Cyclo-cross Racing for Beginners: Recipe for Success
By Andrea W. Doray
Cyclo-cross season is here! The season generally starts in September and runs through January. The USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships are held in early January each year, followed by the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships for masters and then elite riders.
Many new riders — and even some experienced road and mountain bike racers — ask how they can get started in cyclo-cross. Fortunately, we have an expert’s input (Mark Fasczewski of VANTAGGIO Fitness and Nutrition) to the “Cyclo-Cross Racing for Beginners: Recipe for Success.”
CYCLO-CROSS RACING FOR BEGINNERS
First, set the temperature to fall and winter. Next, assemble the following ingredients:
Sift ingredients together and add a generous helping of fitness. Stir in bike handling skills so mixture becomes smooth. Gently fold in equal parts of stamina, power, and intensity until firm. Shake resulting fusion vigorously with silly fun (for best results, use “silly stupid fun”) and pour over athlete for up to 50 minutes. Test for doneness. Ice with mud, snow, sand, and rain, to taste.
- one (1) mountain bike, hardtail preferred, with bar ends removed (note: can substitute cyclo-cross bicycle for lighter end product)
- two (2) mountain bike shoes with mud-shedding cleat (use a matched pair whenever possible)
- one (1) helmet (required ingredient for success)
- gloves - 1 pair, optional
- skinsuit - 1, optional, to replace traditional jersey attire
Although he didn’t phrase his own methodology quite this way, when asked what a beginning cyclo-cross racer should know about getting into the sport, Fasczewski did provide a fairly simple recipe, with a few essential ingredients in a crucial mix.
As a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach and NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, Fasczewski has introduced the addiction and “silly stupid fun” of cyclo-cross racing to a variety of riders — from those looking for structured off-season intensity to those on a quest for VO2 power. Also a USA Cycling licensed official, Fasczewski designs courses and promotes races, often driving long distances overland to attend or participate in events.
Cyclo-cross is gaining more notice in the U.S., after its beginnings in the early to mid-70s in New England (although the first U.S. national championship was held in Berkeley, CA). A surge in popularity since the mid-90s has swelled the ranks of ’cross racers — not only among those riders who are cross-training for mountain biking, road racing, and criterium racing, but also among those cyclists who now specialize in ’cross.
Getting Started in ‘Cross: THE INGREDIENTS
To ride ’cross, of course, you need a bike. But what kind of bike? Fasczewski says that ’cross beginners with mountain bikes can start there. “At some point, though, racers serious about ’cross will want to consider a ’cross-specific bicycle,” he says. Cyclo-cross bicycles have a geometry similar to road racing bikes, says Fasczewski: lightweight, with drop handlebars, and narrow tires. However, also similar to mountain bikes, ’cross bike tires have knobby treads for traction, as well as a frame built with more clearance for the mud and often a higher bottom bracket.
“One of the main advantages to eventually getting a ’cross-specific bike is the lighter weight,” says Fasczewski. “Elite ’cross bicycles can weigh as little as 15 pounds. Entry-level ’cross bikes are about 21 pounds, which is still lighter than most mountain bikes.” Fasczewski recommends a hardtail if you’re starting with a mountain bike to help minimize the weight.
“And remove your bar ends!” cautions Fasczewski. “It’s a safety issue so you’re not hooking other riders.”
Picture yourself running through mud or sand, carrying your bike over barriers and up steep inclines, and the reasons for mountain biking shoes become pretty clear. “Most ’cross racers also choose mud-shedding pedals, such as the eggbeater type, because the cleats on their shoes get filled with mud,” says Fasczewski.
Not optional. “In fact,” says Fasczewski, “the helmet is really the only required gear. I personally recommend both gloves and glasses, too, but I’ve seen plenty of riders who don’t use them.”
Also not optional…wearing clothing, that is. Because the ’cross season is autumn and winter in the U.S., there’s an emphasis on cold-weather gear such as tights, long sleeves, and removable arm and leg warmers. However, many riders take to the course in traditional jersey attire.
