Cyclocross 101: A Newbie Guide to Navigating Mud, Sweat and Gears

Here’s the thing about cyclocross: there will be pain.

Here’s the other thing about cyclocross: you will not be alone with your pain.

“Be prepared to suffer, because everyone suffers,” says Courtenay McFadden, a professional cyclocross racer.

Cyclocross around a parkCyclocross is essentially bike racing on a short course that includes everything from pavement and grass to hurdles and, usually, tons of mud. The dynamic conditions are what bring the pain—but also the fun.

“The best part about cross is that it’s a very friendly bike race,” says McFadden, who’s been riding cyclocross for about four years.

“People go out and spend their whole day, often in the worst conditions, cheering on their friends and having a good time.”

What’s not to like? Here’s what you need to know to give cyclocross a go.

The Basics

Though cyclocross can possibly trace its roots to early 20th-century bike races through the fields of Europe, its Northwest surge started about 20 years ago. Brad Ross, race director for Portland’s Cross Crusade, remembers the days when races were little more than a bunch of guys taking bikes around a park on an autumn afternoon. Cross Crusade is now the biggest series in the country.

Northwest cyclocross races typically run in the fall, from September through early January. Racers ride multiple laps around short, rough courses, often hopping off their bikes and carrying them over obstacles or up steep, muddy hills. Usually there are races for all ages and skill levels.

Cyclocross Gears

The Gear

McFadden describes the typical cyclocross bike as what would come out if a mountain bike and a road bike had a baby. They look like road bikes, but the frames—usually lightweight—have more clearance in the forks, skinny knobby tires and, often, disc brakes.

For people who don’t want to shell out the money for a cross bike or who just want to test the muddy waters of the sport, mountain bikes work fine. Or maybe a friend has a proper cyclocross bike you can borrow. Note, though, that because of the beating that cyclocross bikes take, not many shops rent them.

Cyclocross attire follows pretty standard biking gear: helmet, gloves and sturdy mountain-biking or trail shoes. McFadden says some riders like to wear glasses, which do have a tendency to get covered in mud. Since most races take place in the fall, she also recommends that riders wear warm clothes.

Cyclocross Basic Skills

The Skills

The basic skills for cyclocross are pretty straightforward. But McFadden does suggest taking a clinic or working with an experienced rider to learn the proper way to mount, dismount and carry your bike in a race. She also says running, especially doing some hills or stair workouts, is a great way to condition your legs for cyclocross.

Any other tips?

“It’s important to remember that it’s just fun,” McFadden says. “Go out there, have fun and do it with a smile on your face.”