Why I love Cyclocross

woodland_park

For me, cyclocross is the most fun you can on a bike in less than an hour! I don’t care much for racing any longer, but ‘cross is a different matter.

portage

Cyclocross is a very technical sport, where leg power counts only for so much. Coordination is equally important. You choreograph your dismounts and run-ups to lose only a minimum of speed. It’s fun when you get it just right: Step off the bike, jump a barrier, and remount, all in one smooth motion.

sliding

Coordination also is important when cornering on mud. Traction is limited, yet the more speed you can carry through the corners, the less you need to accelerate on the straights. This saves valuable energy, and over the 40 minutes of a typical race, it adds up to a substantial advantage.

Last weekend’s MFG race in Seattle’s Woodland Park was the best cyclocross course I’ve ridden. (Thank you to the organizers for putting together such a superb event!) The course had a beautiful flow to it. You arrived at corners at high speed, and after a few weeks of rain, the ground was fairly slippery. This meant that in almost every corner, the bike started to slide a little.

When you look carefully at the photo above, you can see how my bike is leaning further than I am. That shows that the bike is sliding – just a little bit. The key is not to overdo it – a big slide will cost speed and may even have you fall – but still go as fast as possible.

The right choice of tires (and pressure) is key. I absolutely love my FMB Super Mud tubulars – they were perfect for this weekend’s race. Having a bike with a front-end geometry that allows precise handling control helps, too. If you can feel that the bike is about to lose traction, you can neutralize the slide as it happens, rather than react to it when it’s almost too late…

finish

Last weekend, things came together, and I really enjoyed my race. There was mud on my face at the finish (above), and I was completely out of breath, but I think you can see the smile in my eyes.

alan_jan

My old Alan worked really well, too. I really love how the bike seems to spring out of corners like a cheetah – it really “planes” well for me. It may be old-fashioned these days, but it still works as well as it did when I first raced it almost 20 years ago. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: These bikes have won more ‘cross world championships than any other.

super_mud

My bike picked up a lot of mud during the race. The faster you go, the more mud gets kicked up by the tires! It’s a good test for the SKF bottom bracket that I installed last year – I no longer have time to overhaul bearings after just a few races.

cogs

About half-way through the 40-minute race, so much mud had accumulated on the freewheel that the chain started skipping in the cogs that I used only a few times per lap. I just kept it in the one cog that worked well and rode it as a single-speed. (The largest cog also worked, but I was afraid that, if I used it, I wouldn’t be able to get back into my “favorite” cog.) I was glad I have a six-speed freewheel, which doesn’t clog up as easily as more modern drivetrains with closer-spaced cogs. And I was glad that the narrow tread (Q-factor) of my cranks facilitated my spin at high rpm on the slight downhills.

After the race, BQ contributor Hahn Rossman joked that I should join him in the single-speed race… It’s almost tempting, because the lack of multiple gears didn’t slow me down all that much.

son_corner

Cyclocross also can be a family activity. My son had a lot of fun in his race, too. And the bike-handling skills he is learning make him a better cyclist on the road and in traffic, too.

sons

I am glad he can enjoy cyclocross with his friends. (I wish cyclocross races for children had existed when I was growing up!)

Cleaning the bikes was the least enjoyable part of the day, but it was well worth it for the fun we had earlier. Before I cleaned the bike, I weighed it to see how much mud had accumulated on the bike. (I had weighed the clean bike for the feature in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 12, No. 2.) That gave me the idea for a contest: Can you guess how much mud my bike carried at the end of the race? Both in absolute weight, as well as a percentage of the weight of the bike? (For example, if the mud weighed 5 kg and my bike 15 kg, then the correct answer would be “5 kg/33%”.)

The reader with the best guesses will get a 1-year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly (or an extension of their subscription if they already subscribe). And if there is a tie, the first reply wins. Simply put your guess in the comments until Tuesday, Nov. 18… Let the fun continue!

 

 

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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91 Responses to Why I love Cyclocross

  1. Frédéric says:

    Hello Jan,
    I can see quick release on your brakes, where did you buy them?
    Will you supply it with the Compass brakes?
    Thanks for your posts.

  2. ORiordan says:

    1.5 kg / 15%

  3. Gert says:

    1.9 kg As i am not a subscriber. I am just guessing the weight of the bike. So lets say 19.4 percent

  4. 1.5 lb (0.68 kg) of mud

  5. It’s always good to get sloppy and goopy on a ride! 3 pounds/16.67%

  6. Alejandro Lazaro says:

    My guess is 2,1/21%

  7. Ben says:

    387g/3.8% ???

