Frequently Asked Questions about cyclocross
Q: What is cyclocross?
A: Cyclocross is bicycle racing that happens during the Fall and Winter. It is a mass-start event, so all racers start together and race on the course at the same time. The first rider across the finish line wins.
Courses include grass, pavement, sand, dirt, mud and a variety of natural and man-made obstacles that force riders to dismount and run with, or carry their bikes on their shoulder when terrain makes it impossible to ride.
Q: What is cyclocross called in other countries?
A: The most common name you'll encounter is Dutch: "Veldrijden" (literally "riding in fields".) Cyclo-cross, with a dash in the middle, is also common.
Q: How can I watch pro cyclocross?
A: Watching faster riders is a great way to build your own knowledge and skills. Check my article, "how to stream cyclocross for the 2022/23 season" for subscription services that allow you to watch elite level cyclocross races.
Q: Where did cyclocross come from? Who created it?
A: Cyclocross was originally created as a way for road cyclists to keep fit during wintertime. Riding a different bike on different terrain keeps training fresh, and the variety of obstacles, mud, and grass help build bike handling skills that racers can apply during Spring and Summer road races.
Q: How long is a cyclocross course?
A: A typical cyclocross course is about 3 kilometers, give or take, which results in elite athletes usually racing for 6-10 laps for around an hour. Different categories, like beginners or intermediates might race for a shorter time - 30 or 45 minutes.
Q: What is the terrain on a typical cyclocross race course?
A: Grass, pavement, dirt, sand are all common. Depending on the weather, add snow and/or ice sometimes. Larger races sometimes have "flyover" ramps or "over/under" ramps where riders pedal up, over, and down a bridge that spans the course, passing below. Riders will dismount and remount their bikes multiple times per lap on a typical 'cross race course.
Q: How does the pit work in a cyclocross race?
A: Almost every cyclocross race has a pit, or technical area, where you can get repairs or even change bikes. At higher levels, riders have a dedicated pit crew to help them. In races that have a lot of mud, riders come into the pit and take a fresh, clean bike. Their mechanic cleans the dirty bike while the rider is out on the course. Changing wheels is slow, so in the event of a flat tire riders just change the entire bike!
More sophisticated riders have multiple wheels with different tire tread shapes, so they can even change from a slick to a knobby tire to suit changing weather or course conditions. Mechanics even tweak tire pressure slightly up or down to suit their rider's preference so their bike handles better as the weather or conditions change.
If you're an amateur, you might not have a dedicated pit crew, but you can still put a spare bike, tools, or wheels in the pit so you can keep racing in the event of a mechanical.
Q: Why don't cyclocross races have a fixed number of laps?
A: At almost every level of cyclocross, both professional and amateur, races are of an unknown distance. You'll know the time for your category, for example, "50 minutes", but not the distance. A race advertised as 50 minutes means that the winner should take about 50 minutes to complete the race.
Officials watch the first lap or two to figure out how long most riders will take to ride a lap, and then post lap cards indicating 4, 3, 2, 1 laps to go as the race progresses.
Q: What does "Bell Lap" mean?
A: The final lap of the race. Usually the organizer rings a bell as each rider crosses the finish line with one lap remaining.
Q: Don't the riders get cold/wet?
A: Yes. Some riders use embrocation to protect exposed skin and keep warm. It's just part of the experience. Cyclocross is an all-weather sport.
Q: What's special about a cyclocross bike? It looks pretty much like a road bike.
A: Cyclocross bikes have a design inspired by road bikes, but a road bike isn't suitable for 'cross. Cyclocross bikes have room in the frame and fork for bigger, cyclocross tires (which are wider and have a higher air volume than road tires; plus a knobby tread), more mud clearance, a higher bottom bracket (to clear obstacles) and lower gearing compared to a road bike.
The brakes on a cyclocross bike are different from a road bike, too. Road bikes historically have used caliper brakes, while proper cyclocross bikes used cantilever brakes; and later, disc brakes.
Q: I want to try cyclocross but I don't have a cyclocross bike. Is that OK?
A: You don't need a cyclocross bike to get started. Your local series almost certainly permits mountain bikes, touring bikes (probably anything with two wheels) in the beginner category, with almost no restriction on the type of bike you can use. If it has working brakes, it will probably be accepted.
With the explosion in gravel bikes currently happening, those are great alternatives to a cyclocross-specific bike, too. Give it a try.
Once you gain experience, you'll probably want to upgrade to a proper cyclocross bike.