Cyclocross!

cross_tall_chief

My son took this picture. Trying to make it up a slippery hill takes total commitment!

This autumn, I have started to race cyclocross again, after retiring from it 16 years ago. I’ve always liked ‘cross, so when my son decided to try the sport, I dusted off my skills hopping on and off the bike. Why cyclocross?

cross_handling

‘Cross is a great way to improve your bike-handling skills. Learning what it feels like just before your tires slip on grass or mud is useful for all off-pavement riding.

jan_cross_silverlake

It’s also great training, because you only can accelerate when you have traction, so to go fast, you have to sprint. Most of all, cyclocross is great fun!

cross_start

Cyclocross has changed a lot in the 16 years since I last raced. Back then, it was very much a niche sport, and apart from the National Championships, the fields of riders contained no more than 20 racers. Today in our region, it’s rare to have a field with fewer than 60 starters, and there are several categories on the course at the same time, so it’s much more crowded. On the plus side, more riders on the course mean that tactics are becoming more important. You need to plan when to go hard and when to rest while waiting for an opportunity to pass a slower rider from a category that started ahead of yours.

Another big change has been the courses. The UCI has changed the rules for cyclocross, allowing a maximum of two barriers per lap. This means fewer opportunities to dismount and remount than in the past – taking away one of the most challenging and enjoyable parts of the sport.

Equipment-wise, the most significant change is that today’s racers ride much wider tires than we did in the 1990s. Back then, 28 mm tires were considered wide… In ‘cross, even more than in other forms of cycling, tires and pressures are the most important aspects of your bike’s performance.

Cyclocross is becoming the most popular category of racing, complete with food stands, beer tents, corporate sponsors… but it’s still a great grass-roots sport where anybody can show up and race.

The Winter issue of Bicycle Quarterly will feature cyclocross, including a story about the 1980s Alan cyclocross bike that I am racing again. In the mean time, maybe you’ll give ‘cross a try as well?

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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47 Responses to Cyclocross!

  1. Florent says:

    You should try to compete with your René Herse !
    Like the team used to do at the Montmartre cyclo-cross in the 40’s !

    • The war-time photos in the René Herse book are very evocative, especially René André on his superlight René Herse, fenders removed, flying past the Moulin de Montmatre. During the war, they had to make do with whatever equipment they had. I also love the photo of the French ‘cross champion on a bike with knobbies and sidepulls in the book, as well as the 1960s rider on his randonneur bike, with just the lights, fenders and rack removed.

      I actually have ridden a few cyclocross races on a 700C randonneur bike with just the fenders, rack and lights removed and the tires swapped for knobbies. It worked very well. However, I am lucky to have a purpose-built cross bike that is ideal for the sport.

      My Herse wouldn’t work, because the maximum tire size allowed is 34 mm, which precludes using Hetres. Otherwise, they might work well on dry courses, but in the mud, the small ribs would clog up with mud, and you’d have little traction.

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        Luckily the tire size rule is absolutely unenforced here, even at UCI-sanctioned events unless you’re actually in a Pro race for UCI points.

        The general sentiment is that the fault really lies with the course designer if a rider can really gain an advantage with MTB tires.

      • The general sentiment is that the fault really lies with the course designer if a rider can really gain an advantage with MTB tires.

        It used to be that the barriers gave mountain bikes a huge disadvantage, but those are all but gone now. I think that currently, the fast guys ride cross bikes, but if one wanted to, a well-designed bike with wider tires would have a big advantage. Last weekend, my son could ride all the mudpits at good speed where I had to dismount. The reason is simple: He weighs half as much as I do, yet he is allowed the same width tires. He floated where I sank. (Of course, making a bike that fits 68 mm tires would be hard!)

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        On a good modern mountain bike you’d simply ride all the obstacles!

        High-level racers are already bunnyhopping barriers on cross bikes, and it’s no trouble at all to ride up stairs on a real MTB. There was a big controversy this summer at an industry event CX race when Carl Decker swapped to his 650b FS XC bike and gained a huge lead on a bone-dry course, *because* of the barriers rather than despite them.