  8. Vincent Briot says:

    I would say 326 grams of mud, so 3,26%🙂

  9. Paul says:

    Bike 19lbs and mud 5.5lbs or 29%

  10. Andy Oliver says:

    Mud = 1.42 kg/12.43% The first snowfall of the season here in Maine today means we get to add snow to the mud equation.

  11. daxsoule says:

    2 kg/16%

  12. jack courtney says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. I’ve always been fond of tha Alan. For the aesthetics! I’ve never ridden one. I’m feeling lucky so I will guess the weight/percentage as .7kg/7%. C’mon sevens!

  13. Paul says:

    Nice. First year for me in CX racing. It’s a blast.

    Here is my guess:
    Bike: 21lbs
    Mud: 2.5lbs
    Percent: 11.9%

  14. Edwin Williamson says:

    2kg mud, 10kg bike = 20%

    I would love to hear your take on two “improvements” to cyclocross – clipless pedals (which you use) and brifters (which you do not). Let us know what you think.

    • Clipless pedals are a huge advantage for most riders – not having to fish for toeclips saves valuable time. The old Look Moab pedals I use have a large platform, so you can pedal very well even if you aren’t clipped in yet because mud obstructs the retention mechanism.

      On the other hand, brake-shift levers provide no advantage at all over bar-ends. I am sure even downtube shifters would be fine… since a good ‘cross bike doesn’t easily get deflected when going over bumps. It’s not like you shift all the time, either – and toward the end of the race, I couldn’t shift at all!

      • Jeff Potter says:

        I have a magic pair of old pedals’n’clips that are faster for me than clipless. I laugh every time I use them. They’re on my MTB and it’s “instant in.” I wonder if some CXers used to get lucky that way. (I have others on another bike and I have to “fish” for them.)

        About brifters, my jury isn’t in on them entirely but I’m pretty sure today’s courses are designed with them in mind, even accidentally. The way the corners go, the way elevation changes are included, really reward shifting out of the saddle and in transitions. I sense the designer using brifters as he lays out then dials in the course! And, of course, they all do. So I’ve gone to brifters, but haven’t raced enough this year to decide. I still suffer supremely!

      • Fortunately, in Seattle, many of the course designers race single-speed!

      • Conrad says:

        I still use downtube shifters on my commuter and road racing bikes- but I think cyclocross is one application where brifters work well. Its not as big a deal on a smooth course like Woodland Park but if it is really bumpy or rutted it is nice to be able to brake and shift at the same time. What I do not like is how much they cost, and then packing them full of mud in a cross race. I’m still nursing my 9spd dura ace shifters along; when they die I’ll probably just go back to using bar end shifters.
        Nice win by the way at Woodland Park!
        I’ll guess 1 kg mud on a 9kg bike for 11%

      • I think the biggest problem with downtube shifters would be bumping them when you carry the bike, and not being in gear when you hop back on. Otherwise, I have no trouble shifting and braking at the same time – my front brake is on the left and my shifter is on the right…

  15. Jeff Potter says:

    OK, first my guess! Checking back in the old issue I see your bike weighs… (I won’t be a spoiler!) …so I’d say: 3 lb / 13.5%

    Now on to the fun of CX! I’m hosting a race tomorrow! It’s at an amazing park and I’ve laid out a course with marvelous flow. This park is the only glacial feature in town, with nice trails, but is hardly used or maintained.

    Our capitol city of Lansing, MI, has been abandoning its large parks…then selling them! The mayor says it’s to help our budget thru tough times. Doh! Now nobody wants to move here! I keep asking if there’s another example of a city recovering via this method. He thinks a big part of our recovery will be to build a casino! It’s amazing to me how something like a bike sport can tie into the future of a city. But it does. The public having fun in city parks is both a cause and sign of urban health.

    But back to CX: a big part of the goodness of CX is that it is the most fun type of bike racing. For everyone involved. It’s the best for spectating. Somehow out of all the deadly dull bike sports this one got away. People ring cowbells, play brass instruments, and, bizarrely, don’t mind the bad weather. There are food and beer trucks. It’s the way to make lemonade out of this lemony time of year. It’s not good weather for anything else. But with CX bad weather is good!

