A Mountain Biker's Guide to Cyclocross

Jan 17, 2023 at 16:29
by Eric Olsen  
This event was capped at 600. But that didn t mean an automatic entry into the SSCXWC. Oh no. To make the cut riders had to qualify in a time trial format with only the top seven male and female riders from each heat securing an arm bracelet entry into the main event. Fail to qualify though and not all was lost.
Wait a sec is that Josh Bryceland?

What is Cyclocross?

Cyclocross is a mass start race format where racers do laps around a mostly offroad course. The courses include sections where a rider is forced to dismount and carry their bike over a barrier, up a stair set, or through an otherwise unrideable portion of track. Other common obstacles include sand pits, deep mud, challenging off-camber sections and novel obstacles. This might sound similar to XC or Short Track but the main difference is the bikes used are more similar to road or gravel bikes, and the sport was invented decades before mountain bikes existed.

A Brief History

A French cyclist and soldier named Daniel Gousseau is often cited as the rider who started cyclocross racing. He organized the first French championship in 1902. Cyclocross was supposedly inspired by “steeplechase” running events which were also popular at the time. The church tower in the next town often being the most visible landmark to designate as the finish line.

Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Spain, and Italy all began to host races in the early 1900's. Octave Lapize claimed that his 1910 Tour de France victory was due to off-season cyclocross training which caused a huge increase in the sports popularity. The first UCI-authorized cyclocross world championships was in 1950.

What is the Cross-Cylo-Pedestrian? A nice sport and nice spectacle. Utility incontestable from a military point of view. A new patent to create.

Race Season

Cyclocross (often abbreviated to CX) is typically a fall and winter sport. The World Championship takes place in late January. Conditions range from early season dust and sand to late season mud and snow. There have been various attempts to introduce CX as a winter Olympic sport.

Tom Pidcock at the Val di Sole CX world cup.


Cyclocross bikes are not mandatory for amateur cyclocross racing. Most North American race series encourage you to "run what ya brung". I've seen fixed-gear flat-bar bikes, enduro bikes, and fat bikes all racing each other. But a rigid, drop bar bike with narrow knobby tires is the "right" bike for most courses. You might get heckled a little more if you bring your full suspension bike but it's all in good fun. Similar to shifts in the geometry of XC race bikes "gravel" bikes are also starting to get more slack, relaxed, and dropper posts are becoming commonplace. That being said, the top racers in the sport are still on narrow tires, steep head angles and no dropper posts. Partly due to a belief that traditional cross bikes are faster and partly due to conservative UCI rules.


A modern UCI legal CX race bike next to a modern gravel bike. As gravel bikes have gained popularity they have also increased in numbers at CX races. Wider tires, slacker angles, dropper posts. Sounds familiar.


Amateur cyclocross racing is often low pressure and high fun. Handups are a key part of CX racing with spectators offering you trackside refreshments. I've personally been handed beer, whiskey, a donut, a slice of bacon, and a dollar bill all in one race.

Getting the dollar bill hand ups was key there was after all a toll for the short cut.

This fun-loving attitude reaches its peak in the singlespeed category. This category is popular in part because the bikes are cheaper to maintain in the mud. The best way to learn about SSCX culture is to read into SSCX World Championships

As if a dual slalom track and ankle deep mud weren t enough of a hinderence event organizers added in a battle ball segment.
Why race a single speed for CX Kruger Farm doled out a exactly the reason why.

Who to watch


If you catch the bug and decide to venture into World Cup cyclocross fandom you'll want to catch up on the Wout van Aert vs. Mathieu van der Poel rivalry

You'll also want to follow the Olympic XC champion Tom Pidcock and world champs winning machine Pauline Ferrand Prévot

Tom Pidcock takes the win here in Albstadt with ease.
Pauline Ferrand Prevot fresh off acquiring the rainbow jersey is set for another big day on course.

Why should I care?

