Cyclocross is a unique form of bike racing that combines all the skills needed for mountain bike racing, cross-country cycling and criterium, or closed circuit racing.
The races are short (about 1 hour) but very intense, and take into account all manner of obstacles and terrains. The courses are between 2.5 to 3.5km long and the number of laps the riders have to ride are determined by how fast the competitors complete the first couple of circuits. The officials then announce how many laps the riders need to cycle mid-race. The first rider to cross the finish line wins.
Cyclocross is fast, brutal and unlike any other cycling discipline. So where did it all begin?
Cyclocross, A Brief History
Cyclocross, or CX as it is commonly known, can trace its origins back to France in the early 1900s. In those days, there were very few paved roads, so cyclists would mostly have to ride ‘off-road’ to get from A to B.
Early bike races were informal events with local riders racing each other from one town to the next. Like horse racing, it was originally called “Steeple Chasing” as riders would simply ride toward a local landmark (often the church steeple) and the first to arrive, by any means, would win the event. This often meant the riders would carry their bikes over fences, wade through rivers and even take shortcuts through farmers’ fields.
These events were held in wintertime, so outside the road racing season. They were used as a way for competitive road cyclists to keep fit during the cold winter months. In addition, riding off-road in more difficult conditions increased the intensity at which the cyclists were used to riding on paved roads. This all contributed to improving their overall bike handling skills.
The first professional Cyclocross event was organised by Frenchman Daniel Gousseau in 1902. This race became the French National Championship and is still held annually to this day. Géo Lefèvre, a sports journalist who came up with the idea for the Tour de France, also played a key role in the early days of the sport.
After French cyclist Octave Lapize won the 1910 Tour de France, he attributed his win to his intensive winter cyclocross training. After this claim, the popularity of Cyclocross spread across northern Europe. Belgium, where Cyclocross is almost a religion today, organized their first championship in 1910 and other countries bordering France followed suit - Switzerland in 1912, Luxembourg in 1923, Spain in 1929 and Italy in1930. Cyclocross was proving to be a sport that wasn’t just French and in 1924 the first international race, Le Critérium International de Cross-Country Cyclo-Pédestre, was held in Paris.
Cyclocross In The 1940s
The Second World War had a huge impact on cyclocross in France. During the German occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944, cyclocross races were organized in the city. They were a welcome distraction and were easy for spectators to attend. The famous steep hill of Montmartre was a popular spot for people to watch as were the 280 steps leading up to the basilica of Sacré Coeur.
However, despite attracting huge crowds to watch professional races in France and other European countries, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for cycling, did not recognize the sport until the late 1940s.
The UCI influence at this time meant some major changes. The sport now had official recognition, which meant standard technical requirements, and rules or regulations for racing.
In 1950, this new cycling discipline held its first World Championships, and the sport of cyclocross took a major step towards international recognition.
The UCI’s recognition of cyclocross had a significant impact on the technical side of the sport. This recognition has influenced the development of the bike frames and components that are used in cyclocross racing today.
Do You Need A Special Bike For Cyclocross?
Cyclo-cross or CX bicycles are somewhat similar to road racing bikes. They need to be lightweight, with narrow tyres and drop handlebars for speed. However, the bikes need greater tyre clearances for the mud, lower gearing for tackling steep gradients, stronger frames, cantilever or disc brakes and a more upright riding position. They also share some characteristics with mountain bikes as they use knobbly tread tyres for traction in off-road conditions.
They need to be lightweight because the riders sometimes have to carry their bicycles to cross barriers or overcome slopes too steep to climb in the saddle. The sight of competitors struggling up a muddy slope with a bicycle on their shoulders is the classic image of the sport. Although unrideable sections are generally a very small part of the overall race distance.
Today cyclocross is a huge sport in northern Europe with professional teams and riders. Plus its popularity is growing in the United States where the country has hosted several events for the 2021-22 UCI Cyclocross World Cup. Belgium and the Netherlands are where the real fans of the sport are. TV audiences for cyclo-cross events in these two countries are usually on par with football, so there are some serious sponsorships involved.
In addition, cyclocross is open to everyone. Cyclocross has a warm and friendly community that doesn’t tend to take itself too seriously. And it’s great for families too – a local club day event starts with kids’ events and the age categories go all the way up to the seniors. Plus to start you don’t need a specialised bike. An old mountain bike can be used to see if you like the sport and kids can use their BMX.
Another attraction is that Cyclocross is the perfect spectator sport. The races are short and the courses are often purpose-built circuits making cyclocross extremely spectator-friendly. And as with mountain biking races, cyclo-cross is known for its lively, fun atmosphere with the crowds packed with cowbell-ringing fans.
Come wind, rain, snow, mud (or even sunshine), cyclocross is good fun for everyone.