What Is Cyclocross? Ultimate Guide To CX Biking

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Cyclocross is the ultimate test of a rider’s abilities to traverse all sorts of terrains and everything in between.

Cyclocross combines elements of road cycling and off-road terrain, featuring a circuit course with obstacles, challenging conditions, and sections where riders may need to dismount and carry their bikes.

The cyclists ride versatile machines built for speed and very similar to road bikes, but with the ability to glide over rough and slippery off-road surfaces: gravel, mud and even snow or ice!

But whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or new to the sport, you might be wondering: what is cyclocross? 

We’re here to give you the complete guide on all things cyclocross, and even tell you how to get started with your own cyclocross bike!

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is Cyclocross?
  • The Origins of Cyclocross
  • Who are the Best Cyclocross Riders?
  • What Makes a Good Cyclocross Bike?
  • How to Convert a Road Bike into a Cyclocross Bike

Ready for the lowdown of all things cyclocross?

Let’s get started!

What Is Cyclocross: Title Image

What is Cyclocross?

Cyclocross – often shortened to CX or ‘cross – is a multi-terrain form of bike racing.

Courses are short, tight and closed-circuit. They’re usually a mix of paved and off-road, and can include grass, mud, sand, gravel, and even snow!

The races generally take place in autumn or winter, with the cyclocross season from September-February. This can result in extremely challenging weather conditions, such as strong winds, heavy rain and snowfall.

The tracks are littered with obstacles, with cyclists bunny-hopping over tree roots, speeding round tight bends on loose terrain, and often dismounting and running with their bike up steps, steep banks and over impassable surfaces.

With all this considered, you might expect the bikes to look a lot like mountain bikes with suspension and very thick tyres.

However, most cyclocross bikes wouldn’t look out of place on a nicely-paved asphalt road. With drop handlebars, relatively thin wheels, and very similar geometry to road bikes, these bikes are built for speed!

Cyclocross is a fantastic spectator sport due to the closed-circuit courses with multiple laps and the fast-paced nature of the races. For someone not used to the sport, it can also add entertainment value to simply watch cyclists dismounting from their bikes and sprinting with their bike up a set of stairs!

A mass of cyclocross riders tackle a bend on a muddy circuit.

The Origins of Cyclocross

Cyclocross originated in the late 1800s when road cyclists would race each other between neighbouring towns. These routes contained not only roads but stiles, fences, farmland and forest tracks.

The first official cyclocross race did not happen until 1902, with French soldier and cyclist David Gosseau initiating the first French National Championship. The very first Tour de France was in 1903 – meaning that the French National Championship in cyclocross actually pre-dates the most prestigious and famous race in cycling.

Since races occur in autumn and winter, cyclocross was later picked up by Tour de France riders in order to stay fit and improve their handling and agility in the off-season. This in particular led to the sport becoming more and more popular with neighbouring countries and the development of the global popularity cyclocross has today. 

A cyclocross rider on a black bike pedals up a steep grassy slope.

What Makes a Good Cyclocross Bike?

Cyclocross bikes are fairly similar to road bikes.

However, I’m sure that if you’ve ever tried to ride a road bike off-road you’ll know that the experience is far from secure and extremely bumpy and uncomfortable.

So how do cyclocross bikes allow for a more comfortable experience, yet still retain their streamlined nature?

Firstly, the tires are not as thin as those you might see on a road bike. They are a little thicker and generally tubeless with a lot more tread, so the area of contact with the ground is much greater, resulting in a far more stable ride. 

Secondly, the bikes will normally have disc brakes. This is because the courses are incredibly tight, so when approaching corners, the riders need to quickly decelerate to take the corner in the most efficient way. 

These two differences make them much more similar to gravel bikes. However, they generally have different geometry

These differences include a higher bottom bracket and shorter chainstays which generally allows for a more aggressive riding position and more agile handling, leading to better performance on those all-important bends. 

However, they are still very light. Since the cyclists must dismount and re-mount regularly and carry their bike up steps or over fences with speed, the bike has to be light. Imagine trying to do this with a heavy mountain bike – it would be incredibly difficult and could even result in injury!

