A Guide To Your First Cyclocross Race
This article series aims to enable cyclists to show up as prepared as possible for their first race. We’ll cover the primary types of events available; gravel, road, mountain, and cyclocross. There will be a fair amount of carryover for each discipline, but every kind of event has unique demands.
As additional guides are released, we’ll update the links below.
Cyclocross is a unique sport originating in the 1800s in Europe. The bikes used were road bikes, modified with knobby tires and cantilever brakes that allowed for more tire and mud clearance. Racers would race from one town to the next, cutting through fields, streams, and dirt roads to be the first to the destination – which was often a church tower since it was the most visible landmark.
As the sport progressed, courses evolved from point-to-point races to closed circuits, typically in parks or other open lands. The bikes used today still resemble those used at the beginning of the sport, but technological advancements have made for much lighter, stronger, and more effective equipment. While a cyclocross-specific bike is ideal and even required at national-level events, many amateur riders will race using gravel, mountain, and fat bikes.
If the idea of trying out cyclocross has been on your mind, hopefully, this guide will answer many of your questions.
Ideal tire selection can vary based on the course and the rules for the event. Experienced racers often have multiple wheelsets with different tires mounted to ensure they always have the best setup possible for the course.
At local events, any tire width is allowed unless stated by the promoter. It is usually advantageous to use a wider tire; therefore, we recommend choosing the widest tire your bike can fit.
Suppose your long-term goal is to compete at a higher level. In that case, we recommend racing on the tires you’ll be required to use at those future events. Competitors must follow specific rules regarding tire width for competitors on the national and world stage. You can read about these rules here.
There are three primary tread patterns to choose from for cyclocross racing.
This tire has small/medium-sized lugs that roll fast and provide good cornering traction. If you choose one tire to race all season, this is the tire you want.
A mud tire will have taller lugs to bite into the wet earth. Lugs on a mud tire are spaced wider than an all-around tread to help with shedding mud. A mud tire is still fast-rolling, but the knobs will squirm and potentially lose traction when cornering on hard surfaces. Because of this, you’ll only want to use this tread pattern when the course gets sloppy from rain/snow.
This tire will have minimal tread along the center. Some file tread tires will have uniform lugs across the entire tire, while others will have slightly larger lugs along the edge of the tread surface. Because the minimal lug depth places more rubber on the ground, these tires will provide solid traction on hard-packed, sandy, or icy courses.
Tubes, Tubeless, or Tubulars?
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of tire. There is one clear winner for amateur riders, but we’ll leave that up to you to decide.
- Easy to install.
- Latex or new “high-tech thermoplastic elastomer” (Tubolito) tubes have rolling resistance within a few watts of tubeless or tubular setups.
- Prone to pinch flats at the air pressures ideal for traction.
- Prone to punctures.
- Latex and Tubolito tubes are expensive.
- Wheelsets are typically lighter than clincher/tubeless wheelsets.
- It’s possible to run lower tire pressures with less risk of pinch flats.
- The tire has less resistance to flex under cornering pressure, creating the potential for more traction.
- Tubular setups usually have less rolling resistance than tubed setups.
- Gluing or taping tubulars can be a tedious process. (If you’re going to tape, we’ve had a good experience with Carogna Tubular Tire Gluing Tape.
- The risk of rolling a tubular is always present, although this is rare with proper glue/tape techniques.
- Moderately easy to install tires with the proper equipment and strong hands.
- Less likely to pinch flat or puncture than with tubes or tubular tires.
- It’s possible to run low tire pressures, although it’s important to learn the limits of your specific setup.
- Low rolling resistance, usually in line with tubular setups.
- Changing tires can be challenging if you do not have an air compressor or strong hands.
- Sealant can get messy.
- Running too low of pressure can sometimes result in “burping” during hard hits or hard cornering. Modern tubeless setups are much better than they were even 5-6 years ago, but it’s still a concern.
Many variables go into finding the correct tire pressure for cyclocross tires. Start by utilizing a chart from your tire manufacturer or another reputable source to find your initial tire pressure. Once a starting pressure is determined, use feedback during a ride to further optimize tire pressure.
Factors that will affect ideal tire pressure:
- Rider weight
- Bike weight
- Tubeless or tubes
- Tire width
- Riding speed
The main sign that tire pressure is too high is feeling like the bike is bouncing over rough sections of the course. If your tire is compressing to the point that you feel the rim hit over rough terrain, then tire pressure is too low. Another sign of low pressure is feeling the tire “squirm” during hard turns. The final indication of low tire pressure is “burping” air on hard cornering or hard hits over rough terrain. “Burping” is when the tire’s bead loses its connection to the rim, and air leaks out. This problem is exclusive to tubeless tires. Using too low pressure on tubed setups will lead to pinch flats.
