By Gale Bernhardt
The sport of cyclocross, also known as 'cross, cyclo-x and CX, is a sport that is a combination of criterium-style bike racing and steeplechase-style running.
It is usually a multi-lap format race lasting 30 to 60 minutes, which includes obstacles where riders must dismount and carry their bicycles uphill, over or under barriers and through mud bogs. Adoring fans are happiest when riders attempt to ride through the mud rather than dismounting.
Because 'cross is held in the fall and early winter months, southern latitude courses enjoy wet conditions, while northern courses can be covered with snow. The best riders seek messy and challenging courses.
Most of the time, there is more riding than running on any given course. This minimizes the time and potential for injury for cyclists looking to go from primarily cycling to including some running in their training regimen.
Still not convinced you should try cyclocross racing? Maybe I can help. Below are nine reasons you should take up 'cross:
1. A mental break from road or mountain bike racing. Many riders begin racing their “normal” cycling season in March or April, with a few beginning in January and February. By the time September rolls around, some riders are tired of their normal training and racing routine. A new training routine and race challenge can keep riders motivated and fit right up to the holiday season.
2. A physical change. Yes, I know that 'cross includes cycling, but it is a different type of cycling than road racing, time trialing, criteriums or mountain bike racing. If you have been primarily doing cycling-only workouts, a change of activity can be the adjustment you need to take your body to a new level of fitness.
3. Ease into running. Because cyclocross includes short segments of running, an athlete that is primarily cycling can begin limited run-training and do well in the sport. Additionally, if the cyclist wants to continue more running after the season, 'cross is a nice start to a running program that includes more distance.
4. A whole body workout. Jumping off your bike, lifting it up and getting yourself over various obstacles is going to require core strength and upper-body strength that is much more demanding than required in road racing.
5. A balance challenge. Similar to mountain biking, 'cross racing requires balance. You need balance to ride on muddy trails, to run over obstacles with your bike on your shoulder and to quickly remount. Body awareness and balance are critical for short-term athletic performance as well as long-term health. Loss of balance is one cause of falling and broken bones in aging adults.
6. Achieving fitness outside of the frontal plane. Particularly in road riding, most of the body motion is forward, with hips, knees and ankles aligned. There is very limited stimulus of adduction (movement of limbs toward the centerline of the body) and abduction (movement of limbs away from the centerline of the body).
Getting on and off the bike, running side to side, jumping over obstacles and doing all of the other motions necessary to complete a 'cross race stimulates more muscles than does typical road racing. Mountain bike racers enjoy more overall body fitness than roadies, but in most cases 'cross racing requires more running and jumping than a typical mountain bike race.
By giving more fitness to multiple muscles—often the supporting muscles—this fitness can help prevent injury. When properly blended into a training program, this cross-training can increase primary-sport fitness.
7. High-intensity training. Because 'cross races are so short, athletes who have focused on long-distance events can reduce volume and increase speed. Additionally, racers that have typically not had the time to train for long-distance events can shine in the shorter races.
8. New equipment. For you equipment junkies out there, a different sport is perfect justification to purchase some new sport-specific equipment. Though you could use your mountain or road bike for 'cross racing, a 'cross-specific bike set-up would be better.
Cyclocross bikes usually have lightweight frames to make them easy to carry over obstacles. The frame has wider stays to provide clearance for wide, knobby tires and mud that is picked up from the course. Traditional road brakes are replaced by cantilever brakes for better stopping power. The frame's bottom bracket is higher for additional clearance over obstacles and for pedaling around corners.
9. Fun. All of the items previously mentioned add up to fun. It’s fun to do something different, shorter and 10-year-oldish. Doing a 'cross-type race can make you feel like a kid again, and there are certainly advantages to doing that.