Once a fringe aspect of cycling, Cyclocross is becoming an increasingly popular sport across the globe.

What is Cyclocross?

Cyclocross is a form of bicycle racing in which racers compete in a timed event on a fairly short loop course – usually a 2.5 kilometre lap – which makes them easy to hold in urban areas. The course is a mix of dirt, pavement, grass, and trails. It forces the rider to dismount at speed and run with their bicycle over a variety of different obstacles; the rider remounts as quickly as possible and rides until confronted by the next obstacle. These obstacles can be made up of wooden planks, steep hills, deep mud or sand, water crossings, and more.  The riders compete for a certain amount of minutes plus one lap, at the end of which the winner crosses the line.

The Origins of Cyclocross

Cyclocross was thought to have begun as a way for European road cyclists to stay fit during the winter months.  The first cyclocross competitions were more what we would consider a point-to-point race today. The racers would traverse through dirt trails, fields, and rivers, thus perfecting their skills and maintaining their racing fitness for the upcoming road season. It wasn’t until Frenchman Octave Lapize won the 1910 Tour de France – and attributed his success to his winter cyclocross training program – that other racers really started to take it seriously.  Cyclocross began taking off as an official bike racing discipline.

The first National Championships were held in France in 1902, and Belgium had their first Championships in 1910. In the 1970s, cyclocross started gaining popularity in the United States, and it really started catching on in the late 1990s.

Early course designers used many of the natural features found along the trails to create barriers, jumps, and run-ups. These included creeks, logs, sand pits, muddy fields and fences; earning the nickname “Jungle Cross” which was a term that was coined to describe some of the technical, natural, and rooty courses in the Santa Cruz area.

At first there were few women participating, but there has been a steady increase in female participation with higher numbers seen in the last few years at the pro and amateur level. Women have had their own UCI Championship since the year 2000 and are really making a name for themselves.

With the increased popularity of cyclocross internationally, the competition is getting tougher and tougher each year.  Many racers are becoming “specialists” at cyclocross racing; taking it on as their main discipline rather than as a way to stay fit in the off-season.

The NorCal Race Scene

Northern California has had a strong cyclocross presence since 1975, with the first U.S. National Championships held that year in Berkeley, California.  In the 1980s, cyclocross really took off with help from the legendary Surf City Cyclocross Series, the oldest cyclocross series in the U.S.

In December 1984, the National Cyclocross Championships were held at the University of California Santa Cruz campus. On December 23rd, 1984 at the NorCal District Championships, Jacquie Phelan won the women’s category, where she raced alongside the pro men (men and women raced together) and finished 24th overall and first in the women’s category.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, other series started popping up – such as the Bay Area Super Prestige and CCCX – throughout Northern California. These races have helped change cyclocross with designated women’s categories and a generally more party-like atmosphere. The basic tradition of NorCal cyclocross racing continues to be a part of many Bay Area cyclist’s fall and winter schedules.

The Pro Women

In the last few years, some remarkable female racers have been emerging onto the international cross racing scene: Katie Compton, Katerina Nash, Meredith Miller, Marianne Vos, and Mical Dyck just to name a few.

Katie Compton is the first American woman to podium at the Cyclocross World Championships in Belgium, and she has won the USA Cycling Cyclocross Championships title each year from 2004 to 2010 and again in 2012, 2013.  She has 16 World Cup wins and 75 UCI wins, making her the most successful US cyclocross athlete (male or female) in the sport!  She ended the 2012 cyclocross season by becoming the first American ever to win the UCI Cyclocross World Cup overall.  Her World Cup performances were amazing, never placing lower than second in seven races, which marks a major achievement for American women in international cyclocross.

In January 2010, Katerina Nash won the UCI world cup race in Roubaix and finished 3rd in the 2011 UCI World Championships. Recently, Meredith Miller won the 2014 CrossVegas race, with only 100 meters left of the race she sprinted past Katie Compton for the victory!  Marianne Vos won the 2012 Velo International Cyclocross Women’s award.  In addition, she won a bronze medal at the 2006 UCI Cyclocross European Championships.

In 2013, Vos started her year off with a bang at the Cyclocross World Championships, winning her fifth World Championship in a row which brought her to six championships overall.  Mical Dyck was crowned Canadian National Cyclocross Champion, beating out Olympians and former champions to claim the title.

These women have a dedication and passion for cyclocross and spend every weekend from September to February racing, travelling from one venue to the next, and criss-crossing the world to race their butts off; and have the results to prove it. It’s these female racers that inspired me to try my first cyclocross race a few years ago and I have loved cyclocross ever since.

The Cyclocross Experience

Cyclocross racing is a painful, anaerobic, puke-fest of a sport, but so much fun!  You are riding as hard as you can, jumping off your bike and running over barriers, through sand or up short steep hills, with no chance for a breather.  Along with this crazy torture is a scene containing some of the most energetic and friendliest bunch of people you’ll ever meet.

The cyclocross scene is more low-key and relaxed than many other types of bike races. Microbrews and fine Belgian ales are everywhere and often handed to you during your race; costume races on Halloween, and dollar bill hand-ups have all contributed to cyclocross’ laid back and relaxed atmosphere. Good-natured heckling is also a part of the sport so be prepared to be goaded on by your friends and family during your race, which eases the pain when you are forced to crack a smile.

Each area has its own unique cyclocross scene, with its own special traditions, classic races, and local race history; all are a part of a larger global community.  The racers, promoters, and spectators you will encounter in cyclocross are passionate about the sport and love to share stories about their own cross adventures.

The camaraderie at a cyclocross race is amazing. More women are realizing that cyclocross racing is an awesome way to spend a Saturday or Sunday; pounding it out on a course, then sharing race stories on the finish line.

If you haven’t checked out a local cross race you really should, it’s an experience to be had! It’s a very spectator friendly sport – those watching can see the racers pass by 4 or 5 (or more) times in any given race.  Chances are you will show up the next time with your bike to give this barrier hopping, cowbell ringing, beer handout, fun-fest a try! You don’t need an actual cyclocross bike to participate, a mountain bike will work just fine and can actually give an advantage on a rough technical course.

In its purest form, nothing will sharpen your bike-handling skills like riding a skinny-tire, drop-bar cyclocross bike over grass, roots, mud, sand, and whatever else might be thrown your way. And when you pull across the finish line, someone might hand you a cold brew and give you a high five.

Author Bio

Michelle Lambert is a cycling obsessed resident of the San Francisco Bay area. She loves being outside, training, and exploring new trails. Michelle has been racing cross-country mountain bikes off and on, and 5 years ago she took up cyclocross as well.