…And why should I care about it? That’s pretty much exactly what I thought back when I first started seeing cyclocross articles once the end of the first road season I followed came closer. Frankly, I was pretty dismissive of it at first – what’s exciting about riding in a circle? And I don’t like mud – it’s gross, not a novelty. But I came to realize that ‘cross is like the crazy (drunk) cousin to road racing. People go for a good 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):
(For instructions on how to properly execute a handup, look here for guidance.)
Not only does the beer, costumes, money grabs, food handups, and mud (if you’re into that) make it fun to watch, 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?
France, we thank thee.
While ‘cross has the strongest traditions in Belgium and the Netherlands today, 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 among 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, while historically the ‘cross scene has concentrated mostly in the Northwest, with the Northeast getting an honorable mention, today there are good race series in many parts of the US. In general, there is not a lot of cross over between the US scene and the European scene. Unlike in road racing, where there are often Americans riding on non-American teams 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.
But what is it exactly?
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!
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 one of 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. 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.
Here are some great sites to follow if you want to keep up to date on the latest cyclocross happenings.
- Cyclocross Magazine
- CXHairs (home of Crosshairs Radio and Crosshairs Television, a podcast and video recaps, respectively )
- DirtWireTV (specializes in video event coverage. Super great quality videos. Videos on YouTube, other content on Twitter and Instagram)
- Flo Bikes (videos, live coverage, interviews in all disciplines, depending on the season)
- USA Cycling’s cyclocross section (the official governing body of US cycling)
Live coverage of US events has increased over the years and whatever there is will be posted on those sites. There is usually live video of the European ‘cross races as well – Cyclocross Magazine will post links to those.
Now you know everything you didn’t know you needed to know about cyclocross!