European tradition

Cyclocross racing helps maintain fitness and bike handling skills
By Thomas Cooke
After a full season of road racing, mountain bike racing or a combination of the two, why would anyone want to give up the relaxation of the fall to suffer through what is without a doubt one of the most excruciating forms of racing?

Examining the phenomenon known as cyclocross will show us that this enigmatic form of torturing oneself with a two wheeled vehicle has no logical reason for existing. It is a wacky European sport that most Americans will have a hard time understanding, so why do some people get so excited when the 'cross season finally hits? Get the video of the 1996 and 1997 World Championships and you will be amazed at how exciting 'cross racing can be. Here is a part of bicycle racing that one can argue is actually a good spectator sport. Although we may not have the fans yet here in the States, we have riders who been charmed by the European tradition of this sport.

It has been said that cyclocross racing is a great way to increase one's power in the off season. I think Eddy B. said this is in his now much outdated book "Bicycle Road Racing". One can find photos in that book of guys in wool jerseys riding road bikes in the dirt. It has been a long time since that book was written and bike racing (especially cyclocross) has changed quite a bit. Simon Burney's book titled "Cyclo-Cross", published by Velo Press is a much more modern look into the sport, with good tips on training and technique.


In the bicycle industry, cyclocross has become a niche that some of the players have made a commitment to exploit, although none of the major players have really made a commitment to promote the sport itself. Out of the largest bicycle manufacturers in this country, only Cannondale is offering stock 'cross bikes suitable for racing. They displayed two complete bikes at the trade show this fall.

Ritchey still puts his name on a frame called "The Swiss Cross", a traditional European racing rig, and Bontrager has a cross frame, probably the only thing left from a time when Bontrager was really Bontrager. Merlin and Litespeed both had cyclocross bikes, if price is no object. Independent Fabrications was showing off some nice 'cross rigs at the trade show, but rumor has it they are booked up well past this year's 'cross season. Bianchi offers a reasonably-priced frameset that is made from decent tubing. It also handles well. VooDoo has a frame in steel and a frame in titanium. Both have more characteristics of the modern mountain bike hardtail, which can actually come in handy around here. In Utah, one can find frames from Rogue, Beck and Skeleton Cycles (Skeleton frames are actually built in Santa Cruz by a guy who has made frames for a former World Champion ).

When building up a cyclocross bike, it is not necessary to have a brand new 9-speed Dura Ace kit like the pros at Worlds will have. Having good brakes around Utah is essential if you want to ride your cyclocross bike on even the mildest singletrack trails.. The pros run some of the oldest brakes out there; old Dia Compe and Weinnman stamped-steel cantis that you can't even find anymore. The main reason is they work well with road levers and they keep the pads way off the rim for good mud clearance. After Thomas Frischknecht placed second at the 1997 Senior World Championships with flat bars and mountain bike brake levers, a new trend has undoubtedly started; riders argue that although flat bars break from tradition they give better control and the levers work better. Flat bars make it more difficult to shoulder and run with the bike, but mountain bikers who are used to flat bars should give it a try on a 'cross bike.

Since cyclocross is growing here in the U.S., it has lately been a lot easier to find necessities like good tires. I have noticed quite a few shops in Utah stocking tires from Ritchey, Vittoria, Vredestein and Continental. Tubulars are hard to find but are out there.


True cyclocross specialists train all year for their short, cold and miserable season. Luca Bramati won the opening 1997 Grundig World Cup mountain bike race because of the good form he had left over from Cyclocross Worlds, where he placed third. Dale Knapp, one of the best U.S. 'cross racers raced his 'cross bike all summer at the local Seattle-area mountain bike races because he wanted to keep his 'cross skills intact. Sometimes he won. If you are not yet a 'cross specialist but want to be competitive, there are a few things you can do to lessen the inevitable pain. A good cyclocross racer needs good technique. Good technique takes years to develop. When you see some of the best racers sprinting flat out for a set of barriers and then not even touching their brakes before being off the bikes and running full speed, you will understand how critical good technique is in a race that only lasts an hour.

Running is also a skill that a good 'cross racer needs to develop. It is important to ease into running, especially after a long season of road racing. Spend a couple of weeks doing easy runs to let your body get used to the different effort, then increase the intensity as part of a weekly training program. Endurance is almost a non-issue in cyclocross racing, since the races are so short. This is convenient since the season coincides with shorter days and nasty weather. A couple hours a week on rollersand a couple good hard runs are all you really need to have a good 'cross season with races on the weekends.

After going through all this; getting a cyclocross bike, setting it up, training and the trying a few races, you may decide it's not for you, especially if you had a hard road or mountain season. Relax. Cyclocross bikes make great commuters. Slap some fenders on them and they make bomber training bikes for rainy days or early season road rides when there is still slop on the sides of the road. Hell, Frischknecht raced the Olympic road race in Atlanta on his cyclocross bike, so they can't be that bad on the road.

If all else fails you would have a spare bike if anything happens to your main road bike. When next year's 'cross season rolls around, you will already have a bike set up and ready to go.

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