        The only hard part about making a bike that fits 68mm tires is making enough to keep them in stock! Bikes with 70-120mm tires are by far the fastest growing market segment, there’s now huge variety in rims, tires, frames, forks, hubs, and cranksets to suit the needs of fat bikes.

        But any advantage gained in flotation through mud would be overwhelmed by the massive gain in wheel weight (not to mention all that surface area for mud to collect on). Cornering is also seriously problematic on the common designs, but two BQ-ignorant builders independently arrived at the solution of lowering the trail :)

      • It will be interesting to see where this goes. Perhaps it is true that the cyclocross bike is just an anachronism, which has to be protected by rules, and that a mountain bike is faster. That would make it similar to the racing bike, which appears to be no faster than an Allroad bike with wider tires.

      • jeffoyb says:

        About the anachronism idea, I think the CX bike will often win on a real CX course. On a course with plenty of carrying and perhaps a bit taller barriers and also with a fair amount of pavement and flat straights (the official blend) the CX bikes might come out naturally on top due to lighter weight and better aero. In short, I think you can design a course to suit CX bikes over MTBs — and it happens to be a fun course. The problem is when courses become more like “dirt crits” with maybe one dismount and easily-hopped barriers.

        Our big local unsanctioned CX series allows any bike and CX bikes are nearly all of the top ten. The further down you go the more MTBs you see but they do sometimes finish near the top. Most of the riders have MTBs but maybe only a tenth choose them.

        One idea is that the uphills are steep. Sure, a skilled MTBer might be able to ride them but the fun is seeing what happens when they try to do so. A runner with cleats carrying a light CX bike may well be a fair bit faster. Toss in mud and cleats sometimes come on even stronger…

        About the Allroad bikes and plump tires being as fast as race bikes: your data smiles on Allroad bikes on bumpy roads at 20mph, but I think the jury is still out in terms of 25-33mph race speeds and sprints. Sure, 25mm is vindicated for Roubaix, but…

        OK, I’m sure it’s true that organizers are doing all they can with both rules AND courses to encourage “underbiking.” Not sure that’s an anachronism — but it IS a “thing.” :) (See the fuss over disk brakes and >33mm tires.)

        It does make me wonder what would happen if MTBs were allowed at the famous European CX courses…

        I’d love to see you do an indepth exploration of early French CX! Not sure CX mag has done it, or done enough of it (but I haven’t seen all issues and they DID have that long series).

        And one day I hope you’ll do some more MTB coverage… with a BQ twist… :)

  2. Jeff Potter says:

    Hooray! :) The world of cowbells is wonderful. I recently started CX as well and enjoyed doing a few races on old sport-tourers. Lately I’m having great fun with my Giant TCR roadbike and the 28mm tires you mention! No sticky-mud races yet but in a rainy event it shed dirt just fine. I tried clinchers once then sewups then handmade sewups and haven’t looked back: such an improvement! I think sliding feels like skiing and rain feels like snow — so, since I love XC skiing, I’m in hog-heaven with CX! To me it’s about FLOW. I love attacking the off-bike stuff and the dis/re-mounting: accelerate thru the barriers. No braking! The conviviality can’t be beat — from front to back there’s a family feel. And families around! No “roadie” attitude. Also, it’s fun designing/dialing-in/building the courses. I, too, dislike the ‘dirt crit’ direction the rules are taking, but I understand the need for moderation. Soon you’ll run a mt-biking article! : )

  3. David Pearce says:

    I look forward to learning more about cyclocross, including it’s history and beginnings, which I’m sure will be covered. It’s been an interesting niche sport which I’ve never really understood, but I learned it must be important because, for example, Campagnolo, so dedicated to road racing, has specific web pages selling cyclocross components. P.S., I can’t imagine how you guys could have ‘crossed on 28mm tires in the ’80s, seems so narrow, almost like balancing on a knife-edge, in a grass field.

    • The origins of cyclocross are not very well-documented. It appears to have started as a thing to do for French racers during the off-season. Its popularity seems to have increased a lot during the war in Paris, since it could be done in the city, close to where the spectators were. Dan Werle of Cyclocross magazine has researched the story of ‘cross and written some articles on the subject, as well as the development of cyclocross tires.