As an avid mountain biker who takes pride in my ability to ride heinous rooty sections and hit "sick" jumps it's always an ego check when I roll up to a cyclocross race and see someone on a fully rigid, drop bar, high post, skinny tire, cantilever brake, cyclocross bike going full-gas down a steep section into a 90 degree axle deep rut with not a sign of hesitation. Sure, that would be easy enough on a 160mm travel enduro bike with the seat dropped, but it seems like experienced cyclocross racers can hit things at almost the same speed as a mountain bike with none of the technological "crutches" that we are used to in mountain biking. It's always a rush trying to figure out how to rail a rut on an unfamiliar bike 30 minutes before your race starts.

So you didn t get a W in hole shot challenge Well just maybe some head to head DS racing could see you redeem your piss poor qualifying time trial failure and secure an entry into the WC race. If not riders were relegated to a noon-ish parade . And it wasn t all a walk in the park. The DS track was fairly legit if sloppy in places. Some races were blow outs but some were fairly tight.

Simply put, it's good to mix things up. It might even help your mountain bike skills. It's fun to learn new ways of riding. It's fun to race around with your friends in the mud. The races are short and intense so it's a great way to get a sweat (and a grin) going on those miserable winter days. The races are usually very affordable compared to mountain bike events and the community is welcoming and eclectic. I'm of course biased as someone who already enjoys the format, but I honestly can't recommend it enough.

What do you think? Is cyclocross something you would try?

Author Info:
ericolsen avatar

Member since Aug 10, 2014
14 articles

  • 241 13
 Hmm, nice write up. Does sound fun. I'm gonna Google where a local one is and never go.
  • 10 1
  • 26 1
 I can't recommend spectating a CX race enough. I've gone to local CX races, nationals and worlds and they are all an absolute blast! The fans are awesome, it's easy to watch and just a real hoot. Seriously check it out.
  • 4 21
flag kyleluvsdh (Feb 6, 2023 at 15:56) (Below Threshold)
 Pinkbike refused to post this on the front page for some reason so here it is:

  • 5 0
 @kyleluvsdh: what's the story? Video is 2 years old.
  • 76 3
 As a person who started riding “ATB’s” back in the late 80’s after and along with road and cross I think it’s great!
Limiting yourself to only our beloved mountain biking is just limiting your fun with 2 wheels.
Ride all the bikes - and don’t be a dick about other people’s choices.
  • 6 2
 It’s all riding after all! Now I’m 43 and have had all types of bikes since my fist tab aged 8. Ironically now I’ve just got a very nice gravel bike, that does 90% of what I need. I bought it because the bikes that have got the most use in the past have been cx bikes!
  • 4 1
 Fist tab… First ATB.. lol
  • 8 3
 Lots of mountain bikers don't get Cross. For me, I've realized I really like underbiking on a gravel bike especially being time crunched. No more driving to the trailhead to MTB and raging in traffic as you're waiting to start your endorphin release. Ride from home wherever. If you enjoy underbiking, but also enjoy racing, then you'll 100% enjoy cross. Here's my covid underbiking project in case anyone interested. Spot the MTB influence: Smile www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw6ikGuKqyk
  • 1 0
My take is that Cross is ALL ABOUT competition. Not everyone is into the competitive aspect, but everyone in Cross usually is.
There is always someone to chase and there is always someone chasing you.
Try it and don't blame us when you get hooked.
  • 61 2
 CX is really fun, it's like interval training without the rest periods.
  • 52 0
 Getting advice on how to pace my first race:

"So you'll want to do a max effort out from the start, everything you can manage for about a minute to not get left behind... And then just maintain that for the next hour and a bit until the finish"
  • 13 0
 @snotrag: I went back after a few years off. First lap took everything i had to hang on the back. Held Z4 effort for 50mins, ave 178bpm, finished 4th... from last. I was 39, if i go back ill be in the Vets category, and thats even more competitive!
  • 5 2
 It's fun indeed. My only participation to a racing was actually at a semi-professional CX race few years ago, riding the only bike I had: a 26" Banshee Spitfire. I was already half drunk before the race and finished 56th out of 120, completely exhausted but damn happy.
  • 1 0
 Haha well said!
  • 20 3
 Nice write up Eric. Also the Cascade Cross series does an amazing job of keeping cross like should be: fun, friendly a bit stupid and a ton of fun.

