What Is Cyclocross? A Beginner’s Guide To CX

What Is Cyclocross? A Beginner's Guide To CX

Wondering what is cyclocross? Cyclocross shortened to CX is a fun sport loved by seasoned athletes and novice cyclists. It can be practiced in all weathers and offers countless benefits.

Yes, cyclocross is a hard discipline. It can be intimidating at first. Training for CX is often confusing, and so is attending competitions.

But don’t let these drawbacks discourage you. CX is one of the most rewarding sports. This guide will show you what this sport is about, what kind of bike you need for it and what the competitions consist of. Don’t forget to check why cyclocross is good for you. Maybe knowing its benefits will determine you to give it a try.

I promise that once you’ve tried it, you won’t be able to give up to the fun that cyclocross brings with it!

What Is Cyclocross?

Cyclocross is a discipline born and developed in Europe in the early 1900s. It emerged as a system to help road racers to stay fit during fall and winter, but in a short time, it became an independent specialty with its own competition calendar.

The first international cyclocross race dates back to 1920 and since then, the discipline attracted hundreds of athletes and countless followers mainly in Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium.

In the last decades, CX has gained a lot of popularity in the US too and today, this discipline is practiced by enthusiasts but also by many road racers and off-road pros who want to keep fit in the low activity seasons.

In broad terms, cyclocross involves riding along circuit trails with a variable distance that ranges from two to four or five kilometers (roughly 1.25 to 2.50 miles) on a mixture of paved and off-road surfaces. Elite competitions last for about an hour but what makes CX unique is the fact that the routes contain obstacles that force riders to get off the bike and run or walk while carrying their vehicles on their shoulders. If you thought that it ends here, you’re wrong. The route also includes manmade barriers that force athletes to climb walls while carrying their bikes or jump over obstacles while riding.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why cyclocross is technically and physically demanding, but also why enthusiasts consider CX one of the most fun sports to practice.

The effort and skills needed to compete in CX events lead to a great improvement of the overall strength and makes you fitter. This leads to a performance improvement regardless of what your discipline is. Among the many benefits of cyclocross, we can mention the improved riding skills, higher power and invigorated cardiovascular system.

What Bike Do I Need?

Now, you know what is cyclocross. If all the activities included in the competitions excite you, it’s time to find out what bike you need.

Neither a road bike nor a mountain bike is suitable for this sport. Essentially, a CX bike is more similar to a road bike than to an MTB but some changes on the frame make it suitable to ride on dirt tracks. Like all performing road bikes, a CX bike is usually equipped with drop bar handlebars and traditional road bike wheels.

However, like a mountain bike, a CX bike has disc brakes for a better braking power on slippery surfaces. Despite the traditional road bike wheels, a CX bike is usually equipped with rugged tires that provide a better grip on mud.

The bottom bracket is positioned at a higher level than the bracket of a road bike while the rear tube and front fork are wider, to prevent the mud from blocking the wheels. The bike is also equipped with quick-release mountain bike pedals that allow cyclists to react instantly if the balance is lost.

Another important aspect is the weight of the bike. You’ll have to run and climb while carrying the vehicle, so it’s essential that it is lightweight. A great shifting system is also essential, so you can change gears quickly and reach your top speed in all circumstances.

Wondering where to find such a hybrid? High-end gravel bikes feature the best of both worlds and are ideal for cyclocross.

When Can I Practice Cyclocross?

Born as a discipline to help road cyclists keep fit throughout the cold season, cyclocross is typically a winter sport. The season normally runs from September to February in the northern hemisphere and the World Cyclocross Championship takes place at the end of January.

Yet, like with any other cycling discipline, you can break the rules and practice it whenever you want. As an enthusiast, I guarantee that the most fun is during the winter months when the challenges of the weather add up to the challenges of the trail.

What Do Cyclocross Competitions Consist Of?

As mentioned above, cyclocross competitions consist of circuits that go from road to off-road and to the road again. These circuits are very short and rarely exceed three miles in length, but the circuit is repeated for several times. The overall time of the race depends of the category; as a general rule, all CX competitions include riding on grass, dirt, and among obstacles.

