What is Cyclocross?

Defining the up-and-coming cycling sport with a professional competitor
Red Bull

Covered from head to toe in dirt and sweat while fighting the harsh terrains and difficult obstacles, cyclocross is an extreme competition that brings bicycling to a whole new level. Cyclocross (CX) is most widely recognized by the associated image of someone carrying a bicycle over their shoulder up a steep, muddy hill. It combines the speed of road cycling with the terrain of mountain biking, and adds a bit of running too. Races are about one hour in length and consist of many laps around a small course. Competitors usually have two bicycles and a chance to change to their second bike in the middle of the race as they pass a pit crew.

The bicycles are similar to road racing bikes, with an emphasis on being lightweight, so that bikes can easily be carried during the race. The bikes have a slightly wider and thicker tire than road bikes to endure the difficult terrain. The official season runs from October to February, contributing to the difficult conditions of the race course.

The Union Cycliste Internationale has organized an annual UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships since 2000 which includes four events: Men’s elite, Women’s elite, Men’s under 23 and Men’s under 18 (Juniors).

Related: 12 Must-Ride Bike Races

Initially created in Europe more than 100 years ago, CX is starting to become a more universally recognized and popular sport competition. To gain a deeper understanding of the sport, I chatted with CX competitor and Red Bull endurance athlete, Tim Johnson, who recently held a cyclocross mini-camp in New York City. He explained why cyclocross is becoming more and more popular in the U.S.

“Cyclocross actually has a pretty low barrier of entry compared to road cycling or MTB. In cross, the events are usually urban or close to cities and in city parks/neighborhoods. Really, cyclocross is a combination of road cycling and MTB - just closer to home. And shorter!”

The competition itself is a full-throttle race of bicycling through pavement and trails, climbing steep trails, and carrying your bike over obstructions and obstacles.

Johnson discussed the strenuous nature of the race, "Our heart rates might average as much as 185 BPM, which is extremely high! We are constantly picking lines, battling our competitors and riding a bike that can be pushed far beyond its capabilities if we want to. It makes for an extremely exciting event to watch AND to participate in.” With an emphasis on the rider’s bike-handling skills and aerobic endurance, cyclocross is an exciting, fast-paced workout.

And cyclocross is easily accessible for the beginner. All you need is a bike and the races have a cheaper entry-fee than most other bicycle competitions. With practice, it can become a great way to find community as well as stay fit. And there are many ways to take that practice to the next level such as Johnson’s mini-camp, ‘Cracking the Code: Tim Johnson’s Cyclocross Secrets’ which took place this past weekend.

The camp includes training in dismounting and remounting, portaging (carrying and shouldering the bike), managing tricky terrain, cornering, race day preparation, equipment selection, and more pro tips from Johnson himself. When I asked Johnson the type of riders that frequent the camp he responded, “We like campers to have a few years of riding experience, in any discipline. Someone who's been riding in New York City for the last few years might have more innate skills than someone from the suburbs. We teach the fundamentals of bike riding that help as someone pursues racing goals or even as they try and ride their next charity ride faster or their next commute to work.”

Johnson believes that as people become more exposed to cyclocross, they can’t help but love it. The mini-camp allows riders to feel more comfortable with their skill set and progress into a better rider.

As a professional athlete, Johnson has been in a number of races, but he still enjoys the cyclocross community, “I love the scene most of all. I've raced road professionally and got my start on a MTB. I love the vibe where people push themselves and really appreciate what the pros will be able to do on the same course later that afternoon. It's so fun!”

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