A Newbie Fan’s Intro to Cyclocross

Cyclocross, Boulder

After going to my first cyclocross race, the Boulder Cup (and being a little confused), I sat down with a cyclocross racer Kristal Boni and asked her to explain some of the nuances of the sport.

Cyclocross, Boulder

Kristal Boni doesn’t let a little snow stop her from racing.

So what is up with the cowbells?

(KB) Cyclocross is a full-out effort for 45 minutes; for the men it’s an hour. You’re racing and are deep in discomfort because you’re pushing hard so having people cheer you on and ringing cowbells really helps you get through those “oh my god, I want to stop, or this is just hurting so much” moments.

It was fun to watch, but it just kind of looked like everyone was riding around in circles.

A far as cross goes, it’s a combination of pavement and dirt, and there are obstacles so you have to get off your bike. At the Boulder Cup, there were stairs that we had to run up, and there was a gravel pit on the back side that you had to ride through. Some people ended up getting off if they didn’t make it. There was also a sand pit up top, and usually there are barriers, wooden planks that are 18 inches tall. The really good guys can actually bunny hop those, but most people get off, run across them and then get back on their bikes. So it’s kind of like steeplechase on a bike, which is a running event where there are obstacles.

Tell me about race strategy.

The start grid is pretty wide, usually 8 across. Getting off the start line quickly is important, especially if you have a course that kind of funnels in where it gets smaller. You want to be the first one into a corner or be in the first part of the group. That way there’s less chance of crashing or of getting the accordion effect, where the people in the front start slowing down and it gets worse as you get towards the back. Then it’s just learning how to pace yourself during the event.

Is each race a certain amount of time or a certain number of laps?

It’s 45 minutes and they base the time off of when the leader comes through the first lap. If it was an 8-minute lap then racers know that they’re going to do 5 laps because that would be 40 minutes. So the front of the group will do around 40 minutes and the back end of the group might do around 43 or 44. The number of laps all depends on the length of the course. Most courses are set up so it’s about 5 laps. They’re around a mile and a quarter, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

It also depends on the conditions. If we were racing with rain on the course at Boulder Cup, it would be a lot different than racing when it was dry because it would be muddier.

That seems like it might be a little harder!

It depends! Cross racing is often done in bad weather. It started in Belgium as off-season training for mostly road cyclists, maybe mountain bikers too. In Belgium at this time it’s rainy and cold, so true cross weather is considered to be kind of muddy and rainy. Here in Colorado it’s so dry and warm usually, that we actually look forward to racing in the mud. Some people are better in it, like people on the east coast get a lot more mud than we do. But it’s fun, I like racing in the mud.

Cyclocross, Boulder

Do you have a special way of training for cyclocross rather than for road or mountain biking?

Yes, you definitely have to have a base. So even before race season you need to have that already rather than building that as you come into the season. If you don’t have a solid base, it’s harder to recover. Usually we do 2 races in a weekend, so your body has to have that endurance to put in a hard effort in the race, recover, then put in another hard effort. We start out in the summer doing a lot of long base miles with a little bit of longer tempo efforts, which is not super intense but a little bit faster than just kind of pedaling. As it starts to get closer, you start adding in a little more intensity. During the season the rides aren’t as long, we do interval workouts that vary. They can be up to 20 minutes but mine are anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 seconds. You do those at different intensities to train your body to handle the stress of racing.

In your opinion, what makes a good course?

One that is made to suit all sorts of skill levels, like a technical rider and also someone who has really good endurance. So there will be different parts of the course that favor a wide variety of people.

For the full schedule of races this season, check out Coloradocycling.org.

Author Nadia Perez enjoys riding her commuter bike around town and ringing cowbells at local ‘cross races.