For the past couple years I’ve heard of this sub-sport of cycling called cyclocross. People always describe it as a cross between mountain biking, road biking, and steeplechase, so that’s how I described it too. That is, until recently when someone finally asked me exactly what is steeplechase… to which I mumbled something about horses and barriers and then admitted I wasn’t exactly sure and stopped using that reference.
So what is cyclocross (usually just called “cross” or “CX”)? I’d say it’s a totally ridiculous, fun, and exhausting 25-60min race where you ride your bike as fast as you can doing 3-10(ish) laps on a maze-like mile(ish) long course of uneven and mixed surfaces (e.g. grass, gravel, dirt, payment, sand), in variable conditions (e.g. dry, dusty, loose, muddy, wet, snowy, icy, cold), with both man-made and natural barriers that force you to get off and jump, run, or carry your bike for short distances (logs, super steep and muddy hills, stairs, low barriers (think small horse jumps), sand pits, etc.). Spectating is big — typically in the form of heckling, ringing cow bells, and cheering as well as giving riders hand ups of water or bacon or fireball or donuts (yes, literally, handing riders snacks and drinks as they pass). Races last all day with different categories starting every 45-60 minutes. Typically riders ride 1-2 practice laps before their race to learn a course. It’s a really freakin’ great time (minus the parts where you’re going so hard you taste blood, of course).
So the day after I got back from RPI I decided to jump head first into the just starting cross season. I went to the Ride or Die weekly cross clinic hosted by two former elite CX racers – Vicky and Jane. I also signed up for a race the next day in the “brand new women’s” category at Back 2 Basics which is an afternoon A/B/C category race. And yes, I had no clue what I was doing having never even attended a CX race much less done any racing.
However, the clinic went great and I learned a lot. However, we didn’t have time that night to talk too much about mounts/dismounts. So, on the way home, I decided I should practice one or two. I’m pretty comfortable jumping on and off my bike so I may have been a touch overconfident. I swung my leg over my bike ✅, glided along on one foot ✅, but then I tried to simultaneously unclip and start running ❌ Next thing I knew I was laying on the concrete path still clipped into my bike when some guy asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t hurt, except for the fact that somehow I’d driven the end of my handlebars into my temple, leaving me with a very nice lump on my head for several days.
After that I went home, watched three Youtube videos on dismounting and jumping over a barrier, and practiced in the driveway until I was (slightly) more confident I wouldn’t go face first into the barriers at my race. Happily, that first race went great! It helped that there were only two other women in the newbie cat. It did NOT help that it was 95 degrees and full sun out. I showed up by myself, managed to get my number pinned on, and watched folks pre-riding the course until I figured out which way to go. During the race itself I went full gas as hard as I could and I didn’t fall! Vicky also came out to cheer me on, which was amazing, and I finished first! Not a bad start at all!
I thought I was going to kinda hate cross. I’m a long distance gravel racer. I have a hate/hate relationship with VO2max and anaerobic workouts, I feel like my throat is burning and I’m going to puke whenever I sprint, and I avoid short, hard efforts as much as possible. But… I’ve never raced my bike in a short format like that. And even though my heart rate hit 182 and I finished with my mouth feeling like the desert, I had a blast. I was hooked.
So I decided to sign up for the Cyclo X cross series as a cat 4* racer as Vicky encouraged me to skip cat 5 and voluntarily cat up given my gravel racing background. Now I was really going get into this cross racing thing!
*Side note: Categories in cycling are complex. In gravel racing everyone just starts together – pros and newbies alike. But in road, mountain biking, and cross racing there are different categories put together by the governing body of USA Cycling. You can be in a different category for different disciplines, since an excellent road rider might be a new mountain biker. Essentially categories go from 5 (beginner/novice) to 1 (expert/elite). Typically you start in cat 5 and you work to gain points to move up. Going from cat 5 to cat 4 is easy – you can voluntarily upgrade if you think you’re strong enough — maybe you’re a long time gravel racer or you’re a cat 1 road racer who wants to try cross. But to “cat up” after that requires you to earn points, which you typically do by finishing top 3-6 riders (depending on the size of race). That can be very hard in large fields and in places where cycling is very popular, like Boulder, where there are a lot of incredibly strong racers on elite, pro, or Olympic trajectories (or who are former pros/elites/Olympians). Some racers will race in cat 4 for their whole career, while others work very hard to cat up as fast as possible. There are also sub-categories for master racers over 40, over 50, and over 60, juniors categories for under 18s, and categories for folks riding single speed bikes. USA Cycling hasn’t gotten to non-binary categories yet but… maybe one day. Typically in cross a group of categories will start together or in waves 30-60 sec apart (e.g. women’s cat 3, cat 4, and cat 5 or men’s cat 3, men’s cat 30 40+, and men’s cat 3 50+). Anyway, that’s enough of that.