Cyclocross can seem intimidating, what with all the jumping on and off the bike, navigating uneven terrain, etc. But with practice and some on-course experience, you can become comfortable tackling any course. There are a lot of ‘cross-specific skills to learn that you will continue to work on and refine as you keep racing.
This post will give you an overview of some of the core cyclocross skills and which of those skills you may want to work on first as you’re getting into racing.
What skills do I need to learn?
There are a number of skills that are unique to cyclocross racing:
- Dismounting (getting off your bike at speed)
- Remounting (getting back on your bike at speed)
- Running over barriers (planks mounted in pairs)
- riding off-camber (riding perpendicular on a steep hill or slope)
- riding in sand
- carrying/shouldering your bike
There are also a number of skills that you might not think of as being unique to cyclocross, but in fact they are among some of the most fundamental to the sport:
- Climbing and descending (on particularly loose or steep terrain)
- Race Starts
Do I have to master ALL of those skills before my first race?
It is intimidating to think about learning all of these skills at one time. However, for a first race, I suggest prioritizing For your first race, I suggest prioritizing (1) cornering, (2) getting on and off your bike at speed (dismounting and remounting) first, and (3) getting over the barriers.
Cornering is important because you’ll have to turn many, many times on a course, so the more comfortable you are with cornering, the faster you’ll be. Knowing that you can readily dismount your bike and get back on smoothly is really helpful both for efficiency when encountering obstacles on course and for confidence. Barriers, although they only typically appear once per lap, are often the most intimidating obstacle (at least they were to me!), and so knowing how to get over them improves confidence which improves speed.
And always keep in mind, though the list of ‘cross skills may seem long, many of these skills are refined through experience. As one coach said during a clinic, “practice makes permanent.” The more you practice the skills, the more confidence you will gain in your own abilities on the bike, the less energy you will expend while navigating the course, the more efficient you will become, and the faster you’ll get through the course!
You shouldn’t focus on “mastering” these skills, as these skills can continually be improved and worked on – everyone from beginners to pros are always working on finessing their technical abilities.
Where/How do I practice these skills?
The best place to learn ‘cross skills for the first time is at a clinic. Generally, starting around the end of August and through September, many bike shops and cycling teams with a ‘cross contingent will offer clinics. Following teams and shops on Facebook is a good way to stay up to date on classes/clinics they might offer. In addition, you could contact teams/stores directly to ask if they are planning to offer any clinics!
Once you’re armed with the basic skills, you can practice those skills anywhere. If you live in a city, you’ve probably already built up some good bike handling skills, just by riding in traffic! Now, while riding in the city, you can consciously think of how you’re using your cornering and bike handling skills to avoid obstacles. Parks are GREAT place to practice. All you need is a stretch of grass and you’ve got a place to practice dismounts and remounts. If you find a little hill, you can use that to practice run ups or navigating steep descents. You can practice cornering around trees. The roots and uneven ground provide experience riding on uneven and bumpy surfaces. Be sure NOT to ride on any sports fields (soccer, baseball, etc) because that makes people VERY grumpy!
If you are interested in attending a multi-day clinic, which are often hosted by cyclocross coaching groups, you can search by date and within a radius of your zip code on BikeReg.com, a site which will often manage registration for these events.
What if I can’t attend a clinic?
If you can’t find a clinic, or prefer to practice on your own, there are lots of resources on the web to help. Googling any of the skills will give you a plethora of articles and videos on how to master these skills. Below are a selection of articles/videos to help you get started! In general, it is best to practice all these skills at a slow pace first. Once you have mastered the technique, you’ll be able to execute at speed and when you’re exhausted, as muscle memory will take over!
Dismounting is getting off your bike at speed, which is an incredibly useful skill. In cyclocross, racers may dismount a number of times during a race: there may be obstacles on course, extremely steep grades, or deep mud that make a section unrideable. It may also be faster to run than to ride a section if there is considerable traffic on course or if they lose momentum (around a turn or through mud or sand).
