How to get into Cyclocross

How to get into Cyclocross

“There’s a dirt ride this Saturday but it’s totally doable on a road bike”. That’s what Ryan told me about the ride he had planned and it’s what I kept repeating to myself as I descended Coastal Trail in the Marin Headlands on 23mm slicks and as I climbed up Mount Tamalpais on Railroad Grade, a rutty, choppy, gravely 4,000 foot climb. It was my first experience riding on dirt and despite some oh-shit moments, I was hooked and began searching for a cross bike the next day.Cyclocross is fun. You go all out for 45 minutes, hop off your bike, run with it, hop back on, jump over stuff, and get encouraged/heckled at all along the way. It can be scary at first – because you have to handle your bike in ways you never had to on smooth tarmac – but that’s also what makes it so fun. So how do you get into this crazy Belgian sport?

1. Just do it.

It doesn’t really matter whether you have an old rusty mountain bike or a brand new carbon cross bike, the first step to cyclocross is just to get out there and begin the journey of getting comfortable riding on dirt. Riding on dirt feels completely different than riding on road – which is why it’s so intimating to people used to road bikes. The back wheel washes out more easily on turns, your hands rattle on the hoods going over gravels and rocks, and you have to shift your body weight around in almost every maneuver such as a descent or turn. Luckily in San Francisco, we have plenty of options for getting started. My favorite place for introducing friends to cyclocross is Golden Gate Park because there are a ton of trails snaking through every part of the park – some of which are flowy, flat, and even, just like what you would be used to on the road. As you get more comfortable (which I’m betting will happen pretty quickly), you can start venturing out to the more technical sections of the park which are more sandy, have some roots that you have to ride over, and have descents and sharp turns that you have to anticipate.

2. Register for your first race.

I think the biggest myth to racing cross is that you actually have to be good at it to race. The bottom line is that you don’t. You don’t need to know how to do a proper cross dismount or remount, or how to shoulder your bike. Obviously all these things will help you be faster but they can be learned along the way. Once you’re done with your first race, you’ll know what it feels like to be riding shoulder to shoulder with other cyclists, to give an extra dig to pass someway on a straightaway, and to block someone from passing you on a turn. You can’t get a feel for this doing group rides; they can only be learned in a race setting, and after your first race, you’ll be hooked even more.The popular series in the San Francisco and Bay area are the Bay Area Super Prestige Series [] and the SuperPro Cyclocross Series []. There are also weekend series that make a good destination trip such as the Santa Rosa Cup []. A full list of races can be found here [].If it’s your first race, you’ll want to register for the “C Category” where all the folks relatively new to the sport will be racing.

3. Practice.

Now that you’ve done your first race and want to get faster, you can start practice dismounting, remounting, running with your bike, carrying it up stairs and  Hand Ups!. The ‘free way’ to learn these things are to just look it up on Youtube and practice in the park. If you want some more formal training, Brian Staby of CX Nation does a great introductory cross clinic []. On most Wednesdays, a group meets at 6:30am at Conservatory of Flowers in the Golden Gate Park for an hour romp around the park. Box Dog Bikes also does a GGP jammer leaving from the shop every Wednesday at 9am. Last but certainly not least, there is the Huckleberry Ramble led by the HuckRacing Cyclocross team on the second Saturday of every month []

4. Some notes about setting up your cross bike.

Tire pressure: “Hey dude, I pumped my tires up to 80 psi. You think that’s good enough?” All I got back was a weird look. The lower the PSI, the more traction your tire will have and the less chance for crashing your bike. The range varies depending on the tire type, but usually anything more than 50 PSI and you’ve likely overinflated your tires. When I’m riding in the park or in a cross race, I like to keep my tires at around 20 PSI. If I’m riding in the Marin Headlands, I usually have them at around 40 PSI.

Shoes: Don’t try to use your road shoes on your cross bike. You’ll destroy them and be a very sad cyclist. Cyclocross or mountain bike specific shoes have the proper outsoles that will let give you the necessary traction as you run with your bike. I like to use Giro Empire VR90s because shoe laces…also because I’ve had the buckle system unlock in a race setting before.

Pedals and cleats: There are also pedals and cleats specific to mountain biking / cyclocross that you’ll need to get. These will let you quickly clip in without having to worry about flipping the pedals to the proper side. They’ll also shed any mud that you might get in ‘em. I use Crank Brothers Candy 3s.


5. Have fun.

Will you fall in a race? Probably. Will you get a flat tire? Yep. Will your bike completely stop functioning at the most inopportune time? Definitely. There are almost guaranteed moments of frustration and brief disappointment in every race but don’t let that stop you from signing up for the next one and having fun. The fact is that this is a sport that 99.999% of the population has never heard of, and where you win nothing by getting on the top podium except for maybe your race fees. Slow down for that beer hand up, smile as you pick yourself up and are asked why you’re taking a nap on the bike, and enjoy the camaraderie after the race and spend some time watching and cheering on your friends as the race the rest of the day.

Words : Kevin Ku

Photos : Johnny Galvan