Over the years I've been lucky enough to conduct beginner cyclocross orientation clinics, providing a quick intro to the sport for new racers before they hit the starting grid for the first time.
Many first-timers can be quite intimidated. It's often their first bicycle race (of any type) and sometimes the first organized athletic event they've ever attended! Your mind is filled with questions - what will the course be like? Where do I sign up? How do I put this number on? Am I doing this right? Arghh!
There are so many things to think about on the day of your first race. Don't make it even harder than it needs to be! Here's a list of some of the top rookie mistakes that are EASY and SIMPLE to avoid, making your race day as smooth as it can be:
This is the #1 setup error by far when new riders arrive for the clinic. I always give their tires a squeeze to check for this reason. Road cyclists, especially, often have a "higher tire pressure is better" mantra. It's not unusual for youth to show up with 80 PSI in their tires, which could be 4x the needed pressure!
New riders often believe that over-inflating prevents flat tires or reduces rolling resistance, but over-inflated tires for cyclocross are uncomfortable, don't grip well, and are just generally unpleasant to ride. The "right" PSI for you is probably a lot lower than you think.
So how will you know you have the tire pressure right? You will experiment during your pre-ride:
A pre-ride is your opportunity to check your equipment, skills, and setup on the actual race course. In addition to checking your tire pressure as noted, you can also plan where you might need to shift up or down, and most importantly, see the obstacles that might force you to dismount.
Without a pre-ride, you're going in blind. As a first-timer racer pre-riding the course will ease quite a bit of your anxiety. You'll know exactly what to expect, no surprises.
Make sure you aren't affecting live in-progress races while pre-riding. Not sure when it's OK to pre-ride? Check with the promoter or their staff. At many races you'll often hear a loudspeaker announcement, "the course is now open for inspection" to guide you along.
There's a lot to think about at your first cyclocross race. You need to travel, park, find the registration table, find the start/finish line, use the bathroom, prep your bike, inspect the course, and then do a solid warm-up to get your muscles ready for the effort.
Don't show up 30 minutes before your start and expect a good outing. I like to arrive at familiar venues 2 hours before race time, and unfamiliar venues 3 hours before race time. No worries if you have a little extra time - you can spend it cheering others on, or watching their skills to improve your own.
Start with essentials:
After that - got an extra bike? Wheels? Tires? Shoes? Throw it all in the car. It's pretty hard to over-pack equipment. You'll be more relaxed and prepared knowing that you have spares if needed.
It's easy to rush, skipping breakfast because you woke up late. Then you don't want to eat because your race is coming up soon. Afterwards, you're packing up (perhaps cold and wet too) and before you know it, 6 hours have passed without eating or drinking.
Although many races have food trucks you can't rely on this. Venues can be in the middle of nowhere far from retail. It's good practice to get in the habit of bringing a cooler with lunch, recovery drink, water, snacks, and so on. I like to make a protein shake, freeze it, then allow it to thaw during my race, so it's ready for me while I cool down with a high-cadence spin.
There is nothing worse than shivering all day because you are underdressed. Or broiling in the Southwest sun with no sunscreen or shade. Take a moment to look at the weather report and pack a bag that suits those conditions. The weather can change rapidly, even if it's not on the forecast. I like to keep a duffle bag with all my extra cycling clothes just in case.
The goal for your first cyclocross race should be to finish, safely, while having fun. Going fast, winning, and continual improvement are good goals for your second, third, fourth races. Have a blast and stay within your abilities so you can come back next weekend.
See you out there!