  4. Brian says:

    You should come to Philadelphia and ride in Bilenky’s “Junk Yard ‘Cross”. Ridden through an actual junkyard. Good times!

  5. mike says:

    My first contact to cyclocross was in 1986. I was a racer at this time and one of my older club collegues organized a cross race for us. I prepared an old race bike with some wolber cross tyres and got some cross shoes and rode 2 or 3 times trough the near forest.

    Immediately after the race had started, I realized, that I was badly prepared. It was hard to fiddel in/out with the cross shoes, get my bike over the shoulder was a mess due to the unnessecairy bottle cage and the cable clamps on the top tube hurting my shoulder. I feared going down fast a muddy hill close to the others in front without seeing what’s coming up and I felt angry for having not enough space (and skills) to pass them, even I had the power to do so.
    It was a mess and I hated it, it was called “Querfeldein” in germany those days and I didn’t wanted to do it ever again!

    After more than 10 years without serious cycling we started going by bike with the family each weekend. We bought 2 new cyclo cross bikes. My son was 6 years old and we thought it would be a good idea to ride more through the forest and on gravel roads, where my son could improve his skills far away from traffic. It was a good idea – I learned to love riding unpaved ways. I’m still loving to ride paved roads using a race bike, but going out into the nature with a cross bike has become a new quality for me :-)

    Before we bought the new bikes I was sceptic. “This bike looks like a compromise between a MTB and a racebike – hopefully it will not be worst of both”. It’s not – it’s a racebike suitable to go offroad.

    This bike came equiped with very cheap 35mm crosstires (Schwalbe CX Comp) and I was surprised how fast it was even on paved roads. So I mounted some small tires to see how fast it might be with those. And I was surprised as well, that it wasn’t faster, but felt much more uncomfortable and too stiff. I realized, that this bulky aluminium frame will never run smooth with 23mm tires.

    Two lessons I learned:
    – Small tires are not usually fast – tires with thin walls are.
    – There’s no tire, which is good on mud and other terrain. A tire is good on mud OR on other terrain.

  6. David Pearce says:

    Great photos of you, by the way.

    Meanwhile, it’s so funny to me how many sales people and customers in bike shops are so committed to the “usual suspects” types of bikes for sale: a LOT of carbon road racing bikes, technically incredible mountain bikes, and useful commuter bikes with upright handlebars & fenders to name a few. I took the Autumn issue of BQ into a popular shop in Charlottesville, Va., and asked a sales person if they had had any interest in randonneur type bikes, “you know,” I said, “bikes with wider tires, and drop handlebars, and fenders and lights.”?

    She led me at first to their rather meager group of city bikes with upright handlebars, and I said, “no, not exactly. I’m talking about randonneur bikes, more competitive bikes with drop handlebars, but wider tires, you know, for self-supported rallying over a variety of roads from point to point.” I showed her your extensive test of the Calfee.

    The closest thing she could lead me to were two cyclocross bikes from Trek, which I guess was going in the right direction. But the word “randonneur” is really unknown, and of course, I may not be the best spokesman for what a randonneur and randonneuring is.

    It’s funny how biking, just like automobiles, and everything else, swings wildly from style to style, with the public demanding, or sometimes merely accepting, certain styles which are useful to them either a little or a lot. Some changes, like car tailfins, are only fashionable, but nevertheless very “robust” and obsessive ideas in the mind of the public, while other changes are more substantive and useful.

    What is your concise definition of a randonneur bike and what randonneuring is?

  7. David Pearce says:

    Fenders just not tenable in cyclocross? I would think it would be helpful to keep mud out of the front derailleur, but it’s just not done? Too many chances I suppose for debris getting caught between the fender and tire leading to a major disaster, and too heavy for getting up that short but aggressive incline?!

    • A good cyclocross tire sheds mud as it rotates, but the mud must have somewhere to go. In a ‘cross race, you’d rather have mud in your face and up your back than on your tires. I found out the hard way 16 years ago, when I had two flats in a race. I got some wheels with tires that had too many knobs and clogged up with mud. I went down in the very next corner…

  8. CoWollin says:

    Hello Jan,

    I´m a beginner to cyclocross. I have a custom cyclocrossbike on order. What do you recommend for gear ratio for cyclocross. Campagnolo has 46/36 rings on there crankset, I have got the recommendation to go with a 12-27 cassette. What is your advice regarding this subject. Is it possible to use the Herse Crankset on a cross with 11 sp Campagnolo drivetrain, what should be the recommended length for a Bottombracket?