  16. John McBride says:

    7.5 lbs

  17. Jon Gehman says:

    I really enjoy CX too. Like you, it’s the only racing I do for the most part anymore. It has some of what I used to love about BMX Racing when I was a kid with the advantage of being longer than the typical 40 second Moto, although 40 minutes is more than enough to make me want to just go lie down and pass out.

    You might like racing a single speed, it eliminates most of the mechanical failures and promotes a wide open, technical riding style that makes it even more fun for me. You don’t end up throwing away as many newish but beat-out parts either.

    My guess for how much mud on your bike? 4 pounds on a 20 pound bike, so 1.8 kilo’s mud and 9 kilo’s of bike. (I almost doubled the weight of my mountainbike in a race in Davis W.V. in 1985, didn’t clean it for a couple of days after and could NOT BELIEVE how hard it got…)

  18. ORiordan says:

    Jan – what is the deadline for your “guess the weight of the mud” competition? I’d like to test a theory… (that doesn’t involve doing a cyclocross race and measuring the mud on my own bike…)

  19. Florent says:

    My guess is your bike weights around 10kgs and the mud 1.5kgs, it’s around 15%!

  20. Svenski says:

    2 kg/ 18% ;-))

  21. David says:

    mud 4.5 lbs, bike 19.5 lbs, 23%

  22. Timothy Tetrault says:

    I will say 300g, 3% of total bike weight.

  23. Harry says:

    .85 kg / 8%

  24. Andrew R Stewart says:

    Was the mud still wet when it was weighed? 2.2KG @ 17.5% Andy.

    • Mud was still wet – about 2 hours after the race on a cold, damp day. A little mud may have fallen off on the short ride home, but it was goopy enough and the speed on the way home was slow enough that it shouldn’t have been much, except for the tires, which always clean themselves as you ride.

  25. Tim says:

    3.3 lbs. 15% of a 22lb bike

  26. rltilley says:

    If Seattle mud is anything like San Diego mud it can get very heavy very fast. I’ll guess 2.1kg/22%

  27. Josh says:

    1 kg/10%

  28. Gary says:

    3.2 kg/33%

  29. Larry Parker says:

    2.5 pounds, 11.3%

    Looks like a great day for you AND your son. When he was 14 my son whupped up on me in a ‘cross race. In my defense, he had just finished soccer and was in preseason basketball conditioning and very FIT. I was scheduled for inguinal hernia repair a week or two later and had been taking things a little easy . . probably shouldn’t have been racing! The next year I started coaching HS Cross Country in the fall and I haven’t made a CX race since. That will have to change, soon.

  30. Michael says:

    Jan’s bike: 10lbs. of mud/45.45% of the 22 lb. bike.
    Jan’s son’s bike: 6lbs. of mud/26.91% of the 22.3lb. bike.

  31. Donovan says:

    6 LBS, 27% of bike.

  32. Trevor says:

    4.6 lbs on a 22.2 lb bike = 20.7%

  33. Jeff Potter says:

    I notice that our local top Singlespeeders go a bit faster in their races than when they’re geared! Actually, they’re Masters and I bet they’re gaming the system — for more fun! They wanna get in two races on race-day. Our series has the Masters in the late a.m. and the SS around 2pm. Perfect for spectating the Elite event in between! So I bet they race the highly competitive Masters “pretty hard” and get to the know the course, finishing midpack. For most the earlier Masters is 45 mins, not a full one-hour Elite event, so they can recover. Then they lay it all out in their SS event, duking it out with the half-size field for maybe a better podium chance — but all Cats mixed — gambler’s choice! …Seems like a fun combo! Anyway, speeds are close.

  34. starground says:

    1.2 kg mud on a 8.7 kg bike = 13.8% (leaves not counted)

  35. David Feldman says:

    I’m guessing @3 lbs. or 14% of the bike’s weight.

  36. Paul in Dallas says:

    My guess is 2.2 lbs or 10%

  37. John Bayley says:

    Jan,

    Can you explain how the handling of a bike improves over time? Thanks.

    • If you are commenting about a decade-old post I made on the iBob list where I said that my Alan didn’t handle so well… Back then I rode it with a Carradice saddlebag. Now we know that a low-trail geometry like the Alan’s is not well-suited to a rear load. So it’s a question of using the bike correctly, rather than the handling changing.

      These days, I use the Alan only for cyclocross, and it’s pretty much ideal for that.

