Ask any rider about her first cyclocross race, and you’ll probably hear something like this: “It was tricky and I got filthy, but afterwards I just had this big silly grin on my face and I couldn’t wait to do it again.”
It is a cycling discipline that is designed for the wet and chilly months of the year so the muddy fun is over in Europe and the United States for the 2014/2015 season, but it’s just about to get going in Australia, where the once scant racing options look set to step up again this year. Cyclocross has grown from almost nothing in Australia five years ago to the point where there is now an established National Series, a National Championships, a crop of new clubs putting on races. There’s even a state series starting in Victoria.
Have a conversation with any ‘cross racer, and it’s easy to understand the appeal of a sport that has long been treasured in places such as Belgium but has now firmly established a foothold in the United States and is rapidly expanding in Australia.
“It is this wonderful happy environment. Everyone is there to have fun and I don’t know anyone that I have talked to that has raced cross and that has not had fun,” Lisa Jacobs, two-time Australian national cyclocross champion told Ella CyclingTips.
“It is the type of racing where they give a beer hand-up on the side. How can you not love that?”
So apart from beer hand-ups and grins what is it that makes a cyclocross race? The simplified explanation is that you get what looks much like a road bike but, among other things, has chunkier tyres and better clearance around them to cope with the mud. You then ride it, run with it and jump while holding it as you negotiate your way through a course with various obstacles such as sand, mud, stairs and barriers.
There is usually a raucous but supportive crowd watching as the multiple laps of a short course makes spectator involvement easy because they can see most, if not all, of the race. The race is generally around 45 minutes long for women, an hour for men and varies widely for children’s races as participants can range from teenagers to toddlers on balance bikes. Bikes can vary in the adult classes too. Many events have an open class where bikes such as hybrids and mountain bikes are welcomed so those without cyclocross bikes have a chance to try it out.
It is a sport that may appeal to the whole family as there are often kids and adult races on the same day and the non-racers are quite likely to enjoy the spectacle given there is good race visibility and a festive atmosphere. It draws in various disciplines from across the cycling community, as it is a middle ground between those who spend their time on the road and those who revel in single-track.
“You don’t have to be good at just one thing to be a good ‘cross rider,” said Jacobs, who races for the Rapha-Focus CX team.
“If you are a road rider there will be parts of the course that will suit you. If you are a mountain biker there will be parts of the course that will suit you. And if you are just good at running there will be parts of the course that will suit you,” said Jacobs. “So you don’t actually have to be great at any of those to be a good ‘cross rider. You just have to be able to do it.”
Jacobs became serious about cycling when she was picked up through a national talent identification programme in 2007 and took up racing on the road. She gave cyclocross a go in 2012, with an unfamiliar bike that she had managed to line up the night before and instantly took a liking to the cycling discipline, which was in it its infancy in Australia.
She then went on to win the first Australian National Cyclocross Championships in 2013, which lead to her being encouraged to take on the World Championships at Hoogerheide in the Netherlands at the start of 2014. It was only a few months before the event when she decided to go, leaving her with limited time to prepare, particularly as she needed to fit her preparation in around her full-time job as a lawyer. Jacobs took two weeks leave, squeezed in a couple of European cyclocross races the weekend before the big event and then managed to become the first Australian to finish on the lead lap in a World Championship, securing 39th position.
Jacobs missed the World Championships this year due to work commitments but is focussed on next year’s Cyclocross World’s in Belgium, having taken a trip there earlier this year to get in some valuable practice on muddy courses against some of the world’s best riders.
“I was very encouraged. I couldn’t have hoped for that trip to go any better,” said Jacobs.
“Each race got progressively better and, I am certainly not about to throw away my day job, but my target is top 20 at World Champs. I think that is realistic with a lot of work. I know what I have got to do now. I have got some really good people around me and I’m motivated.”
Jacobs has had a steep learning curve over the past three years to go from her first race in a country where cyclocross was only just beginning to competing at the top level of the sport. Here are some of the things she has learnt along the way that may make life easier for others considering embarking on a cyclocross journey of their own.
1. Forget the fear
“There is nothing really to be afraid of,” said Jacobs. “Everyone is worried that they will go and get smashed and everyone will see them coming last but if you go to a cross race you realise that after the first five minutes nobody can tell where anyone is coming at a race and so your ego doesn’t take a battering. Everyone will cheer you. If you respond to the crowd they will respond to you back. If you go in with a positive attitude you will have a great time.
“The second thing I would say is smile because all you are there to do is have fun. No one is going to an Olympics out of this, so just have fun,” said Jacobs, who clearly embraces the enjoyment to be derived from cycling. Her website url is Ride Happy and her twitter handle is LJridehappy.
3. Simplify tyre choice
“Get mud tyres and just run them all the time because no one ever complains that they have too much grip,” said Jacobs. “One of the things that riders get confused about or overwhelmed by is all the choice, the variables, and tyre choice is one of them. Just get something that grips well and just forget about it.”
4. Drop the pressure
Throw out the ideas of appropriate tyre pressure that you have learnt on your road bike as much lower pressures are the norm in cyclocross. It is hard to come up with an exact figure as it varies with a whole range of factors, including tyre type, terrain and rider weight. Jacobs said when she rocked up to her first race she was thinking maybe 60 or 70 psi might be the go, but was then told to think more like a mountain biker and go with 30 or 40 psi. “Now overseas I was running my tyres at 13 or 14 psi,” said Jacobs.
5. Identify and work on technical weaknesses
Once you are feeling a little more comfortable taking on a cyclocross race and are getting to the stage where you want to step the level up a notch it may be time to invest some effort into getting out on the bike and practising skills such as dismounting and mounting or improving cornering.
“Identify what your weaknesses are and work on those,” said Jacobs. “There isn’t anyone in the world that can’t benefit from technical skills work. Things like cornering well and choosing lines are going to be really important and will make you faster.”
Jacobs said she had prioritised what skills to work on by first focussing on those things that would deliver her the biggest gain with the least amount of effort.
If you want to pick up some tips in person, Jacobs is helping out at the Dirty Deeds women’s cyclocross skills session in Melbourne on Sunday April 12. The event is being put on in conjunction with The Women’s Ride. Find out more or register here. If you can’t make it to the clinic as part of The Women’s Ride, Fields of Joy also puts on a number of women’s skills sessions in Melbourne each season, usually the week before a race. Details of these can be found closer to the dates on their Facebook page or blog. There are also plenty of other resources out there if you are based elsewhere. If you like to absorb your skills and racing tactics while indulging in some very entertaining race footage viewing, watch LIKEAVOS on In The Crosshairs. Do you know of any groups in your local area running women’s cyclocross skills sessions or providing welcoming and supportive events? We would love to hear about them in our comments section.
If you want to pick up some tips in person, Jacobs is helping out at the Dirty Deeds women’s cyclocross skills session in Melbourne on Sunday April 12. The event is being put on in conjunction with The Women’s Ride. Find out more or register here.
If you can’t make it to the clinic as part of The Women’s Ride, Fields of Joy also puts on a number of women’s skills sessions in Melbourne each season, usually the week before a race. Details of these can be found closer to the dates on their Facebook page or blog.
There are also plenty of other resources out there if you are based elsewhere.
If you like to absorb your skills and racing tactics while indulging in some very entertaining race footage viewing, watch LIKEAVOS on In The Crosshairs.
Do you know of any groups in your local area running women’s cyclocross skills sessions or providing welcoming and supportive events? We would love to hear about them in our comments section.