Thinking about racing? Here are a couple things you should know to help you navigate the wonderful world of cyclocross. (Cyclocross = Cross = Cx)
You will need the following:
A cyclocross bike (a mountain bike is okay too if that’s all you have)
Sunglasses (Your shades don’t need to be expensive - just useful! Gotta block out the sun.)
Clipless MTB pedals
Clipless MTB shoes (If you are not comfortable clipping in and out of clipless, you can certainly race on flat pedals with sneakers. You don’t want to go into a race on a set up that you aren’t comfortable with.)
A towel (Often times there are no facilities for you to change in so most people wrap themselves in a towel and change in their car or in the parking lot.)
Water (Most people do not race with water bottles or cages so as to allow clearance in the bike frame to carry/shoulder the bike if they need to (unless it’s very hot). You should still bring plenty of water with you for pre-riding and post ride cool down.)
Snacks (You’re going hard for 40 minutes, so make sure it’s something that agrees with your stomach and provides sustained energy to eat before and after the race.)
“All around tires” that could either be clincher with tubes or tubeless. If you are just starting out, it is totally ok to use clincher tires but the reason behind using tubeless or tubular is that they offer the ability to run lower tire-pressure and not worry about pinching a tube. See “Additional Info” section for notes on tires.
Additional Gear Considerations
Your ‘Race Bag’ - an all-encompassing bag to carry your goods.
Skinsuit (If you do not have a skinsuit and are not quite sure if you’re ready to commit to purchasing one, racing in bibshorts and a jersey is fine - some people even race in a t-shirt and regular shorts! Most Cx racers wear skinsuits because jersey’s typically ride up when having to get on and off the bike.)
A pump with a guage
A flat repair kit
Toe Spikes for muddy days if the course has run-ups.
Sunglasses with interchangeable lenses, such as clear for rain/mud.
Gloves (Super important. We recommend full fingered gloves for better protection from tree branches/course stakes.)
Embrocation or “Embro” - to allow you to comfortably wear shorts in colder/wet weather
Spare jersey/short/skinsuit/shoes (so you can change out of sweaty/muddy/wet pre-ride gear and into comfy dry set)
Rain coat and shoes
Heart Rate Monitor
If you are new to cyclocross racing, you will likely start out as a Category 5 (aka Cat5)*. Everyone starts as a Cat 5, regardless of the QOM’s/ KOM’s you may have on Strava or how you placed in an alleycat race.The category structure looks something like this:
Cat 5: Beginner
Cat 4: Intermediate
Cat 3: Advanced
Cat 2: Elite
Cat 1: Pro
Why is this important? You will need the category information when registering for a race. USA Cycling, the governing body for our sport separates racers into categories that roughly correspond to skill/fitness/experience level to improve safety and race experience. *If you already race in a higher category in another discipline (such as Road or Mountain Bike, you may be able to bypass Cat 5). See USAC Guidelines on Cx Categories and Upgrades. Once you start completing races, you can accumulate points toward upgrading to higher categories.
Registering for a Race
If you are on the East Coast, a lot of races use bikereg.com. However, places like Colorado use Colorado CX so it may be best to look up local races in a google search. Once you’ve found your local registration website, make an account and look for a cyclocross race near you (bikereg allows you to sort races by distance!). Remember, when registering to look for the Category 5 races if you are new to racing.
Typically, women’s fields are combined so if you are a Cat 5 woman, you are most likely racing with Cat 4 women and sometimes Cat 3 women. Don’t be intimidated though! It’s good to race among people of your skill level but also with more experienced people.
When registering, you may see “1-Day License valid for entry” which means that you will need to purchase a “One-Day” USA Cycling License. This is usually a $10 fee for a single use day license and you will need to purchase this each time you register for a race. Sometimes, you can buy the license at the race - e-mail the promoter if you’re not sure. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual license for $60 which would negate the need for the day license and you would enter your license # where applicable.
If you are just starting out, I would recommend going with the “One -Day” license just while you’re getting your feet wet, that way if you decide cyclocross isn’t for you, you aren’t committed to a USAC license. However, you can use the USAC license for other disciplines such as road and track racing. If you decide you will race more than a handful of Cx races and want to purchase an annual license, USAC will often have a special deal during Cx season that allows you to purchase a license that doesn’t expire until December of the following year. Look out for that!
Now that you’ve got your gear and you’ve registered for a race, it’s time to start planning. Pack your things the night before. If you are driving yourself or carpooling, anticipate getting to the race 2 hours before your race actually starts, check the race day schedule so you know when there will be a break between ongoing races for you to pre-ride. This also gives you time to change and check in without rushing.