Two cyclocross riders attack a muddy bend.

How to Convert a Road Bike into a Cyclocross Bike

So now you know all about cyclocross, you might be eager to get your hands on a top-of-the-range bike and go out and join a club.

But before you go and drop bundles of cash, you might consider repurposing an old road or touring bike to make a bike perfectly suitable to go and shred some multi-terrain tracks at speed!

Choose a bike with some durability don’t go repurposing your carbon fibre Pinarello. A steel or aluminium frame will work fine, just try to make sure it’s not too heavy to lift and carry, as you’ll be doing plenty of that!

Next, you’ll need to replace the wheels with some thicker ones. This means you need to have sufficient clearance around the brakes to allow for the tyre to spin smoothly and not get caught. A bike with mudguard fittings will therefore work like a dream since the clearance should be large enough to allow for at least 30 mm tires. 

The thickness of the tyres is important for stability and to absorb some of the energy as you go over uneven ground. Ideally, you’ll have enough clearance to allow for 32 mm tyres upwards. However, if you don’t want to go out and buy a frame you may need to settle for 30 mm tyres – but don’t dip below this mark.

You’re going to want some long-cage calliper brakes if you can’t fit disc brakes to your frame. These are usually used for bikes with a mudguard, but by removing the mudguard you should have enough clearance to accommodate heftier tyres. 

You’ll probably also need to replace the pedals for some mountain bike pedals if you don’t want to catch your foot on the uneven ground and come flying off the bike. This allows for more clearance between your foot and the ground, reducing the likelihood of a crash.

A group of cyclocross riders race to carry their bikes up a flight of stairs.

Who are the Best Cyclocross Riders?

Many current Tour de France riders began their careers in cyclocross. However, it’s not just a stepping stone to the Tour – many riders are multi-terrain purists and exclusively race in cyclocross.

Belgian time-trial specialist and green jersey winner in the Tour de France 2022, Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert, kicked off his career in cyclocross. He dominated the discipline, winning the Cyclocross World Championships in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and the World Cup in 2016, 2017, and 2021.

Another name you might recognize if you’re a road cycling fanatic is Dutch cyclist Mathieu van der Poel, who won the Cyclocross World Championships four times plus the World Cup in 2018. He has also competed in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia for Alpecin–Deceuninck, wearing the famed pink jersey for the first 3 stages.

But with the two dominant cyclocross riders of the last decade now focusing on road racing, who are the new kids on the block?

At just 22, Ineos Granadier’s young British rider Tom Pidcock burst onto the world scene to win the World Championships in 2022. In addition to cyclocross, he also won Olympic Gold in cross-country mountain biking in Tokyo.

Like Van Aert and Van der Poel, though, Pidcock looks set to focus more on road cycling – even picking up a stage win on the legendary Alpe d’Huez at the 2022 Tour de France.

The 24-year-old Belgian cyclist Eli Iserbyt, riding for Pauwels Sauzen–Bingoal is another exciting talent to watch. After finishing third in the World Championships, he recently won the World Cup 2022, winning 7 out of 12 races, and never finishing outside the top 3. 

Less of an all-rounder than Pidcock, he is focusing on cyclocross, and this could give him an advantage over other riders trying to break into the Tour. He’s certainly an exciting rider and could be a dominating presence in the world of cyclocross over the next few years!

A cyclocross rider traverses a dirt track at sunset.

Want to give cyclocross a go?

Now you’ve got a cyclocross-capable bike and the basics of cyclocross knowledge, it’s time get out there and give it a go for yourself!

If you’re a cyclocross rookie, why not join a club to learn the ropes from some experienced cyclocross riders? US Cycling’s website has an online tool to help find your nearest cyclocross club, while British Cycling has a similar tool if you’re based in the UK.

Once you’ve ridden a few different courses and maybe entered a race or two, you may get the yearning for a new dedicated cyclocross bike. But until that moment comes, you now have a budget-friendly ‘cross conversion to go out and zoom over almost any terrain that stands in your way!

Found this article helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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