What is cyclo cross?

To the casual observer, it seems to be just road cycling. But on closer look it is a lot different.

What is cyclo cross?

For some people, the start of October means the end of the cycling season. A time to rest, put your feet up, do some housework, paint a wall or just to lie around and dream about all the great rides and races that wait for you next year. Then there are the other half, the cyclocross riders and fans. For them October means the start of the real cycling season.

To get you up to speed I have prepared an introductory guide that will get you standing in your local farm field and ringing a cow bell in no time!

Cyclocross is a fairly easy sport to get your head around. The bikes are very similar to usual road bikes. The handle bars look the same, the shape of the frame is basically the same  and you ride almost the same way. Only on a closer look do you notice some differences. The tyres have more grip, they are wider and the frames are a bit bigger with extra space to clear mud. Mud? Yes mud. That is because these bikes do not simply stick to nice smooth asphalt roads, cyclocross instead goes over fields and farm tracks which come October time are usually pretty muddy. The races are usually held on circuits around 2km long. The circuits are filled with a whole arangement of obstacles designed to test the riders technical skill, experiance and fitness. 

Here is a list of some, but not all of the type of obstacles you may find on a typical cyclocross race:

  • Barrier (wooden planks). Usually found on every Cyclocross track. Once the only way over was to run with your bike, now more and more riders are simply bunny hoping over. This is not how to do it.
  • Stairs. Nothing like running up a staircase to push your heartrate over the anarobic threshold. Some may even find a way to ride up these.
  • Sandpit. In some cases it might be an actual sand dune or simply a beach, other times sand brought in by the organiser. No matter where the sand comes from, there is an art to riding through it!
  • Off-Camber hill. as an armchair fan of cyclocross, this is maybe my favourite to watch. A amazing mix of skill, power, technique and delicacy. The sign of real cyclocross skill is displayed by the way a rider can handle an off camber hill. 
  • Mud – oh you know what mud is? well this is cyclocross mud.
  • Steep hill – a hill so hard and steep, that it is questionable if it is better to ride up or get off the bike and run. Both have its benefits but the key is to do one and switch at the right moment before loosing momentum. You might often see a top pro riding a steep climb and then jumping off the bike to ride the last 1 or 2 meters, this is not always because they cant ride all the way up but rather they want to preserve as much momentum as possible, as demonstrated here.

The races are usally pretty short, pro and elite level races lasts around an hour with other categories less than that. No need to book off your whole afternoon to watch a 7hour classic, this is just an hour long. Being an hour long also means the racing is ‘full gas’ from the start. The race begins with a standing start, the best riders get to start on the front line. Then once off the bunch make an all out sprint to be the first through the first corner, the so-called ‘hole shot’. Position here is important as the race is short, tracks are technical and the pace is full on for the whole race. You don’t want to waste time being held up on the first lap as you probably will not have time to catch back the time back after.

So where can I watch it?

Cyclo cross remains a niche sub section of Cycling. Although there are races held all around the world, the sport is not as popular as more mainstream road or mountainbike. Often there might be a local cyclocross race near your home but you just do not know about it. There are a few places where cyclocross enjoys a lot of popularity: The Czech Republic, Swiss, France, Holland, UK and more and more in the United States.

Then there is Belgium…
Without a shadow of a doubt the sport is enjoyed in Belgium like nowhere else on earth.

Watch online…

If you are interested to see a cyclo-cross race live then you can start by watching a lot of racing online from GCN Racing Youtube channel. They are regularly showing the top Belgium series’s like the ‘Superprestige’ and the ‘DVV Trophy’ as well as some of the smaller second level races. Check their Youtube channel and make a note of when their next livestream is or even watch a past race. Also there is a UCI WorldCup (but for the true Cyclocross fan the worldcup is less important than a superprestige or DVV trophy race) and this you can watch on the Eurosport Player. 

Watch live!

Nothing beats actually seeing a race live, standing in the mud and in the cold wind, maybe with a strong beer in one hand or a plate of french fries with mayonnaise while ringing a cow bell like a madman in the other hand.

If you want to see the best the sport has to offer, then we recomend you visit Belgium and see one of these races:

  • Koppenberg Kross – As the name suggests this race is held on the legendary climb made famous by the Tour of Flanders spring classic. Held each year on the 1st of November (Public holiday in Belgium) the race attracts a huge crowd. The race track features the steep cobbled climb, tackled multiple times and then a zig zag Off-Camber decent.
  • Namur – often described as a mountainbike course, this is a technical track held around the famous walls of Namur citidal.
  • Zolder – The boxing day cyclocross, held around the motoracing track.
  • Koksijde – held on the famous beach sands of Koksijde. No longer with it’s first of January date but still brings out the large crowds.
  • Zonhoven – best known for it’s sand bowl, a giant natural bowl which the riders cross twice per lap. The shape of the bowl makes a natural stadium with a great view of the riders trying to stay upright while descending through sand. Thanks to this there is a lot of spectators.

So what should I look out for in this years cyclocross?

Well the big name of the sport is without doubt Mathieu Van Der Poel. The young Dutchman born with virtual cycling royal blood. (His Grandfather is the mythical French legend Raymond Poulidor and his father is the former winner of the Tour of Flanders and World Cyclocross champion – Dutchman Adri Van Der Poel). Mathieu is the current world cyclocross champion with an ability almost to win at will, be it on road, in mtb or in cyclocross. Throughout Mathieu’s career there has been one man who has been his constant nemesis – The Flandrian Wout van Aert. Ever since they were 15 years old these two have been in constant battle, always memorable, often spectatular and sometimes even controversial. This year Wout has exploded onto the road cycling scene, showing himself as a true classics man, a timetrialist and even a sprinter. Sadly he suffered a nasty crash at the Tour de France and is still on the road to recovery. It seems unlikley that he will be back in cyclocross this year. Biting at the heals of Mathieu and Wout are the new generation. Eli Iserbyt and Tom Pidcock. These two have had their own rivalry since already many seasons ago and it would be great to watch how this continues this year while they both move into the Elite category.

So there you have it, you should now know your Van der Poels from your Van Aerts, your Zolder from your Zonhoven and at which point you need to jump off the bike and start running!


Text and Photo’s by cyclocross fan and photographer Adam Illingworth

More of his work can be seen here and here