- Article: How to dismount in cyclocross [Bike Radar]
- Video: How to dismount (lots of great slow-mo video of the dismounting steps) [Global Cycling Network]
Remounting is getting back on your bike after you have cleared an obstacle or section of the course in order to get back up to speed. Remounting as soon as possible after a section has been cleared, and as efficiently as possible, is a fundamental skill in cyclocross, and also among the more difficult for people to wrap their heads (and bodies) around.
- Article: How to remount in cyclocross [Bike Radar]
- Video: Remount like a Pro (great slo-mo) [Global Cycling Network]
Barriers are among the standard obstacles found on the cyclocross course: a set of two planks that span the course, are approximately 16 inches high each and are spaced approximately 7 feet apart. Most courses will have one set of barriers, though some courses may include a second set. In addition to dismounting before the barriers and remounting after the barriers, navigating these successfully means timing your dismount and remount appropriately while carrying as much speed as you are able, and running efficiently over the barriers with your bike.
- Article: Cyclocross Skills: Overcome Any Barrier [Bicycling Magazine]
- Video: Cyclocross Barrier Tutorial [YouTube]
- How to make [CX Magazine] or buy [Cross Propz] your own barriers
Cornering is exactly what it sounds like: learning to turn your bike while carrying as much speed as you are able. There may be 20+ turns in a single lap on a cyclocross course, so learning to maintain your forward momentum through a turn will pay dividends. Corners might be wide and sweeping, they may be located on a hill requiring you to balance on an off-camber surface, they may be tight and twisty, there might be gravel, mud, dust, sand, or tall grass inside the turn. Most courses will have at least one 180 degree (hairpin) turn, which is a favorite challenge of course designers.
- Article: Cyclocross Cornering Tips [TrainingPeaks]
- Video: How to Corner on a Cyclocross Bike [Global Cycling Network]
- Buy some cones to use for practice, like these. You can also use cones to work on your bike handling skills, by doing cone pick-up drills.
Riding off camber
An off camber is when you have to ride along the side of a hill or bank, often riding against the direction of the slope, instead of simply going up or down. As mentioned above, cyclocross courses will often feature turns on an off-camber surface, requiring racers to work on balance, speed, and bike handling.
Sometimes course designers will route the course through volleyball courts or over sandy beaches, requiring riders to navigate sand. Although not as common a feature in the Mid-Atlantic as in other areas, learning to ride sand is a very useful skill.
- Article: How to Ride in the Sand [Wenzel Coaching]
- Video: Cyclocross Technique Lesson 3: Sand riding [Kris Westwood]
Shouldering your bike
There are many different ways to carry your bike. When you’re not riding your bike, it’s preferable to carry your bike than to run along beside it. Carrying your bike ensures that your drivetrain and tires stay cleaner (avoiding the mud or sand you may be running through) and carrying the bike is more efficient and offers greater maneuverability. Any time you are running with your bike up a steep incline, stairs, and sometimes also through mud or sand, it is often preferable to run with your bike on your shoulder to be maximally efficient and faster over the course.
- Article: Beginner’s guide to Cyclocross [NerveRush]
- Video: How To Should Your Bike Like a Pro [Global Cycling Network]
Cyclocross racing is unique in part because of the format and speed of its starts. Good positioning and a solid sprint can help you get better placement in the field going into the technical sections of the course, which allows you greater control of your race and less traffic to work through and around.
- Article: Technical Tuesday [Cyclocross Magazine]
- Video: How To Get a Fast Start [Global Cycling Network]
Steep banks/run ups
Often, a course will incorporate a very steep hill that is not rideable, and these are known as “run-ups.” The hill might be short or long; the hill might be grassy or it could be dirt and loose gravel. Navigating this section of the course requires dismounting, shouldering, running, and remounting (likely while very fatigued). Take small steps and shoulder your bike for the best results.
- Article: Cyclocross 101: The Runup [Seaside Cycles]
Hopefully this article was helpful in understanding what skills are part of cyclocross and how to practice them on your own. Again, try not to get overwhelmed with the number of skills involved in cyclocross. Start with the basics and build from there. Every race will present new challenges and obstacles, but with practice you will become adept at tackling all of them! (Thanks for your help with this article, Shauna!)
If you’re a female-identifying person in the DC area, join the Women and Bikelocross Facebook page!