Cyclocross: because riding a road bike on dirt is surprisingly fun

I have a new sport and, coincidentally, a new bike.

Last week I tried Cyclocross (CX) for the first time. For those unfamiliar with this particular strain of cycling, it’s basically riding road bikes off-road, powering through a “loop” as many times as you can in a half hour. It’s a solid workout if you want it to be.

Strava map of a cyclocross course

Last week’s cyclocross course. I forgot to Strava this week’s because I was a little disorganized and running behind schedule.

I say “loop”, because each course is actually a twisty, turny maze of plastic tape, which, in the case of Victoria’s Wednesday Cross Club events, is tied around old golf club handles that have been speared into the ground. The “loop” features tight corners, sudden steep pitches, off camber grassy hills and even a few gnarly rock sections that would be simple on a mountain bike, but can present a bit of a challenge on a cyclocross bike. On a dry course, you can definitely tell the mountain bikers from the roadies. The roadies hop off and run the technical sections while the mountain bikers tap into their bike handling skills and ride just about everything. I have yet to ride a course in the rain so it’s very possible things may look a little different when the mud comes.

For my first attempt at this new hobby last week, I borrowed my friend Krista’s Specialized Tricross. It didn’t make sense to buy a new bike for a sport I had never tried before. Cyclocross bikes are surprisingly expensive and my hunt for a used ride in my size and price range – cheap – had yielded zero results. Thankfully, Krista’s bike was a perfect fit and I had a blast zipping around the course for three laps, which added up to a whopping 6 kilometres. I could have squeezed in a fourth lap, but since it was my first go, I wasn’t sure if I should risk still being on the course when the start gun went off for the elite group.

Cyclocross bike

My newest ride, a 2008 Trek XO1. It’s far from new, but it’s a great starter bike. No, I’m not riding with toe clips, but those are the pedals this bike came with.

At this point, the cycling gods must have been smiling on me because my friend Sabrina spotted a classified ad for a bike in my size. At $550 is was also in my budget. A quick test ride and inspection last weekend, and I was the proud new owner of a size small 2008 Trek XO1.

I had my first run with it tonight and it felt pretty good. It may need some minor tweaks, but it’s a solid starter bike. It does have fairly skinny tires and the tread isn’t very aggressive for a CX bike. This didn’t cause me any issues tonight since the conditions were dry, but I can see it being an issue when the rains hit in full force. That said, I’m not changing them until at least next season. I’ve invested all I care to invest for this year. If something breaks, I’ll fix it, but that’s it.

In my two experiences of cyclocross, I have noticed a few hazards to watch out for:

  1. Loose gravel. This can be a challenge on a mountain bike, but it’s deadly on a cyclocross course. Though some CX bikes have fairly wide, aggressive tires, it’s still very easy to wipe out if you roll onto gravel in a turn. I’ve watched several people eat dirt in these sections and I’ll be grateful if I avoid being one of them by the end of the season.
  2. Mud. While riding a muddy trail in the rain may be a blast on a mountain bike, I doubt it’s terribly fun on skinny tires. There was a small patch of mud on a steep little climb on this evening’s course and by the fourth lap, it was getting rather slick. A good rain and we would all have been spinning my wheels. Spots like this are where the dismounting and remounting skills will be key. Sadly, I don’t have any of these skills yet, but I’m working on it.
  3. Other riders. Actually, most people were very courteous. Faster riders waited for a good opportunity to pass and slower riders offered up places to pass when they could. There was only one guy who thought he was hot shit and cut me off in a corner, nearly taking both of us out. It was a bit of a jerk move since these Wednesday evening events are practice nights and not actual races.

So far, I’m stoked on my newfound sport. I’ve had great support from friends willing to watch my son while I race since they ride in a different category. It removes one huge barrier to my participation and I’m excited for the weeks ahead. Hopefully I’ll have a few interesting tales for you as things progress.

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A little adrenaline to start your day

This guy rides down a 60 metre dam in Slovenia. It’s a level of crazy I never plan to reach, but it’s pretty fun to watch.

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