Get Started in Cyclocross

Complete Guide to Getting Started in Cyclocross

By: Jim Rutberg  September 16, 2022

Cyclocross is an enormously fun way to stay fit and satisfy your competitive drive during the fall and winter. And because it’s held on closed courses in local parks and it is one of the most convenient entry points into your local cycling community.

What is Cyclocross?

Cyclocross combines elements of road cycling, mountain biking, and steeplechase. Races are relatively short (20-60 minutes), held on 2.5- to 3.5-kilometer closed circuit courses in parks and open spaces. Riders race over varying amounts of pavement, grass, dirt, and sand, and courses include natural and man-made obstacles that may require cyclists to dismount and run, jump, or climb stairs.

Cyclocross is a fall/winter cycling discipline, with the race season typically beginning in September/October and concluding in January/February. As a result, foul weather is often considered a feature of the sport, rather than an obstacle. Mud, snow, rain, and sub-freezing temperatures are common.

The atmosphere of cyclocross racing is what draws many racers and fans to the sport. Cyclocross is very spectator friendly with the courses set up in local parks, along with the short races happening at high speeds. Although the racing can be highly competitive on course, there’s a festival environment outside the course tape.

What is a Cyclocross Bike?

Almost any standard bicycle with two wheels can be used for cyclocross. Bikes specifically designed for cyclocross look a lot like road or gravel bikes and feature frames with clearance for wider tires (at least 33mm). Tires used for cyclocross are wider than road tires and narrower than mountain bike tires, and feature knobs of varying styles to provide grip in loose terrain. To accommodate wider tires, cyclocross bikes use either cantilever brakes or disc brakes, as opposed to side-pull brakes.

Cyclocross courses are tight and technical, and races require frequent dismounts, remounts, and portages. As a result, cyclocross-specific bikes typically feature steep head tube angles for quick handling characteristics and spacious front triangles to make carrying the bike easier. They may also feature higher bottom bracket heights compared to road and gravel bikes.

Can I use a mountain bike or gravel bike for cyclocross?

At local cyclocross races, yes. Bicycles with drop handlebars are standard equipment for cyclocross, but flat bars (with no forward or upward extensions) are allowed. Gravel bikes can be used for cyclocross races, but riders must comply with tire width regulations based on the event. Drop handlebars are required at USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships. As of September 2022, here is the most updated equipment information: “Cyclocross Equipment and Regulations FAQ”.

Tire Width Rules for Cyclocross

The condensed version is that any tire width is allowed for local USA Cycling-permitted cyclocross races. Yes, this means you can use a gravel bike with 40cm tires at your local cyclocross race.

Maximum tire width regulations start at USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships, where Elite, Junior (17-28), and U23 riders must comply with the 33cm maximum tire width set by the UCI. Masters competitors can use a maximum tire width of 38cm at National Championships, but only 33cm at Masters World Championships. Junior (15-16) riders can use any tire width at US Cyclocross National Championships. Tire width is ‘as measured’, not as marked or advertised by the manufacturer.

At UCI Calendar events, including World Championships, maximum tire width is 33cm.

How to Get Started in Cyclocross

One of the great things about cyclocross is that it combines elements of many other cycling disciplines. That means the skills you already have will generally transfer to cyclocross, and the skills you gain from cyclocross will help you on the road, trail, or track as well.

Find Your Local Cyclocross Community

Cyclocross is a very community-oriented cycling discipline. You can ride a cyclocross bike by yourself, but more often groups of riders get together to set up courses for skills practices and training races. Talking with your local bike shops and cycling clubs are best ways to connect with the cyclocross community in your area.

Essential Cyclocross Skills

Although riding a cyclocross bike is just like riding a road or gravel bike, there are a few distinct skills required for cyclocross racing:

  • Dismounts/remounts: Cyclocross courses include obstacles that can include barriers, stairs, sand pits, steep hills and off-camber hillsides. Although you are not required to dismount, most riders dismount and remount the bike multiple times each lap. Here’s a video tutorial Global Cycling Network (GCN) filmed at the race venue for the 2022 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
  • Carrying your bike: Techniques for carrying vary from shouldering the bike (used for stairs and runups) to simple lifts by the handlebar and top tube. The video above includes a demonstration of shouldering techniques. The lift technique used for running over barriers can be seen at 1:54 in this GCN video.

The easiest way to learn these techniques is by attending cyclocross skills practices hosted by local cycling clubs and teams. You can also find cyclocross skills clinics taught by USA Cycling Coaches.

Training for Cyclocross

Some cyclists use cyclocross as a fun and low-pressure way to stay fit through the fall and winter. The races are short and very intense, meaning they are good workouts in addition to being competitions. For these cyclists, cyclocross practices or races may provide a weekly high-intensity session while most of their training focuses on building aerobic endurance with lower-intensity rides.

Other cyclists train specifically to be as fast and competitive as possible for cyclocross season. These cyclists must train to meet the physiological demands of this high intensity discipline. To be successful in cyclocross races, riders benefit from high power at lactate threshold, a high VO2 max, high anaerobic capacity, and the ability to generate high torque for hard accelerations from low speeds.

Whether you are new to cyclocross, looking to stand on the podium at your local series, or aiming for a National Championship, here are 5 Key Workouts for Cyclocross Racers. USA Cycling also has information about fueling for cyclocross races and fueling for early morning workouts and races (in case you have an early start time).