Try to arrive at your race about 2 hours before your race starts. Try to get on the course for a pre-ride. You will often see a group of people gathered on the side of the course waiting to get on as well. Note: DO NOT GET ON THE COURSE WHILE A RACE IS UNDERWAY. Usually an official will tell you when it is safe to ride the course. It’s good to pre-ride the course so you can get an idea of what it will be like during the race, where the barriers are, tricky spots, etc. It’s okay to go really slow and look carefully at everything, or even get off your bike and ride something twice just so you feel comfortable with a feature or a turn. Just be aware of other racers doing the same!
Now that you’ve pre-ridden the course, go to registration to get your number. You will need your USAC license if applicable. If you do not have one, tell the registrar that you paid for a 1-day license (or need to buy one) and take note of which side the number goes on. Be sure to take some safety pins from the desk so that you can pin your number. We usually take 6 pins. If you are wearing a skinsuit, ask a friend or seemingly nice stranger to pin your number for you. If you are wearing a jersey, you can typically pin your number yourself.
There are different theories about warming up, and it often depends on your individual body. Do you normally need to ride for a while to get your heart rate up and be able to sustain high intensity without blowing up, or are you ready to crush it from the gun and recover quickly? Some coaches say all you need is to spin your legs for a bit (at least 10min) and do a few sprints (3x) to wake up your muscles. Some coaches advise a longer warm-up with increasing intensity. Most racers will not bring stationary trainers to the race, so look around and see where other people are riding to warm up! On days when it is really hot or really cold/wet, doing a warm-up in the elements can be detrimental. So, listen to your body and do what feels right to you.
Cx races are “mass start” races, meaning everyone in your field (e.g., all the Cat 4/5 women) will start at the same time - at the official’s whistle. To ensure safety, there is usually a set starting grid with a certain number of spaces per row. Most races will line people up (“Call Ups”) based on points earned in the race series. Sometimes, Call-ups are based on crossresults.com points or based on order of registration. Sometimes it is a combination of all of these. The race flyer/technical guide (found on the race registration page) will indicate the Call Up procedure. 10-15 minutes before start time, head to the starting grid. The official will begin calling people into the start grid. When you are called, you can choose the best available position in the grid. Listen for your name or number. The official will give instructions and then a countdown till they blow the whistle. When you’re in the starting grid, remember 2 things: everyone is just as nervous as you are and have fun.
Note that when you just start out, you may be lined up in or near the last row because you don’t have any series points yet and have a low crossresults score. Don’t be discouraged. This is a great time to 1) observe other more experienced racers in front of you and “follow their lines” through the course, and 2) if you’re feeling good, try to pass as many people as you can safely. As with earning upgrade points, the more you race, and higher you place in a race compared to your peers, the better Call Up position you will earn throughout the season. Try to always finish a race if you can, even if it means running the rest of the course if you flat or have a mechanical, or riding it slower than you’d like. If you’re pre-registered, always try to attend and finish. “DNF” (did not finish) and “DNS” (did not start) may lower your crossresults score, and place you further back in the Call Up order for your next race. It’s a good incentive to keep your head in the game, regardless of your results, so you keep gaining experience and you never know what might happen with the racers ahead of you - you could finish higher than you expect!
During The Race
Races typically spread out throughout the course and you may find yourself racing alone at some point. Don’t get discouraged about this. Just keep pushing yourself. Take note of the lap cards when you go by the start/finish during the race so that you know how many more times you need to ride the course. Sometimes, there may be people pre-riding the course behind you as you are finishing your race. But, don’t worry, they are not allowed to pass you. You have every right to finish the race at your own pace. Just do your thing and keep going.
Finding a Cx Clinic or a Community
Check out our previous blog post about how to get started in bike racing for some tips on how to find your local Cx community, who you can get more info from locally, and where cx practice happens near you. Cyclocross focused clinics are also a great way to see what cross is all about before committing to a race. Plus, you can learn some new skills and meet new friends. You can use bikereg.com or your location bike racing registration webpage to search for clinics, camps, training series events or even grassroots cross clubs or teams.
A common question is “what tires do I use?” along with “what tire pressure do I run?” These are very much personal preference. If you are new to racing and don’t have spare wheels, you can get by with an all-around tire. Some of us on the team use Clement MXP but there are plenty of great options out there. We recommend reading the following articles:
“What Tire Tread Is Best For Cross?” - CX Magazine
“Which Tire Should I Buy for Cyclocross?” - Bicycling Magazine
Special Thank You to Leslie Ethridge and Becca Cohen for contributing to this piece. We really wanted to cover racing in various regions and we appreciate their insights. Additionally, thank you Matthew Vandivort, Dan Chabanov, Chris Pino and Park Frbch for the race photos!
If you still have questions after reading this article, send us an email! We'd be happy to help if we can.