    Regards

    Carl Otto Wollin

    • I use a 42-tooth chainring, and that almost seems too large. You rarely use many gears, I only use the 19, 21, 23 and 25 on the rear. 11-speed probably is a bad idea in ‘cross, as it clogs up with mud much more easily. I use a 6-speed freewheel… but 8-speed probably would be fine.

      • David Pearce says:

        Your gears are so amazing; I’ll just leave it at that. Ok, I won’t leave it at that; They always seem to me to be too few, but who am I to argue with experience and success?

      • In racing, and even more in cross, hills are where you attack, so you go as fast as you can, and thus don’t need a very small gear. In cross, downhills are usually so steep that I don’t need to pedal, so no need for large gears there. That means that I need only a very limited gear range. I am sure there will eventually be a race where I may use the 15-tooth cog. The 13-tooth mostly serves as a lockring… (The largest small cog on the Shimano 600 freewheels I use was a 13T.)

  9. Josh says:

    I recently relocated to Seattle, and last Sunday, I rode my singlespeed cross bike up to the race to watch my friends participate (I’m still getting settled and nursing a terrible knee injury, so racing is off the plate for the season). I was standing around in the sand, figuring that would be the best place to heckle my friends, when I noticed the crazy old Alan roll by. I thought “Man, that guy dug deep in the closet for that bike.” Little did I know.

    You were probably too anaerobic to notice, but the race commenters kept singing the praises of the Alan.

    • I was quite surprised when they talked about my bike. I had pulled my rear wheel out of the horizontal dropouts (twice!), so I was chasing through the field, having a great time. (Fixed the dropout problem with a Campagnolo axle nut that has more pronounced knurling than the Shimano original on the old Dura-Ace hubs.)

      I hope your knee heals soon, so you can give cyclocross a try. It’s a nice atmosphere at the races…

      • Josh says:

        Thanks. I’ve actually raced CX for many years, and this will be the first season in something like a decade where I will not. I’ll be sure to cheer you on, if I make it out again this year.

  10. RosyRambler says:

    Jan, your son is a very good photographer.

    I personally think that Team Jan’s ‘kit’ is far more distinguished looking and attractive than the rather ridiculous looking and gaudy color schemes and designs of what has become the norm for all of bike racing these days. I’m curious though about the rear white sidewall tire and the front black sidewall.

    I don’t race CX but enjoy watching races, and very much agree about the UCI rules which makes for somewhat bland courses compared to previous years. It’s much the same that happened with the BMX race courses. As a spectator I would rather see more technical skills than speed.

    There is a delightful article written by Eugene Christophe from a 1921 issue of “Le Miroir Des Sports” with CX racing advice at blackbirdsf.org/cx. Now that was cyclocross!!

    On the Team Jan ‘kit’…..perhaps a distinguished, vintage looking Bicycle Quarterly jersey available in the near future?

    • My son as a photographer: I wish I had given him my “good” camera, as the focus obviously couldn’t keep up with the riders’ speed in the photos.

      Jerseys: We think about it on and off, and some day, it may happen.

      Black vs. white tire: I had trouble with the glue job on my front tubular, so I borrowed my son’s front wheel for that race.

  11. Gert says:

    I do not race. But it looks like fun.
    I just finished building up a cross bike last night (took much longer and was more difficult than expected, but that is a different story) and took it out for a first ride to day, On paved roads just to test its speed with Schwalbe Kojak slick tires.
    I am considering it for brevet rides as well. I did not notice it as being slower than my roadbike. But I need to experiment more with tire pressure. Front wheel felt hard and rear wheel felt soft.
    I cannot wait to take it of road and dirt roads on cyclecross tires

  12. David Feldman says:

    Jan, you may have the last living Alan CX bike at the races!

  13. Dan westergren says:

    How’s the Alan fork shudder. Used to scare me to death. But then it made road riding so easy.

