5 Top Tips to Help with Your First Cyclocross Race

Cyclocross Action
Photo by Alex Tande, https://www.alextandephotography.com/

The weather is turning, the days are getting cooler, and the sounds of lively music and even livelier spectators is beginning to fill the air.  That’s right, cyclocross season is upon us, and we at Hawk Racing are excited.  In all of the many disciplines of cycling, there is nothing quite a like a cyclocross race.  While the racing itself may be brutal, the atmosphere is anything but.  One of the things cyclocross, or cross, is known for is the lively, jovial atmosphere of its events.  This atmosphere makes cross one of the most fun disciples to not only attend, but race as well.  So, we’ve peaked your interest, but now you have absolutely no clue how to get started in these exciting, fun, fast paced events.  Well, we’ve got you covered.  Here are five top tips to help you succeed in your first cyclocross race.

1) Prep your bike

Unless you are racing at a fairly elite level (which isn’t likely for your first race), there likely won’t be too many rules stipulating the type of bike you can use in the event.  Most local racing will allow anything from a flat bar mountain bike to a road bike with wider tires.  However, there are a few things that will make your ride more enjoyable no matter what your riding.

  • Your tire choice can make all the difference when it comes to cross racing.  Course conditions for cyclocross vary widely not only by design, but based on the weather as well.  Some courses may be dry and grippy, especially in the early season, while others may be slippery and filled with mud.  Those familiar with mountain biking may instinctively reach for the widest tire they can fit on their frame to enhance grip, but that isn’t always the best option when racing cross.  Due to the nature of a cross course, riders are often better suited to go with narrower tires with a ton of aggressive grip pattern on them rather than wider, flatter tires.  This allows the tire to cut through the mud and dig in for grip rather than flattening out and sliding along the surface of the mud.  This can make a huge difference in the corners.
  • As you can probably imagine, mud and grit can be incredibly hard on your bike’s components.  Given that cyclocross is a sport full of mud, dirt, and grime, making sure that your bike is in top working condition is essential.  Before taking your first steps into cyclocross, take some time and make sure that all of the components on your bike are working properly.  Make sure to check your brake pads, all cables, drivetrain, bottom bracket, and any other mechanical parts to make sure that everything is fully functioning.  Replace anything that is worn or broken.  If replacing a bottom bracket, consider one that specializes in the conditions of cyclocross such as the Hawk Racing FSS with CXSeal bearings.  The last thing you want in the middle of a race is a mechanical failure, especially if you could have prevented it with a little bit of simple maintenance.  This small investment of time will make your adventures in cyclocross much more enjoyable.

2) Prep Yourself

As any cyclist knows, a good bike can only take you so far.  The rest is up to you and your own training.  Training for your first race isn’t technically required, most of the riders you will be riding with will have put in at least some training.  There are no hard and fast rules as to how much training is enough.  It really is all up to how seriously you plan to take things.  There is a saying that you perform what you practice.  The work that you put in beforehand will dictate the results of that effort on race day.  There are plenty of resources out there for learning how to train for cross, so we won’t get into that here.  However, a good baseline is to train for an intense 30-60 minute effort with little to no recovery during that time.  You may be able to put in long steady efforts all day, but that doesn’t account for a whole lot during sustained intense efforts.

One of the best ways to prepare yourself for cyclocross season is to practice with others.  Because you are very rarely riding solo during a cyclocross race, it is important that you get comfortable with performing the skills necessary for cyclocross in close proximity to other riders.  One of the best ways to do this is to find a local practice ride to join.  As cyclocross has become more and more popular in the US, these have become more and more common all over the country.  In Norther Indiana (where Hawk Racing is based), an organization called NeighborLink puts on a weekly training series.  NeighborLink is a charity that provides home improvement and other services to the less fortunate in the community, and they use their cycling team, Team NeighborLink, to raise awareness and funds for the projects.  These weekly training events allow their riders and any other community riders that wish to join and chance to practice their skills in a safe, no pressure environment.  Ask your local bike shop or search online to see if you have a local training series in your area.

