also looooves costumes (Halloween not a requirement):

Also in the tandem variety!

Then you have handups– usually food or beer

For instructions on how to properly execute a handup, look here for guidance.

So, in addition to the beer, costumes, money grabs, food handups, and mud (if you’re into that), it’s also a circuit course, which means you can actually watch the race develop, not just catch a glimpse of a peloton as it races by at warp speed.

So, where exactly did this drunk cousin/wacky uncle come from? Let’s give a hand to…

France, we thank thee.

While ‘cross has the strongest traditions in Belgium and the Netherlands today (as evidenced in this music video dedicated to cyclocross), it is believed to have originated in France, with French cyclist racing from town to town through fields in the winter months in the late 18th century, as a game amongst themselves. It soon became a way to stay fit during the off season. In addition, it was also a great way to improve one’s bike handling skills! Cyclocross as a sport was born out of the mind of either Daniel Gousseau, a French soldier, or Geo Lefevre, the mastermind behind the Tour de France. History is a fickle mistress, often unwilling to reveal her secrets, and it is unclear whether Lefevre or Gousseau is the true inventor (they belonged to the same club, so it could’ve been a joint effort). The first official race was organized in 1902, and by the ’40s, it has become so popular as a sport, the UCI started to regulate it and by the ’70s it had crossed the pond to the US.

In the US, the ‘cross scene is concentrated mostly in the Northwest, with the Northeast getting an honorable mention. In general, there is not a lot of cross over between the US scene and the European scene. Unlike in road racing, where Americans are often on non-American teams riding overseas, most US ‘cross riders ride for American teams in the US. There is a bit of crossover, but when you look at the race results of European races, unless it’s a big UCI race, there are few to no Americans on the list.

(I love research! Here, here, and of course, here)

But what is it exactly?

So, now down to the specifics. As I mentioned, it’s a circuit race, run around a course with many obstacles in the way. There are stairs to climb, barriers to jump over, sand pits, mud (either intentional or not!), and steep hills. Many of these obstacles require the rider to dismount, carry their bike over the obstacle and remount- all while not losing time or falling!

Ridiculous Stairs
Carrying across a sand pit...
...riding across a sand pit...
...falling in a sand pit!
Mud (gross!)

(Here’s some even grosser mud, if you’re into that)

Steep hills

A fun alternative to carrying the bikes over the barriers is to “bunny hop” them. Some of the riders master this art instead of unclipping from their pedals- not only does it please the crowd but it also allows the rider to save precious seconds that would be lost through dismounting, carrying, remounting.

Here’s my favorite ‘cross rider, Jeremy Powers, demonstrating this technique beautifully.

But beware! It can go horribly wrong…

(don’t worry, he was fine)

The courses are usually 1.5-2 miles long and the elite races usually run for 30-60 minutes (usually 60). They are designed to be 80-90% rideable, but the fun part is the unrideable bits!

Here’s a view of course from a rider’s perspective:

Now, what the spectator sees: (starts at ~7:00) (compare that to this 1950s race! Quite a difference. My favorite part is the commentators’ laughter…)

This is an episode from Behind the Barriers, a series hosted by Jeremy Powers, who, as I mentioned before, is my favorite ‘cross racer. He’s a great example of a typical top ‘cross racer. Because the ‘cross season is so short (September to February), most ‘cross riders combine ‘cross with other bike disciplines, such as road or mountain biking. Powers races domestically on the roads during the rest of the year. Two other top US ‘cross riders, Ryan Trebon and Todd Wells, race mountain bikes the rest of the year.

Major races

The official, unofficial start of the ‘cross season is Cross Vegas, in Las Vagas, during Interbike, the HUGE bike industry trade show. It’s run at night and it attracts so many people, it’s crazy.

Then the races of the North America Cyclocross Trophy (NACT) series start. This series is made up of 5 races spread out across September and October. Points are awarded based on where one finishes in the field and the rider who has the most points at the end of the 5 races wins the Trophy!

The US Gran Prix race series is similar to NACT starts. This is a series of two day races in four different cities over the course of 4 months (one city, with races over two days, from September to December). Same deal- points awarded on finishing spot and the rider with the most points at the end wins! This year was real nail-bitter- at the end of the 2nd to last day of racing, Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers were tied with points. During the last race, Johnson and Powers were neck and neck the whole way, but Powers eventually held onto the lead to win the series!

Another big race is the Jingle Cross races, which take place in my fair state, Iowa! I was actually home when this was going on- had been on top of it, I would’ve tried to arrange our schedule to stop by! But I didn’t even realize the race existed until right before we left. This three day event has a Christmas theme and is apparently a hella hard course.

The last big race of the American ‘cross scene is the National Championships, which is happening right now, in Bend, Oregon. This is the crowning race of the season and whoever wins this race gets to wear the star-and-stripes jersey for the next season!

More information

So now I know you’re dying to know more. Here are some great sites to follow if you want to keep up to date on the latest cyclocross happenings.

There isn’t much live coverage of American cyclocross events- what little there is will be posted on those sites. There will be live streaming of the Elite Men’s and Women’s races of the National Championship by Cycling Dirt, USA Cycling, and Versus.com. Women start at 3:30 ET and 5:30 ET!

Now you know everything you didn’t know you needed to know about cyclocross!

(I’ve tried to get it right, but if my research has steered me wrong, feel free to correct me!)

A modified version of this article was re-printed at US Pro Cycling News.


6 thoughts on “What the hell is cyclocross?

  1. Pingback: Behind the Barriers « Mastering the Uphill Shift

  2. This is really comprehensive & informative! Thanks, Anna! I had to laugh at the other comment. Watching “Behind the Barriers” is why I started following cyclocross racing! Jeremy Powers is one of the best ambassadors this sport has 🙂

    1. TheBloomingCyclist

      Jeremy isn’t the reason i started watching cyclocross, but he quickly became one of my favorites! It’s true, he’s a great ambassador for the sport…

  3. Pingback: Jesse Swift’s New Challenge, Single Speed Cyclocross « ProVéloPassion

  4. Pingback: A Race is Only As Serious As the Rules it Follows | Cyclocosm - Pro Cycling Blog

  5. Pingback: Over the Barriers: A Journey to Cyclocross | Mastering the Uphill Shift

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