    • It does happen, and it’s the biggest issue with this bike. Flexible steerer with relatively stiff blades isn’t a good combination. Fortunately, in cross, there usually is enough “lubrication” to make it less of an issue.

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        Does the fork on yours have an aluminum steerer? My ALAN and all the ones I’ve seen have plated steel steerers, and I’m pretty sure they’re butted to the same 2.3/1.6mm as almost all threaded steerers.

        Even with caliper brakes the fork blades deflect quite a lot, if the cantilever posts spread the blades apart the judder would get ridiculous — you should test it with a brake booster before blaming the steerer :P

      • I haven’t had the fork out in a while, so I don’t know for sure. (The hole at the bottom of the crown is too small to insert a magnet…)

        Something deflects a lot on the Alan fork, and it’s not the lower portion of the blade, but between the canti posts and the top where the brake cable hanger is mounted… hence the judder. On bikes with traditional forks that are slim at the bottom, most of the flex is down there, and judder is rare.

    • Fred Blasdel says:

      I just checked, and mine easily attracts a magnet even in the middle of the head tube.

      I have a longstanding disagreement with you and Alex about where most forks do their flexing — they certainly tend to yield around the crown when they fail in crashes, and that’s also the location the industry has focused on beefing up in search of greater steering precision.

      • I think you can get flex everywhere. But when I read that many recent carbon cyclocross forks with beefy fork crowns had lots of brake judder, I suspect that the combination of stiff fork blades and flexible steerer is the culprit – especially since bikes with the opposite approach (stiff steerers, flexible blades) don’t seem to have much brake judder.

  14. rodolphe Matas says:

    This is a great post as usual. The photos are great, and they seem to show a few things; that your son is indeed a great photographer; contrary to the other riders, you have your hands in the drop all the time, whereas the others have theirs on the hoods, which does seem to be the only position with “modern” bars and shifters; photo one shows you keeping a straight line uphill with your low trail Alan, which the other rider is apparently unable to do; the third one shows the difference between the expression on your face and that of the riders behind you, and believe me, I know what is on their minds, and I have felt like them many times, being dropped by a guy who seems to have a much older and cheaper bike than mine! Oh, and incidentally, after reading the post, I have set out to buy a used steel cyclo cross frame, that will probably join the collection of bikes I tinker with, and don’t ride nearly as often as I’d like to! Thanks again for all your work!

  15. Mike Arciero says:

    Have been to some cx races over the years as spectator, and while I used to race road I’ve not tried cx. One of these years I will. In fact my current main ride is a cx bike, which I bought both for versatility and for possible use as a race bike.
    So far this Fall in the Northeast has been so beautiful that I’ve been taking advantage of as many opportunities as I can to do long rides and tours. Maybe when the weather gets cold, dark, snowy, etc. I will look for a few races.

  16. Bryan Willman says:

    I’m the crazy fat guy at the very back carrying on with bloody minded persistence.
    (I think I was in your heat Jan, almost said hello but you were talking to your son.)
    Cross has an encouraging sort of festival atmosphere – a “hey, come be crazy with us” mindset.
    Where else would you purposely ride a route that required you get off a perfectly good bicycle and carry it through a mud pit?

    By the way, I use campy 11 speed with a 34/46 front – you have to order 36/46 and swap the 36 down to 34. This is costly, but helpful *IF* like me you are VERY HEAVY and not as fit as you would like to be. A more normal person would probably like the 36/46 just fine. I find the 11 speed works fine. BUT it is of course pricey stuff, and you tear more stuff off the bike racing cross than anywhere in road racing or for all I know moutain biking.

    As to another point Jan made – I find that my general handling skills have improved lots, even in road riding (ability to ride into grass to avoid crazy dogs on bike trails, for example.) So you can really say that ‘Cross is good for you.

    There are various local schools and clinics and beginner races around Seattle, so people shouldn’t be intimidated – there are good places to start.

    • CoWollin says:

      Cyclocross is a new experience / adventure for me…I´m relatively fit, Bryan you use 11 sp cassette are you using 12-27? Yeas I know that 11 sp are pricey and not that reliable in the mud. I just wan´t to have something to compare with. Frame are in production.