For beginners, the overall time of a competition is 25 minutes, which goes up to 30 minutes for the more “experienced” beginners. Juniors get to enjoy 40-minute competitions and regardless of their level of expertise, those under 23 can’t join competitions that last longer than an hour. Elite competitions last either for one hour or one hour and ten minutes.

The length of the circuit is not fixed and is dependent on the landscape while the duration is determined by the jury based on the time needed to complete the first two laps and considering the level of expertise of the participants.

The diversity of the circuit that includes asphalted stretched interrupted by off-road sections that go through grass, mud, and sand, the existence of short steep climbs and many bends are the distinctive features of CX.

On some stretches, the rider may have to jump off the bike and carry the vehicle on the shoulders or in their hands.

The various sections of the route are short and each stage lasts for only a few seconds. For example, short and steep climbs replace long slopes. Straight sections are interrupted by tight bends. The asphalted road is interrupted by grass or dirt trails, and so on.

This forces the competitors to continuously change speed and effort. And the fun part is that the obstacles can be placed anywhere on the route. 

Now, if all this excites you but you’re not sure if you’re up to it, here’s how CX boosts your strength, metabolism, and stamina.

Why Is Cyclocross Good For You?

Besides being an extremely fun and competitive discipline, CX makes for an excellent training discipline if you want to lose weight, get back in shape, or just become fitter.

If you’ve ever practiced any sport, you know that it only takes a short time of training to boost your energy and serotonin levels. If you’ve ever tried training to improve your cycling performance, perhaps you know already how interval training can make you become the leader of your group.

Training makes racing more fun because it increases your strength, and riding faster on all terrains is just exciting.

To understand the benefits of CX racing, you have to first understand how energy is produced by our bodies. The human body has three energy systems that act at the same time to provide you with all the energy needed for your daily actions.

The ATP system is involved in providing quick energy boosters that last for 10 seconds or less. Our glycolytic system has a moderate power and lasts up to 90 seconds while the oxidative system is the slowest and lasts for 90 seconds or longer.

The oxidative system is involved, therefore, in activities that last for more than 90 seconds. If you’ve ever trained before, know that the sore muscles you have to deal with after the workout are the result of a weak oxidative system that reaches the anaerobic or lactate threshold too fast.

Since a cyclocross session often lasts for more than 40 minutes, it’s easy to understand how this sport improves your lactate threshold. But CX doesn’t involve only your oxidative system.

In fact, CX puts a heavy load on all three energy systems, allowing you to activate and use the other two systems when they are most needed. This gets your body fitter and helps you improve your overall riding skills.

Apart from this, cyclocross also has an important impact on your health. Intense physical activity accelerates your heart rate which means a faster flow of blood through your veins. And this means a better oxygenation of your cells and tissues.

A higher blood flow stimulates your brain and gives you more energy. Enjoying more oxygen, your brain is also able to concentrate better which improves your overall performance even in areas that have nothing to do with sports and training, such as at school or at work.

Your serotonin level is also boosted, and this makes you happier. In other words, cyclocross is ideal to help you fight depression or anxiety.

Apart from all these health benefits, CX also improves your social life. By helping you stay fitter, this sport helps you boost confidence and make new friends. You’ll also be able to connect with other enthusiasts and enlarge your social circles. With all these benefits, I can only recommend you give cyclocross a try.

How To Train For Cyclocross?

Since this discipline is so complex, the best way to train for a CX competition is by combining power training with interval training, sessions at the gym to boost your muscle strength and rides on all types of terrains. More often than not, hopping on the saddle and riding on all terrains and in all weathers is the secret to building endurance.

Bottom Line

What is cyclocross, then? In my opinion, a challenging yet exciting discipline that promotes quality outdoor time with your friends. This discipline comes with countless benefits and satisfactions. Is it hard to practice? Definitely! Is it worth the effort? Yes!  Yes! Yes!

Regardless of the bike you own at the moment, just hop on the saddle and give this amazing discipline a chance. You’ll probably fall in love with it instantly!

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