      • John Bayley says:

        Yes, Jan, that is what I am referring to. “For touring and
        general riding (and commuting), the BB is too high, giving it an ungainly
        handling. On a logging road, I really prefer my Mercian touring bike to
        the Alan Cross.” and “My Alan rides very stably over all kinds
        of surfaces. On the road, however, the high BB makes it feel sluggish.
        Turning isn’t as confidence-inspiring as a good road bike (like a Riv).
        Read about the stilt-step factor in one of the mid-RRs (5, 6, or 7?).” certainly portrays the Alan’s handling in a different light, don’t you think? There is no mention of a Carradice.

        What is your current definition of low-trail geometry?

      • We’ve learned a lot since I posted that in 1998, haven’t we! I had to look up that old post – I am amazed it’s still available online more than 16 years later!

        Yes, I used to think that the so-so handling of the Alan with the Carradice was due to the high BB… I didn’t even think to mention the bag back then. Nobody (myself included) even thought that the front-end geometry should vary with the load placement on the bike.

        Funny how much changed once we started to do some real research, rather than follow conventional wisdom! We quickly realized that much of what we thought we knew about bicycle handling was incorrect. Until you brought it up, I had totally forgotten about the stilt-step factor…

        Maybe we’ll do a blog post some day where we dig through old iBob list posts and see what we thought about bicycle geometry and handling back then? It would be interesting, and it really shows how much of an impact Bicycle Quarterly has had on the discussion.

        To your question, my definition of low-trail geometry depends on the application, but for a cyclocross bike, 50 mm should qualify. (The Alan has a 73.5° head angle and 48 mm of fork offset.)

  38. Bubba says:

    2.8kg/24.3% of the total mass of bike+mud

    On a forum I frequent, a poster claimed he could detect how full his water bottle was, just by sthe feel of how fast the bike rode up a hill. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

    • I think you might notice the difference in how the bike feels when you ride out of the saddle. A full water bottle or two will affect how easy it is to “throw” the bike from side to side.

      • Bubba says:

        I’d love to see that in a blind test. You don’t look, and Hahn puts either a full black water bottle or an empty black water bottle into your bottle cage. Then you ride it up a hill and guess whether it’s full or empty. Do it once per day only, so you can’t ‘learn’ by comparing run to run. Would you be a lot better than random? I wonder…..

      • That would be interesting, but what would it tell us about how bikes work? I don’t think there is much doubt that a heavier bike doesn’t react the same when you ride out of the saddle – that to me is the main appeal of a racing bike without fenders and racks, and also one of the main reasons why I like to keep my bike as light as possible.

  39. My guess is 1860 grams of mud, 9 kg bike. 20.66%
    I’m going for specificity, since my first guess was taken.

  40. erick says:

    1.2 kg of mud / 12.7% of the bike

  41. Blake Anderson says:

    2.3kg mud / 10.4kg bike = 22% (I hope!)

  42. sdm says:

    1.25kg/12.5%

  43. Kelly says:

    2 lbs mud, 9%

  44. Bryan Willman says:

    I think you did one more lap than I did (I got lapped, I think you didn’t), so you did one more lap, and therefore likely had more mud on your bike than I had on mine. So I’ll guess 4# of mud and thus 20% extra weight.

    By the way, I think steel (or Ti) would work great for CX, but race bikes are “consumable” so one wants something that can be replaced “off the rack” – and these days that means aluminum (which I’ve never liked) or carbon (which works fine for me.)

    I don’t see the issue with brifters – they’ve always worked fine for me everywhere. I think the huge advantage of a single-speed is you could no longer tear the rear derrailleour off the bike (which I’ve done 3 times on CX bikes now) and that would save a really irritating expense.

    If ever there was a place where flat pedals with no cleats at all would be an advantage, surely it would be CX – and I don’t recall ever seeing anybody use anything but clipless (of course I don’t see everybody.)

    I’ll repeat here something hinted at above – riding CX really improves your general bike handling, which I think applies on the road, especially when things get weird (erratic behavoir by cars, say)

    • these days that means aluminum (which I’ve never liked)

      I think it’s hard to generalize about frame materials. My Alan is made from aluminum, but it doesn’t ride at all like a Cannondale!

      • Bryan Willman says:

        Totally fair point. Let me rephrase – I’ve never ridden an aluminum road or CX bike that I liked well enough to buy. I did my first MTB ride the other day on a borrowed Aluminum frame and I have to say it was quite a nice bike, I could see buying one. But I’ve ridden 2 or 3 aluminum cross bikes and probably 10 aluminum road bikes over the years (including the ’80s Cannondales!) and never liked them. But to each what works.

