What is cyclocross?
Often shorted to CX, cyclocross is basically a bike riding form where riders take in a course of between 1-3 kilometres in length that includes grass, gravel, hills and obstacles. More than likely, racers will have to dismount to get over various obstacles or carry their bikes up small embankments.
You can ride a mountain bike in the races if you want, but most riders ride special CX bikes – which look like any old road bike but actually have higher wheel clearances so mud and dirt doesn’t clog up your wheels and brakes.
It’s got a rich history in Europe, and a big community in the United States but is only really a fledgling pursuit here in Australia. There is a small community here in Brisbane. And being bike week here in Brisbane, I decided to take part in the season opening event out at Memorial Park in Toowong.
How I got into it
I’ve had a cross bike since about August last year. My friend Wokka had upgraded to a new ‘hipster’ CX bike and was courtesy enough to sell me his old Specialised Tricross. It’s a great bike but I’ve been mostly throwing road tyres on it and commuting and doing the odd off road jaunt on the weekends.
But I’d been keen to ride the bike in the way it was intended and get involved in the community.
Well apart from my usual road cycling and running regime, I did fairly minimal training. I didn’t really know what to expect so I didn’t exactly know what to train for. The fast dismounting and remounting looked the most difficult part of the racing but now with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say it’s being fit enough that is the biggest hurdle for doing well.
Queensland Cyclocross were kind enough to put on a free beginners skill session the week before the race so I headed down to practice dismounts and remounts as well as jumpingover obstacles. We also did some downhill turning at speed.
The two days before the actual race, I headed out on some rides and practiced dismounts and remounts over some natural obstacles for about 10 minutes each session.
I got down to the course about 30 mins before I was supposed to race, but due to a late rugby game at the Wests union club, the start was delayed by an hour. This meant a bit of extra time to practice part of the course and I was a bit intimidated.
The course, I’m told, was ‘hardish’. While a lot of it was on flat grass, it did feature an uphill bit with two hairpins on hills right after each other and that meant you had to descend safetly, turn up hill and gun it, then turn back down and descend again. There was only two dismounts required for the race, up a little stairs near the rugby club house and also a board before a little uphill after a fast grassy section.
The heaven’s opened up about 30 minutes before my race, meaning the grass was wet and the dirt got a little bit moist – perfect race conditions!
I signed up for ‘open’ – the race classification for absolute beginners and the unfit. In my race, people used mountain bikes and I think I even saw a single speed road bike line up as well (crazy).
My race had a field of about 14 racers. I lined up near the front and managed to start out fairly strongly, managing to get out of the first turn in fourth position. Which was a great position to be in as I think there was a crash behind me going into the first dismount. The pace was fairly frenetic and I think a few of us got carried away and went too hard too early. I was definitely in this group. I managed to get into second position by about lap three, the first place rider having just taken off in a mountain bike. I held on to this position for about two laps at one stage opening up a good few hundred metres between me and third.
But they gradually clawed me back and I could feel my body running out of steam about 15 minutes in. My chain then decided to fall off after a dismount and I lost a few positions that I then couldn’t make up. Only one other rider then passed me and I’m sure I was in about 6th or 7th place though it was beginning to get tough to figure out as people were getting lapped and falling behind.
My god though, it was hard. I was thinking my running training and endurance would be enough for me to do quite well in open. I was wrong. This is an aerobic sport, meaning you have to go hard 100% of the time. Looking at my Strava ‘suffer score’ it showed that I spent nearly the entire race riding in threshold and above heart rate zone. I swear the race announcer kept deliberately yelling out ‘only 2 laps’ to go every time I went passed the start line. It was almost maddening!
Finally after about 30 minutes on the course, the race finished and I got my hands on cleansing ale. I was soaked and exhausted but exhilarated; it was a seriously brilliant event.
I was pretty happy to not finish last and actually was in a good position for a large amount of the race. Fitness and my larger frame didn’t do me any favours but I know what to expect next time and I’ll be better prepared. According to the race organisers I actually placed third “officially”, though I know I was actually somewhere around sixth. I got my very own cowbell for placing!
*Edit*: Actually I did come third – third male in – but I was fifth overall. Not bad for my first race!
Some closing thoughts
Seriously, give cyclocross a go. It will be tough on your mind and body and you’ll push yourself pretty hard, but the supportive community spirit and the sheer audaciousness of the events will more than make up for it!
If you live in Brisbane, the next CX event is at Bowl-o-Cross and the Holland Park Bowls Club on May 11th 2014.