What is cyclocross?
“Cyclocross is a form of bicycle racing. Races typically take place in the autumn and winter (the international or “World Cup” season is October–February), and consist of many laps of a short course featuring pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and remount.
Cyclocross bicycles are similar to road racing bicycles: lightweight, with narrow tires and drop handlebars. They also typically feature greater tyre clearances, knobbly tread tyres for traction, lower gearing, stronger frames, cantilever brakes and more upright riding position”
When I saw Rapha were offering a cyclocross skills session at Herne Hill I was all over it. Cyclocross had been on my radar for a while as combining all my favourite things, cycling, running and mud.
I also commute everyday through Richmond Park and when running through Wimbledon Common too (not so good on a road bike). For a while I’ve had this idea in the back of my head that having a cyclocross bike would allow me to skip out the boring bit through Putney and ride trails the whole way AKA the dream.
Attending a skills session would be an excellent way of ensuring I didn’t totally hate cyclocross before I went ahead and splurged on n + 1.
Arriving at Herne Hill I was thrilled to find Gem manning the sign-in tent. If anyone promotes good bike riding vibes its Gem, this was going to be fun. Rapha had kindly organised hire bikes for those of us without our own cyclocross steed and after a bit of saddle adjustment the group was ready to go.
The first part of the session started on the grassy middle section of Herne Hill and covered basic cyclocross manoeuvres, before letting us loose in the woods to test out our new skills on part of a proper cyclocross race course.
Our instructor Ewan had set up an oval with a couple of tight turns and got us to practice getting as close to the cones as possible on the way round. A wide approach allows for a tight turn and the shortest route around the corner. Looking where you want to go rather than looking ahead is also important e.g. If you look ahead you’re more likely overshoot the corner whereas if you look around the corner at where you want to end up your body automatically starts to move the bike in that direction (it works).
My cornering skills on a road bike are pretty lacklustre, so I’ve been putting a lot of this into practice during my commute and I’m pretty certain I’m slowly cutting distance off. Preeetttty certain.
Diligently practising my cornering
2. Mount and Dismount
In cyclocross just riding your bike isn’t considered hard enough and to spice it up obstacles are thrown into the mix. There will often be one or two sections of the course that require you get off the bike and run/jump (with your bike) over barriers or up a particularly steep climb. From what I’ve been told the rule of thumb is if its going to be quicker to run than ride, get off and run with your bike.
We practiced walking and mounting, before building up to a slow jog (and then a faster jog) trying to catch the inside of the thigh on the saddle to prevent jumping and disappearing over the other side/front of the bike. Dismounting I found a bit easier, mainly because I’ve been using this method to get off bikes all my life. Here’s Jeremy Powers explaining on Bike Radar much better than I could
After mastering mounts and dismounts, the next thing we got to grips with was hurdling wooden barriers. Ewan explained the best way to carry the bikes and we practised cycling up to the barrier, dismounting smoothly, picking up the bike, running over the barrier and then re-mounting on the other side. Key tips here were not to leave dismounting too late as this interrupts the flow of the movement and to make sure your hands are in the right place to pick up the bike at the crucial moment and sail over the barrier.
Here’s my cyclocross hero world champ and Matrix-Vulpine rider Helen Wyman (who spoke at my last screening of ‘Half The Road’) showing us how its done.
Time to hit the woods.
This was definitely my favourite part of the session.
Ewan had laid out two different routes, red and blue, to correspond to their difficulty (like skiing). The blue run had a couple of short steep descents and ascents a slippy muddy section and some tight corners. Nothing too taxing though. The red route started with two steep humps which you could use a BMX pumping motion to go up and down and then a fast descent with a tight right hand turn at the bottom. I overshot this completely and went hurtling off into a shed. Some words of advice from Ewan and the group was soon flying over this first obstacle and ready to try some hill drills.
Short but very steep hills required careful line choosing, power and ensuring we were in the right gear on the approach.
Top of the hill. Grinning like a loon.
It wasn’t long before our time was up and we had to head back to base to hand over our bikes to the next group. If I hadn’t already made poor Alex drive me across London and then wait around all day I probably would have tried sneak to onto the later session as well.
Safe to say I fell pretty hard for cyclocross and cant wait to get out and give it another go.
Thanks to Ewan for being such a great teacher and Rapha for putting on the event. Massive kudos also to Gem who ran logistics on the day and still had time to crouch in the bushes and take all these awesome photos.
If you want to see some serious cyclocross check out this video of the elite women’s field at Valkenburg a few weeks ago:
The cyclocross world cup series is coming to Milton Keynes at the end of November so if you want to see Helen killing it with all other pro’s you should really go watch. I’ll see you there.