Skinsuits, on the other hand, are becoming popular for a number of reasons. “Some ’cross riders believe the skinsuits help with aerodynamics,” says Fasczewski, “but probably the main advantage comes because ’cross racers are on and off the bike so often. A one-piece suit helps prevent the riders’ clothing from catching on the seat or the handlebars, or, on some courses, the terrain itself.”
Getting started in ’cross: THE “MIXTURE”
When asked what a beginning ’cross rider needs to do to be ready physically for cyclo-cross racing, Fasczewski says: “Get on the bike.” In fact, for those riders just getting into the sport of cyclo-cross, Fasczewski emphasizes that skill work on the bike is even more important than fitness.
“For beginners, the biggest advantage is knowing how to handle the bike. Skill work is everything in ’cross.” Fasczewski recommends practicing barriers, cornering, and overall bike handling.
One of the hardest parts of ’cross racing, says Fasczewski, is getting off and back on the bike while on the course — and ’cross riders get off the bike a lot! The classic ’cross image is the sight of competitors struggling through mud or up a slope with their bicycles slung on their shoulders. “Although the unrideable sections are usually short,” says Fasczewski, “the off-and-on movement has to be very, very efficient.”
So, what about fitness? Fasczewski says that, in addition to the crucial skill work, ’cross racers should definitely mix a running component into their training programs. “When you are off the bike,” says Fasczewski, “you’re usually in a full-out sprint.”
Getting started in ’cross: THE “FUSION”
“Cyclo-cross is addictive,” says Fasczewski, who points out, however, that ’cross riders are “foot to the floor during the entire race.” ’Cross racers must be “willing to go to the pain cave,” as Fasczewski puts it, and stay there until the race is over. “You just tell your brain to ‘shut up’ until the finish line,” advises Fasczewski.
“Only you know how hard you can push yourself,” says Fasczewski. “Like most sports, talent, training, and genetics play a part in an athlete’s ability. But in ’cross, more than most other sports, you have to push your body harder than you think you ever could.”
Getting started in ’cross: THE “FULL-MEAL DEAL”
If training hard and reaching deeper is your blue-plate special, you’ll be happy to know that cyclo-cross also offers a menu of benefits:
’Cross is probably one of the best off-season training regimens! “Cyclo-cross provides the structured intensity that road and mountain bike racers need during the off-season, without the potential physical and mental burnout of continued training in their own disciplines,” says Fasczewski.
’Cross is fresh and different. “There’s motivation to do something unusual,” says Fasczewski. “ ’Cross breaks up the monotony of a running-lifting-riding routine to stay in shape.”
’Cross increases power. “ ’Cross helps you maintain overall fitness, as well as target VO2 power,” says Fasczewski. “ ’Cross athletes usually get stronger and increase their O2 max during the season.”
’Cross is for any age…really. “I’ve seen racers aged 60+ and 70+,” says Fasczewski. “The only age limit is in your head.”
’Cross is for both men and women. Fasczewski says that “although most ’cross racers are currently, more women are joining the sport,” including Fasczewski’s wife and business partner, Kym Flynn.
’Cross is for individuals or teams. “Sometimes we see teams on the course,” says Fasczewski, “who use traditional team tactics, but most often it’s the individual athlete out there pushing personal physical limits.”
’Cross is a stand-alone sport. “ ’Cross may have gained its original foothold in the U.S. as cross-training for other types of racing,” says Fasczewski, “but athletes do start in cyclo-cross before moving into other disciplines. Some athletes become ’cross specialists and don’t ride other sports at all.”
’Cross is fun — silly stupid fun. “ ’Cross is painful, but it’s addictive!” admits Fasczewski. “The body is just a vessel for the brain to get through life. In a 40- to 50-minute all-out race, you’re almost done before your brain realizes how bad your body is hurting and asks you stop. If it does,” adds Fasczewski, “just tell your brain to shut up!”
About the author: Andrea Doray has always considered her own mountain biking a form of ’cross, except that she’s definitely not running when off her bike. A freelance writer, and free-time rider, Doray is based in Denver, CO. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.