How to choose the ideal tire and air pressure for your race?
For your first cyclocross race, we recommend using the widest tire to fit your frame and an all-around tread. This tire will still work well if the course is muddy or sandy. If you decide after a race or two that cyclocross is your new favorite sport (this is common), then you should start looking into adding more wheels and tires to your collection. You’ll also want to consider a second bike for the pits, but that’s much further down the road 🙂
Many of you will be coming to the sport from gravel racing. If this is the case, your bike will work just fine! In fact, in the early days of gravel, many riders would use cyclocross bikes with 33mm tires, and sometimes even narrower. We’ve since learned that wider is better, and your gravel rig with 38-42mm tires will work well on a cyclocross course providing your tires have some decent-sized lugs.
To set pressure for your race, start at 35 PSI. Whether you’re running 33mm cyclocross tires or 42mm gravel tires, tubed or tubeless, this is a good starting place. While pre-riding, pay attention to how your bike handles the course’s bumps and turns, then gradually remove a small amount of pressure every 3-5 minutes of riding until the course starts to feel smooth. Larger riders may not need to remove much pressure, while lighter riders may need to remove quite a bit. If you have a pressure gauge, go ahead and check your tire pressure and make a note of it for the next race. As a ballpark measure, one push on the valve is roughly one PSI of pressure on a 33mm tire. The ideal tire pressure will vary depending on the course, but it’s good to have a starting place.
For reference, a pro cyclocross racer may run 18-20 PSI in their tubular tires. This tire pressure is very low and not ideal for most amateur riders. A 160-pound rider using a tubeless setup might find their perfect pressure between 25-28 PSI, while a 200-pound rider might need 30+ to avoid issues with pinch flats or burping.
Race Day Nutrition
The first step in developing a cyclocross nutrition strategy is to break down the demands of these unique events.
- Events range from 30-60 minutes of very high-intensity racing.
- Races will typically start in the late morning and continue throughout the afternoon.
- Warming up and pre-riding the course can take 45-60 minutes, sometimes longer, depending on the event schedule. This duration includes pre-riding earlier in the day while the course is open, then waiting until closer to your event to start a warm-up.
With this information, you can develop a strategy that considers the events’ demands and your personal preferences.
Breakfast #1 (if racing in the morning)
Focus on carbohydrates as your primary macronutrient, then add in a small amount of protein and fat to round out the meal. If you struggle to digest high-fiber foods, it’s recommended that you limit these types of foods before a race. An example meal would be pancakes with honey, yogurt, and fruit.
Breakfast #2 (if racing in the afternoon)
If your race doesn’t start until later in the afternoon, consider eating a meal with a better balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fats. You’ll be eating a higher-carbohydrate meal for lunch in a few hours, providing plenty of energy for your race. An example meal would be oats with fruit, nuts, and scrambled eggs on the side.
Lunch (afternoon race)
This meal should be similar to breakfast #1. Make sure you are eating this meal 2-4 hours before the start of your race warm-up.
60-90 Minutes Before Race
Avoid eating anything heavy at this point in the day. Consider eating a light snack, especially if you’re hungry in the 60-90 minute period before your race. This snack can be beneficial in staving off hunger and keeping energy high in situations where your pre-ride opportunity is much earlier than your official race start. A carbohydrate-dense energy bar or fruit are both great options. Keep a water bottle nearby so you can continue drinking water regularly throughout your pre-ride and warm-up.
10-15 Minutes Before Race
Consume a gel or sip on a sports drink. At this point, you should have already been riding for 20-30 minutes (or longer) as part of your warm-up, and it’s essential to keep your energy levels as high as possible. At this point, you should be well hydrated and only need to sip on water. Avoid consuming large amounts of fluid at this point.
During the Race
If your race is less than 45 minutes, you shouldn’t need to take in any additional fuel, provided you followed the abovementioned strategy. If your race is closer to 60 minutes, consider bringing an energy gel with 20-25 grams of carbohydrates or a diluted sports drink with 15-30 grams of carbohydrates. During cold races, many racers find they don’t need water and remove the bottle cages from their bikes. In higher temperatures bringing one small water bottle is a good idea.