FYI - I'm a mountain biker who was super into Enduro from like 2013-2019 and now super into cross. You never know till you try it!
  • 3 13
flag rrolly (Feb 6, 2023 at 6:50) (Below Threshold)
 FYI - Nope. I know. No chance I'm trying.
  • 3 0
 @rrolly: yeah, some people just aren't cut out for racing. stick to doing what you think is fun.
  • 17 0
 As a mountain biker of 30 years I took up CX because my local MTB races just weren't that challenging 7/8 years ago. There was no advantage for technical skills and it just came down to the fittest rider. With CX on the other hand I found that my MTB skills gave me a distinct advantage on the more challenging courses and gave me the opportunity to 'mix it' with fitter guys. The racing is all out from the whistle and the atmosphere is always super friendly and ideal if you have young kids to get into it as well. I'm not fan of tribalism, if you ride a bike it's good with me (fit people on e-bikes excluded).
  • 2 41
flag emptybe-er (Feb 6, 2023 at 5:31) (Below Threshold)
 Seems like you could just walk jog most of a cx track (fitness based) but you need bike handling skill for mtb races. Nice try though.
  • 6 0
 @emptybe-er: you could jog the whole thing if you wanted to get lapped 3x. If you want to actual do well, riding sections at speed is very technical and @jasperdog is spot on, good skills offset fitness in a big way.
  • 1 0
 @RadBartTaylor: More technical than mtb races, is what he claimed. Plenty of riders shoulder their bike every lap in cx. Or literally jogging with their bike. Go enter enduro or dh and race buzzed up and all the sudden feels more technical than cx.
  • 1 0
 @emptybe-er: I've raced it all, there is more consequence with MTB but I honestly think from a technical perspective, riding CX "properly" is every bit if not more technical than MTBing. Getting on and off the bike itself takes years to master and riding things like sand and mud ruts is very very hard to do well.
  • 1 0
 @emptybe-er: I'm not claiming that the terrain is more technical than MTB, obviously not. What I'm saying is that once you're on 44cm drop bars and 33c tyres all of a sudden less technical terrain suddenly becomes a whole new challenge (and yes I have raced Enduro)
  • 21 7
 Cross is a blessing. Every fall the trails thin out and people start running up stairs with road bikes that are somehow slowly evolving into mountain bikes. I’ll take the hero dirt, you have the crowded obstacle courses.
  • 19 2
 Just go do one. It’s a blast and a challenge.
  • 4 36
flag emptybe-er (Feb 6, 2023 at 5:46) (Below Threshold)
 What’s a blast? Mud? Not being rude but cx is purposefully slow-paced and adrenally unsatisfying. It’s a reason to day drink.
  • 15 1
 @emptybe-er: Slow-paced?!?

CX is crazy fast.
  • 1 1
 @FuzzyL: Yes pace as in speed. Not talking heart rate. All that work and maybe hit what, 15mph for a few seconds? Cx is (purposefully) slower compared to any kind of mtb racing.
  • 2 0
 @emptybe-er: You obviously never saw a pro race. Those guys are entering muddy corners at nearly road racing speeds.

And world class CX racers like Pidcock or vdP usually easily win the MTB races they enter.
  • 12 1
 Our local series was super fun 10 years ago. We had some legit technical and challenging sections. Then the local roadie club got involved and sanitized all the tracks and made them just flat windy courses in fields or just long straights through orchards. When the fun obstacles left, so do I.
  • 4 0
 @swan3609 take a fall vacation to the Bellingham series (Cascade Cross) or Vancouver Island series (Cross on the Rock) for west coast technical cross fun!
  • 13 2
 Try it... been there, tried it.... It's horrific !!! LOL. Just a bunch of nutters going absolutely flat out every minute.

Basically an XC race with funny bars... But are horrific.. but both somewhat enjoyable at times.

I much prefer enduro though as i'm old and fat and at least in enduro I may get trounced by the fast guys, but i get the pleasure of fun trails while being trounced Smile
  • 2 0
 @weeksy59 Yep did one last season and it intimidated me.

CX seems to be very different in the US, because over here it was just sadomasochism.

