A beginner’s guide to cyclo-cross – part two: seven things I learnt in my first race of the season

George breaks his duck at Leeds Castle, here's what he learnt

Back at the start of November, I introduced the Ridley X-Night Disc I’ll be riding through this winter’s cyclo-cross season. Having suffered through a single novice race back in 2012, this year I’m making a committed attempt to race ‘cross  – and that started with a round of the London league at Leeds Castle.

It was everything I remembered cyclo-cross to be. Leg-numbing-chest-searing-mud-splattered fun. What more could you want from a bike ride? Well, warm sun and long Alpine climbs for starters, but cyclo-cross puts every rider through the mill, whether complete beginner or seasoned pro, and leaves them wanting more. It’s addictive in a way that only riding round in circles at full gas in the depths of the northern European winter can be. I loved it – once I’d stopped coughing and spluttering, slumped over the handlebars at the finish line.

I rolled home 69th from a bumper field of 103 riders in the men’s senior race, having learnt a handful of valuable lessons along the way. If you’re thinking about entering your first cyclo-cross race, here are a handful of tips I’ve picked up along the way so far.

Autumn colours and cyclo-cross go hand in hand (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

Recce the course

Leeds Castle (in Kent, not Yorkshire…) would have provided an idyllic location for racing, were it not for an ice-cold November wind blowing across the course – a layout considered one of the toughest on the circuit by London league regulars.

The course is best known for two features which pay homage to the 12th Century backdrop. The Moat is a deep, boggy, unrideable ditch with shin-high barriers (a favourite of cyclo-cross course designers), shortly followed by The Wall, a grass bank so steep it needs footholds. Both features have B lines (‘easier’ routes which take a detour) but any rider with eyes on a serious placing will tackle the shortest route head on.

Leeds Castle or otherwise, cyclo-cross courses are designed to be technically challenging and it pays to do a pre-race recce, so you’re at least half-prepared for what is to come. You’ll at least have a vague idea of how to tackle an obstacle before you’re surrounded by countless other riders in the heat of a race.

Most local leagues will comprise a number of races, allowing for a short window before the next event, allowing you to jump on the course and quickly take a look at what’s in store for the next hour.

The start is absolutely key in a cyclo-cross race. Full gas from the line! (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

Ready, set, go… 

Cyclo-cross races are full gas as soon as the flag drops, so the start is absolutely vital. A lot of races are gridded (riders are positioned on the start line according to their league ranking or previous results) and about two-thirds of the fields were called forward ahead of my Leeds Castle race, leaving the rest of us scrambling for spots at the back of the pack.

If it’s your first race (or first few races) then you’ll probably be in the same position. Even so, getting yourself as far up the start grid as possible will give you the best chance of making a quick getaway. Find yourself on the back and make a slow start, and you’ll be playing catch-up for the rest of the race.

All things told, the start is key, so it’s something I’ll be practicing before my next race – selecting the right gear, clipping in quickly, and getting the power down early.

London cyclo-cross league, Leeds Castle (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

Tyres choice is key

Tyre choice is key to cyclo-cross success. Mud is part and parcel of ‘cross and it makes tyre selection an important part of your race preparation. Now, like me, you’re unlikely to have a range of tubs to choose from each weekend, but paying attention to the tyres on your bike from the start will give you the best chance of staying upright.

It depends on the bike you’re racing, too. Most local cyclo-cross leagues let you race on a mountain bike, so chances are you’ll have a relatively aggressive tyre to grip the mud, but at the other end of the spectrum, if you line-up on a cyclo-cross bike aimed partly at the commuter market, or even a gravel bike, you’re more likely to see a semi-slick rubber and struggle in muddy conditions (as was the case with one other ‘cross newbie I saw).

RCUK’s George is riding the Ridley X-Night through his first cyclo-cross season (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

The Ridley X-Night I rode in Kent came equipped with Clement MXP clincher tyres; highly-rated all-rounders with a reasonably aggressive tread. It’s not an out-right mud tyre, but is designed to excel in a range of conditions – ideal for new CX racers who don’t want to be swapping (or buying) tyres regularly. I found it offered good levels of grip on the Leeds Castle’s off-camber corners and muddy sections but will also experiment with more specialised tyre choices as the season progresses.