  17. jeffoyb says:

    I love gleaning insights from CX race results. It’s more fun than usual since they’re set up for the classes to finish 3-10 laps (6-8 min/lap) — a manageable number of laps to quickly glean data from. But this is only if the race uses timing chips. I see that many CX events use a point system that is, I guess, like CX running where the winner gets the LOWEST score. I don’t understand it and can’t get ANY insight from such results other than ranking. But when a race with a buncha laps uses timing chips in one glance I can see all sorts of stories! Like, where a rider makes a comeback or if I heard they had a crash or mechanical then that usually is obvious in the lap times — or maybe not. Like, if a guy had crashed but his lap times stay consistent then you know he had a wonderful recovery. Or you see “If only he didn’t have that crash. See how he lost 30 seconds that lap? He woulda made the podium! But even so you can see that he rallied good.” Or maybe you see someone has a blazing-fast last lap that lets them pass lots of riders and almost puts them on the podium. Also, it’s fun comparing laps across the Cats. I enjoy seeing the Singlespeed times compare favorably to geared racers. Or I’ll notice times where, even for just a couple laps, a Woman, or lowly Cat 5, Oldtimer, or Jr racer is racing at the same pace as the Elite Men. I’m no data-cruncher — this is stuff that’s easy to see at a glance. …And it’s not really done in other racing so much.

  18. jeffoyb says:

    About gearing… as I posted earlier I’ve found that “sport-tour” gearing works fine. When I got more gungho I found that switching to a front 39-42 single ring was fine as long as I had a 28-32 as a big cog in the rear. It isn’t tricky to give this sport a try. As long as you have enough clearance for some kind of non-slick tire, you’re good. If it’s a dry smooth “dirt crit” type course — as many are — then even a 25mm with file tread is sufficient (and might even the tread of choice).

  19. rodneyAB says:

    If your using a 42 chain-ring, thats your inner chain-ring, and then your outer is what?, the 44 tooth?

    • I use a single 42-tooth ring on my cyclocross bike.

      • rodneyAB says:

        OK, sounds good. the above foto looks like two close range chain-rings, but I now suspect a chain-ring ground off teeth as guard on the ReneHerse crank.
        also looks like Rivats?

      • Yes, you figured it out! I made two chainguards by sawing and filing the teeth off a pair of prototype 48-tooth rings. One chainguard takes the position of the inner ring, the other sits outside of the outer ring in the space between crankarm and the chainring that usually is reserved for the outer cage plate of the front derailleur. That is how most cyclocross bikes used to be set up. Campagnolo and TA even offered chainguards, which basically were chainrings without teeth.

  20. David Pearce says:

    Wow! I just realized that’s mud and debris all in your cantilever brake and fork crown and those of your competitor, in your “Total Commitment” picture! What are you tryin’ to do?! Build a bird’s nest there!! :-)

    • There was a lot of loose grass, since the course apparently serves as a pasture…

      • David Pearce says:

        Okay! Plan where you’re going to fall carefully, if you know what I mean! Actually I realize that part of what looks like debris on your bike is your drive-side calf in the photo. It looks like your friendly foe is the one whose is most intent on building a bird’s nest. Is the difference between the state of your bike and his due to rider skill or equipment, or just the luck of the draw? Anyway, rock and ROLL on, as per usual!

  21. Conrad says:

    I’ve been racing cross for 8 years and I love it! This year I needed a new bike. I’m not able to spring for new bikes very often so I wanted something that could do double duty for long rides on variable surfaces. I went with a 700c Boulder brevet and I’m pleased to say it works beautifully. I think it handles better than my previous bike which has standard longer trail geometry. I think a lower trail geometry works slightly better for cyclocross. Its not a criterium after all. The cable routing is not standard for cyclocross but so far it hasn’t been a hindrance. Mud clearance is great with 32 mm tires. My wheels still rolled freely after the last race of the day at the Tall Chief course.
    So my advice is give cyclocross a try on whatever bike you have. I raced my first year on a hardtail mountain bike and it worked well too. Carl Decker recently won an elite class cyclocross race on a dual suspension mountain bike. Even racing cyclocross on a single speed doesnt slow some people down nearly as much as you would think…

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