Technical Skills for Cyclocross
While every cycling discipline can be technically demanding, cyclocross is unique in forcing competitors to dismount their bikes to negotiate obstacles such as barriers, stairs, and other unrideable terrain. The main skills you’ll need to learn are as follows:
- Race starts
- Dismounting and Remounts
- Negotiating barriers and run-ups
- Cornering and linking turns
We recommend joining local practices and clinics to help you learn these skills. The best place to find local clinics is to search Facebook for local clubs or organizations hosting practices and clinics. Most of these events are free to attend.
Here are a few resources to check to help guide you in the right direction:
Example Race Week
Event success requires mental, physical, and mechanical preparation. The following is an example of a typical race week.
Most athletes will train hard or race on the weekends, so Monday’s goal is to recover and potentially perform some “body maintenance.” If you’re feeling good and want to do something more structured, a light strength training session, easy jog, or yoga are all great options. If completely exhausted from the weekend, take a nap and go for a short walk to get the blood flowing.
1-2 hours of aerobic endurance training, emphasizing skills work. Depending on how hard the weekend was, there may still be some residual fatigue so it’s important not to put any pressure on hitting specific intensity targets. If you feel good, push a little harder and a little longer, but today should still feel easy. Today is a great time to spend 10-20 minutes at some point in the ride focused on a cyclocross-specific skill that needs improvement.
It’s time for mid-week intensity. Placing the most challenging training session of the week here should allow plenty of time to recover by the weekend. Intervals or a cyclocross practice are both great options. Avoid anything “epic” for training on race weeks.
Example training session:
- Warm-up: 15-20 minutes; gradually increase intensity throughout duration of warm-up to upper Zone 2
- Main Set: (3) x 10′ @ Race Pace w/5-10′ recovery; perform each of these intervals as mini CX races. Use a local CX practice if possible, or setup a course in a local park close to home.
- Cool-down: 5-10 minutes; spin easy
Up to 60 minutes of active recovery riding if tired, or 1-2 hours of aerobic endurance riding if feeling good.
Today is a good day to run through your race-day equipment to ensure everything is in good working order. Check all your bolts, drivetrain wear, tires, etc. If your bike needs cleaning, plan to get that done today or tomorrow.
45-60 minute tune-up ride! For athletes new to structured training, a 45-60 minute easy spin will help keep your legs loose and maintain a feeling of momentum rolling into the weekend. Many athletes find including a couple of short sprints (<5 seconds) and a tempo/threshold effort (5-10 minutes) can help their legs feel better the following day.
Review the race schedule and weather and plan accordingly. You’ll want to prepare most of your equipment today to focus on executing your plan tomorrow.
Saturday – RACE DAY!
Plan to show up at the race venue a couple of hours before your scheduled race starts. This time should be sufficient to register, prepare your equipment, pre-ride the course, and warm up before your race begins.
USAC sanctions most events, but several private organizations also run events. If you enter a USAC-sanctioned event, you must purchase a one-day or annual race license. After registering, you’ll receive a bib number that you should pin to your jersey. The registration attendant will provide information about the side of your jersey your bib number should be on.
Pre-ride The Course
Pre-riding is a critical step in cyclocross. Pre-riding the course is where you’ll learn about the surface conditions and technical sections and familiarize yourself with the general flow of the course. The best time to pre-ride is between races. Depending on the schedule, you may need to pre-ride the course an hour or more before your scheduled race starts. Always double-check with an official before jumping on the course that you are clear for pre-riding. Never ride on course while other competitors are actively racing.
Plan on starting your warm-up with enough time to finish 10-15 minutes before your scheduled race start. Getting a good starting position is helpful, but don’t put too much pressure on nailing the start at your first race. Your pre-race warm-up routine shouldn’t differ too much from your typical training warm-up before high-intensity sessions.
After the race
Start hydrating and get some food as soon as possible. If a celebratory beer is in your future, ensure you’ve had a couple of glasses of water first. You just pushed your body to the limit, and it will appreciate a little extra hydration.
When reviewing your race performance, try to maintain a beginner’s mindset. What did you enjoy about the race? What would you change before the next event?
Cyclocross is a wild sport that blends elements of road racing, mountain biking, and the steeplechase to create something unique. The racing community around cyclocross doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s not uncommon to see racers taking beer hand-ups, racing in costumes, and heckling their friends along the course. These shenanigans are all done while maintaining a very family-friendly atmosphere. In fact, many consider cyclocross to be the best entry point for introducing young racers to competitive cycling. At your first race it’s important to remind yourself you’re there to have fun and challenge yourself in a new sport. The fun part is basically guaranteed, as there’s a 100% chance you’ll have fun if you’re into bike racing and playing in the dirt with your friends!