Tyre choice is only half the battle – pressure is really important, too, not least when it’s slippery out there. What’s the right pressure for the conditions? That comes with experience, apparently, but after my Leeds Castle reconnaissance lap I knew I needed to drop my tyre pressure down (another reason why a recce is important), trying to find a balance between the footprint of the tyre and protecting from pinch flats. In the end, I kept the bike upright but, equally, I could have pushed it harder…

Learn from experience

Even with the perfect tyres at the ideal pressure, it will take any new cyclo-cross rider time to find the limits of their equipment. As I gain experience, I’ll understand how closely I can tread the line, but as I found at Leeds Castle, there’s also an opportunity to learn from other riders.

One of the great things about cyclo-cross racing is that anyone can enter, whether it’s your first race or you’re a professional road rider staying sharp over winter. With the race spread out over the course, you’ll always find someone to battle with.

Madison Genesis’ new recruit, Isaac Mundy, won round eight of the London X League  (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

Unless you’re at the sharp end of the race, there’s a good chance you’ll get lapped, too. I was lapped twice by race winner Isaac Mundy, a former mountain biker who has just signed with the Madison Genesis pro road team for 2018, and, rather than riding with my tail between my legs, that gave me a chance to briefly see a rider pushing the limits. As I hit the brakes approaching the toughest off-camber section of the course, Mundy accelerated, unclipped his left foot and attacked the corner. If he lost grip, he was able to use his free foot to stay upright, while also trusting his tyres to do the work they’re designed to. Through the corner, he quickly clipped back in and powered away.

It didn’t transform my race – I’ve got a lot more to learn besides – but each time I took the corner from then on, I pushed closer to the limit, learning how much grip my tyres offered, adopting the same technique and maintaining more speed, rather than slowing down to a crawl. Of course, just because another rider is taking a different line to you it doesn’t mean they’re right, but there’s also an opportunity to learn from more experienced racers, especially as an outright novice.

Use your legs

Here’s a simple one for a bike race – use your legs. But, as far as cyclo-cross is concerned, that doesn’t always mean putting the power down on the pedals.

Most cyclo-cross courses are designed to force riders off the bike at some point. Leeds Castle’s ‘Wall’, for example, was simply unrideable – not matter how strong or experienced the racer. It was a geniune climbing feature. Other sections of the course – a steep muddy bank, for example – may not be as clear cut but knowing when to get off the bike can help maintain momentum.

Choosing to dismount and running with (or shouldering the bike) can save valuable time, rather than grinding to a halt, rear wheel spinning out on the slick mud and then jumping off the bike, just as the rider you had been racing shoulder-to-shoulder with disappears off into the distance. Again, as I found, you can also learn from better riders.

Staying on the bike helps, too. If you can bunny hop barriers or ride up (or down) steep banks or stairs, you’ll maintain speed, but the stakes are high if it goes wrong…

Knowing when to ride and when to run is vital – but key techniques like the dismount/remount become a whole lot tougher when tired (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

Tired technique

You might have got the impression so far that technique is key to cyclo-cross – it’s something that comes with practice and experience. Being able to dismount and remount smoothly is at the heart of that – and as I learnt, it becomes increasingly harder as the race progresses.

I’d worked on my dismount/remount ahead of this season’s debut and felt relatively comfortable going into the race, but it’s a different kettle of fish executing the same technique when your legs have turned to jelly, your heart is thumping at 190bpm and you’re desperately trying to bring your breathing back under control.

Before I next race, I’ll make sure I squeeze in a couple of full-gas training sessions, incorporating intervals and a few cyclo-cross drills, to try and improve my race pace technique.

I’ll be back

One final thing I learnt from my first senior cyclo-cross race: I’ll be back. Cyclo-cross is painful – it pushes you to your limits, physically and technically, whether you’re at the front or the back of the field – but it’s also addictively fun, in a perverse way that only locking yourself in the pain cave for an hour can be. I’ve circled four more dates in the calendar before the end of the season, so watch this space.

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