Team NeighborLink Cyclocross
Photo courtesy of Team NeighborLink

3) Create a Routine

Race days are notorious for turning confident riders into tingling balls of nervous energy.  Like the rest of cycling, cyclocross is no different.  This nervous energy often leads us to either do (or often forget to do) things that affect our performance.  So, how do you keep yourself calm and prepared?  A pre-planned routine that you follow step by step will help you stay calm throughout race day and ensure that everything is in order and nothing gets forgotten.

  • Eat a good breakfast with a good nutritional balance.  There are plenty of resources out there on how to do this.  Do your research on what will work best for you.
  • Stay hydrated.  This means drinking plenty of water and leaving the beers for after the race.
  • Pack a bag with plenty of layered clothing options since weather can be very unpredictable during cyclocross season.  In this same bag, make sure you have snacks and drinks, a basic tool kit, and spare tubes and a pump (either a handheld in your bag or a floor pump kept with your bag).  Race day bags like the Team Hawk Racing RaceDay Bag are great options to keep everything organized and make sure nothing is forgotten.
  • Leave plenty of time to register and pin your number on.  Frustration on race day leads to mistakes, and one thing that is incredibly frustrating on race day is a long registration line when you’re in a hurry.  So, arrive early, leave plenty of time for registration, and make sure everything gets done right.
  • Do a few laps of the course.  Most races allow times between races through the day for riders to pre-ride the course for a few laps.  This is another case for you to arrive early, as it allows you to get in on one of these times.  Pre-riding the course serves a few important purposes.  First, it allows you to learn where turns, obstacles, and other important features of the course are ahead of time so that you can plan and prepare for them.  Second, it allows you to get a feel for course conditions, which can change dramatically throughout the day of a cross race.  Lastly, it will get your warmed up and ready to put in your best effort for the race.
  • Keep loose and warmed up.  Chances are those practice laps aren’t going to be immediately before your race.   Once these laps are done and you’re back off the course, it’s easy for your legs to cool back down, especially in the colder weather associated with cyclocross racing.  It is important that you find somewhere to ride around and keep those legs spinning so that this doesn’t happen.
  • Listen for your race lineup call and get ready to start.  Frantically sprinting for the start line at the last minute not only puts you in a poor frame of mind to start the race, but also risks missing your start.  So, keep your eyes and ears open for your race to be called.
Muddy Cyclocross Race
Photo by Alex Tande, https://www.alextandephotography.com/

4) Race Smart, Race Hard

You’re at the starting line, your mind is buzzing with anticipation, and the race is about to start.  Everything you’ve prepared for is about to happen.  From here on out, you’re done training and it all comes down to pushing hard and using your head.  Here are a few things to keep in mind as you race.

  • Get away as cleanly as possible when the gun goes off.  Everyone is trying to get their bike moving and get clipped in, and this can often create a bit of chaos.  Stay alert and aware of those around you and hold a steady line once you get yourself moving.
  • You will probably be moving into the first corner faster than you planned.  Given that you will probably still be in a group for the first corner you might not get to pick your ideal line through the corner.  Be great to brake and take evasive action and be aware of the riders around you.
  • Get your head down and pedal hard.  Cyclocross races are intense and will bring the pain.  Racing is always a balance between pushing as hard as you can and no burning out before the end of the race.  Chances are you won’t get this balance right the first time, and that’s okay.  Don’t stress it.  Racing is a learning experience, and there is always next time.
  • Chances are that you will crash at some point during your time riding cyclocross.  The upside is that cyclocross crashes don’t tend to result in serious injury.  So, get up, brush it off, laugh it off, and keep riding.
  • Listen for the final lap bell.  When this sounds, give it your all and leave everything on the course.

5) Have Fun!

Cyclocross is a ton of fun.  If it weren’t, countless riders wouldn’t brave the cold, mud, and nasty weather to race.  The crowds are great, the atmosphere is fun and family friendly, and the riding provides a unique challenge.  After your race, put on some warm clothes and stick around.  Chat with your fellow racers and support the races after you.  You may meet some new friends and riding buddies.  When you stay to support and cheer on the riders after you, your cheers may be what keeps another rider racing just like they did for you.  Finally, clean and inspect your bike ASAP.  That dirt and grime is tough on your bike, and it also may hide mechanical issues that could cause problems for your next race.  Inspect your bike as you clean it, and fix anything before your next race.  Chances are there will be a next race, because you’re going to love cyclocross racing once you try it.

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