      • I agree with you that there aren’t many recent aluminum bikes that provide a nice feel. My Alan proves that it can be done, but it’s not quite your normal aluminum bike. The only recent bike that came close was a Breezer Uptown. That one performed quite nicely, which came as a surprise, since it’s just an inexpensive city bike.

    • Jonathan Gehman says:

      I sometimes use flat pedals when racing Cross’ but only on my Single Speed. I won’t speculate about whether it makes me faster but on a slick grassy course it allows me to dab a bit while cornering which seems to play to my particular strengths. Sliding around, flat-tracking with a foot out and then back on the gas right away has helped me stay upright and hold off some guys who are certainly stronger than me but who can be counted on to fall once in a while… No one has complained about it but maybe that’s because I’m never at the pointy end of things anyway…

      • Bryan Willman says:

        Jonathan I can totally see that, but I will note that when the best clipless pedals are working well they allow very easy dabbing and go. But your flat pedals are probably more reliable for this during a mud fest.

      • I usually remain clipped in – if you go fast enough, there is no need to put a foot down when you slide, as you can just catch the bike by moving the front contact patch. As Bryan points out, clipping out when needed during a low-speed slide is easy enough if you set your release tension correctly.

        I wonder how you deal with the short, steep hills on your flat pedals. I know I am pulling up a lot when negotiating those.

  45. K. Haboucca says:

    That’s 1.28 kg/12.7%, precisely.

  46. James P. says:

    Great contest Jan, and also great to re-read your ALAN article – I picked up and restored a beautiful ’80’s ALAN frame last year – one with the slightly flattened top-tube for shouldering, and it is both fantastic to look at, as well as ride.

    Given that Mud, packed weigh(s) about 1.906 gram per (cubic centimeter) or 1.102 ounce per (cubic inch) – and approximating where it would accumulate – cog (50cc), rear stays (10cc), BB (25cc), front downtube (10cc), front fork (25cc), and tires (785cc x2 – based on rough estimate of .5cm * surface area of tires) would be a total of 1690cc *1.9g = 3.211kg – nothing like three decimal precision on an estimate🙂

    Keep up the great work !

  47. James P. says:

    Oops – forgot to add the % of bike weight – Mud/Mud+bike as a percentage is 24.3%

  48. John says:

    1422 grams of mud, 11.2 percent of original bike weight.

  49. Michael says:

    Jan,
    Could you give us some details on your inner and outer bash guards?
    Looks like they are Herse shaped guards?

    • The extra rings serve to keep the chain on when the bike bounced as you put it down before remounting. (You don’t really risk bashing the ring in cyclocross, since you don’t ride over logs, etc.) I made them by cutting the teeth off two 48T René Herse chainrings (to match the outer diameter of my 42-tooth ring on which the chain actually runs). It was a 20 minute-job with a hacksaw, then a little filing. I then built the crank as a triple… With the René Herse crank, it’s really simple, since there is only one bolt-circle diameter.

      They’ve worked great so far, no chain issues at all in all the races.

  50. David G in San Diego says:

    9 lb, 40.5%

  51. Evan E. says:

    1.28 kg / 11.9%.

  52. Tony says:

    1.6 kg and 18%

  53. Samuli says:

    0,8kg and 8%

  54. Frank says:

    Hi Jan.
    Does that fancy skf bottom bracket that you have (and that I have!) stand up to a power hose when you clean up?
    Frank

  55. Martin S. says:

    1,5 kg / 12,5 %

  56. cpkestate says:

    3.3kg 37%
    : )

  57. Ed B says:

    3#/13.5%

  58. Robby says:

    I’m gonna say 1.51 kg/ 12.8% of the bike’s weight

  59. Alex Moll says:

    2.43 kg

  60. Corey S says:

    1.8lbs or .8kg, or 10.7%

  61. Jon Gehman says:

    Hi Jan,

    In response to your question about how I deal with steep uphills with flat pedals racing cross’, I almost always run up the steepest stuff since my single speed gearing is compromised toward the flatter, faster portions of the course anyway. I’ve convinced myself that I make more up with a tall gear than I lose running up the hills. There wouldn’t be any advantage to flat pedals on a geared bike that I can think of. I grew up racing and riding BMX bikes so I might get a bit more out of flats than folks who haven’t. There are techniques for setting up and using flats that allow squeezing more out of them than some people might realize.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s a strategy that would be useful for most people and it might not be the best for me either, but I do better on flat(ish), fast and slippery courses than any other. I’m not winning anything though.

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