Different Strokes: Cyclocross

Different Strokes is a blog post series focusing on almost all the different ways you can bike.  The goal of these posts is two-fold: 1) to educate readers on different styles of road biking, mountain biking, and everything in between 2) to inspire our readers to try something new, explore, and have an adventure! As always, ‘run what ya brung.’  There are no specific skills necessary to explore or try something new, nor should feel the need to purchase a fancy-schmancy new bike. 

Shorter days and the rolling in of crisp, autumn air mean many things to many different people.  Sure, it’s sweaters, boots and pumpkin spice lattes for most, but for those that are gluttons for punishment, it means cyclocross season is here again.

The origin of cyclocross (or CX) is varied.  Some list Belgium as the originating country, while others pay homage to France.  Either way, CX is believed to have started sometime around 1900 in Europe as a way to keep cyclists in shape during the off-season of the fall and winter months.  French army privateer Daniel Gousseau is credited as the Father of Cyclocross, organizing the first French National Championship in 1902.  Now, over 100 years later, CX has grown into a discipline of cycling all on its own with athletes dedicated solely to the sport.

Soponistas and friends at a CX race in 2013.

Soponistas and friends at a CX race in 2013.

What Is It?

Think of it as a bicycle obstacle course.  CX races are usually made on short courses, 1.5-2 miles in length.  These courses can be made virtually anywhere, such as local parks and greenspaces, which make them an ideal outing for spectators and hecklers.  Courses are made of grass, paved concrete, gravel and dirt roads, singletrack trails through the woods, mud pits, hurdles, and just about any other thing you can think of.  In any one race, you’ll have to tackle all these mixed surfaces, plus dismount your bike and carry it through the obstacles that are impossible to ride.  It’s road biking mixed with mountain biking, mixed with an obstacle course all in one short, intense, gut-it-out course.

Click the image to expand.

Click the image to expand.

How It Works

Because the races are short, a venue can host several races in one day.  Typically, races are 60 minutes or less, and racers try to get in as many laps as possible in their allotted time.  For instance, let’s say a race is 30 minutes long.  Racer A completes 3 laps before the 30 minutes are up and Racer B only completes 2 laps.  Racer A wins.  In the event that Racer A and Racer B both complete 3 laps in 30 minutes, the winner would be whoever completed the laps in the shortest amount of time.

CX races work differently by state.  For a full description of length of races and categories in Georgia, please click here.  Basically, though, you have men’s categories 1-5, with 5 being beginner and 1 being professional.  Women’s categories are 1-4, with 4 being beginner and 1 being professional.  The beginner categories will race for 30 minutes, while the upper level 1-2 categories will race for 45-60 minutes.  Depending on how many people enter the race, multiple categories may run at the same time.  There are also master’s categories for people over the age of 35 and 45, and even a single speed category.  It is entirely possible to race two or three times in a single day.

The Bike

The bike you use during cyclocross will depend on a couple of different things such the course, the weather, or what you have lying around at home.  If a course has more singletrack trails or thick muddy areas, you might prefer a mountain bike.  If a course has more concrete or is very dry, you might want to use a road bike.  There are three different variations of what you can do:

An actual cyclocross bike:  It looks like a road bike at first glance, complete with drop bars and skinnier tires.  Give it a closer look and you’ll find those tires are usually knobby and a little wider than your typical road racing bike.  These knobby tires are essential for gripping dirt and mud.  The second major difference is the brakes.  CX bikes usually have cantilever brakes or disc brakes for mud clearance.  Traditional road bike brakes run the risk of getting gunked up with mud during a race.  There are a few smaller, less noticeable differences in a CX bike such as a higher bottom bracket and lower gearing (somewhere between a road bike and a mountain bike).

A mountain bike:  Mountain bikes are a great option for your first CX race.  They already have the knobby tires you need and are built for handling things off road.  The only down side is they tend to be heavier when lifting over obstacles, so you might want to do a few curls and warm up those little-used arm muscles.  When using your mountain bike during a cx race, be sure to take off your water bottle cage and bar ends.  If possible, lock out your suspension so you’re not bouncing around everywhere (it will slow you down).  If you’re a good enough mechanic, you can even swap out your front fork with a rigid one just for the day.

A road bike: Pay attention to the weather when using a road bike.  If it’s wet and muddy, your road bike isn’t going to be a very good option.  However, if it’s dry, go for it!  Throw on some knobby tires for better grip and you’re good to go.  Use the lower gears to get better handling.


Have fun!  That’s the point, right? Sure, some people get really into it, but try not to take it too seriously.

Practice! Definitely practice your mounts and dismounts before the race.  On the day of the race, get there early so you can pre-ride the course.  That way you’ll know where the trouble spots are.

Take the hand-ups!  Or not.  Depends on how well you can stomach beer and cookies while grinding it out.


Open CX practice this Sunday, Sept. 20 at 9 a.m. at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers.  Meet people and get a taste of what CX is all about.  More details.

Georgia Cyclocross: Races, info, etc.

Cyclocross Magazine’s Noob Section

How to dismount, Bicycling Magazine

Sopo Cyclocross Memories: Fixing up a Big-Box Bike

Search the Sopo archives for cyclocross!