Stay in shape with cyclocross this winter

cyclocross at knockburn

Mud, hills, fallen leaves and a whole of fun. It’s the season for cyclocross in Scotland

If you’re looking for a good way to maintain your cycling fitness through the cold and wet months of autumn and winter, cyclocross could be just the thing. Fans will tell you, variously, that it’s fun, bonkers, muddy, ridiculous, exhausting, beginner friendly, ideal for skilful experts and perfect for kids, men and women.

I have tried it before – and this season I plan to try it again (but this time I’ll be on a Planet X cyclocross bike rather than my old mountain bike).

What is cyclocross?

An increasingly popular sport, cyclocross events take place in the autumn and winter on off-road routes. It’s sort of a hybrid of cross country (XC) mountain biking and road cycling with running.

They ride cyclocross specific bikes (these look like racer bikes but have grippier tyres and improved braking potential) rather than mountain bikes. The skill in cyclocross races also includes getting off the pedals and bike, running/jumping/climbing over obstacles and then getting back on the bike and up to speed quickly. One commentator has said: “Cyclocross courses are designed to force the rider off the bike and organisers delight in this!” (Some riders do use mountain bikes so don’t be put off if you do not own a cyclocross bike.)

The aim is to complete as many laps of a short-ish course in a set time. For kids this might be 15 to 30 minutes, while for women and veteran men the time is around 40 minutes. The open senior male class is usually a race time of about one hour.

The cyclocross routes vary from rough and undulating to mad, muddy and technical. There are times when riders need to get off their bikes and run/walk while carrying their bike. Obviously, the more competitive riders will aim to pedal as much of the course as possible because this will be faster.

When I tried cyclocross some seven years ago I was on a mountain bike. The bike was heavy and my off-road skills were basic but I loved the event. I didn’t mind getting muddy over such a short course and it was a great test of strength and fitness. I think I came last but it has remained a sport that I have been keen to try again.

Why try cyclocross?

This summer I borrowed a friend’s cyclocross bike and realised how versatile it is. I was riding canal routes and I also found the bike very comfortable on many of Glasgow’s pot-holed roads. So this month I have invested in a Planet X XLS Shimano 105 Cyclocross Bike. It is made of carbon so it should be robust yet light. It has disc brakes, which should help me to stop even in muddy and wet conditions.

If you didn’t know, mechanical disc brakes, as opposed to traditional cantilever brakes, offer improved control in slippery conditions and help to keep the mud and wet from the braking surface. This braking system should also cope better in winter conditions and require less maintenance.

Apparently the gearing ratio will also be suitable for a fast-paced cyclocross event, and if I can’t get up the hills I’ll just need to jump off and carry my lightweight carbon cyclocross bike up the hill on my shoulder.

Where to start with cyclocross

It’s a good idea to practice before an event. Find some wet and muddy singletrack and ride your bike. Take a few lessons if you want to improve your skills. Some mountain biking schools, such as the Dirt School, offer cyclocross specific sessions. Or take a look at a cyclocross skills lesson on YouTube.

Then sign up to an event of two on the Scottish Cyclocross website. I have been told that the forthcoming cyclocross event at Callendar Park, Falkirk, on October 20, is a good beginner-friendly race. A keen cyclocross competitor Elizabeth said: “It’s still quite competitive but everyone is really friendly and this course is one of the easiest in the Scottish season for new-comers. I’d thoroughly recommend it.”

The event is one of seven from October to December in the 2013 Ridley SCX series and Scottish Championships. Eight less formal Non-Series events take place through to January 2014. See Scottish Cyclocross for details of all the events.

I’ll be reporting back to tell you how I found my first cyclocross event on a proper cyclocross bike. I’m excited and scared!

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