Don't get me wrong, there was a great vibe and I couldn't have hoped to ride with a more welcoming crowd, but anyone racing was taking it seriously and the pace was outrageous!

I finished the race very exhausted, very humbled, and very inspired to be better.
  • 14 1
 This article missed the news that MvdP picked up his 5th world title this weekend after an epic battle with Wout van Aert.
  • 15 0
 I wrote this a few weeks ago! But for those interested it’s definitely worth watching the world champs race today. youtu.be/TnD-1J5-yvg
  • 3 0
 @ericolsen: I missed that detail. Thanks for the link.
  • 10 0
 Publishing this article at the end of the CX season allows maximum time for PB readers to forget about CX by the time the next season starts.
  • 3 0
 No doubt. Any of the other 364 days of the year would have been better than yesterday. Seems odd
  • 7 0
 Very fun format and very popular in EU A lot of road racers do cyclocross race instead of xc in winter... mud..rain.. cold.. this is training. A lot of no-pro event... a lot of beer... that generate the format for Eu singlespeed events.
  • 5 0
 Never taken part in Cyclocross, but I thoroughly enjoy watching the world cup race highlights. The nasty conditions and crazy fit riders paired with somewhat unsuitable bikes provides an action packed, great watch. I'd recommend!
  • 7 0
 Just how hard can an hour on a bike be......... #youllpukeupyourlungsjusttocoolyourburninglegsdown
  • 6 0
 If there is ever Shoulder Season Olympics, CX will be one of the first events included.
  • 1 1
 It's technically a 'winter' sport, I think that is the biggest thing holding it back, I know Sven Nys was lobbying to get it into the winter olympics but winter sports = snow and CX is in that weird middle ground where poor conditions are part of the sport but don't define it....although CX racing in the summer is miserable and not the same as hammering through mud and I'd argue may be a very different set of guys in the front if mud, snow and ruts were not part of the game.
  • 21 16
 Running with a bike, thats like putting mayo on a homemade chocolate chip cookie
  • 30 2
 Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I usually finish races too drunk to stand.
  • 5 1
 @samdeatley: I'm not ready to eat mayo cookies.
  • 18 1
 Usually a mountain biker can ride the whole course if they put their mind to it. Is it faster… not usually. But you get to flex your cool mountain bike skills. So the “mayo” is optional.
  • 16 0
 Wait till you see crossers hop beams (www.tiktok.com/@alex_mlrt/video/7160347637948943622) and power up steps (m.youtube.com/watch?v=o0oGMix5X44) without getting off the bike. Some cyclocrossers' skills are next level.
  • 15 0
 We've all had to get off our bike and walk up a hill at some point
  • 13 0
 @DC1988: and down it too…
  • 10 2
 @DC1988: Most mountain bikers today can't get up a hill without the help of a chairlift or shuttle.
  • 7 0
 @matyk: or a motor as it happens
  • 2 0
 @matyk: *Electric motor.
  • 1 1
 @mi-bike: 7 years of racing Enduro meets cyclocross during Covid: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw6ikGuKqyk
  • 3 1
 The original XC of cycling.....that's where the roots of the sport started. And as off-season training/racing for road cyclists....

And it still is; 5 of the 6 winners this weekend's World Champs are attached to top road cycling teams....it's a breeding ground for road cycling. Very few top XC riders come from Cyclocross; in fact none of the current Top 10 mens/ women's rankings took part.
Evie is the 'outlier'; the only recent champion to have not gone to a road team, but a MTB team.
  • 4 0
 They are simply following the money. If XC mountain biking had the money that road cycling currently has there would be more mountain bikers in cyclocross.
  • 2 0
 CX can be a little too serious depending on your region. The amount of steel gravel/cx bikes on the lowly cat 5 are next to nil. The racing is fun but the atmosphere is a little to serious, even for cat 5 (or are we 4 now?). But then again in area's like Boston, races like the Secret Squirrel look like an absolute blast for any skill set.
  • 2 0
 CX is a blast, I’ve done almost every biking discipline in my life, mostly Bmx racing & mtb racing, CX is the hands down the funnest! Who else has raced thru a wall of bubbles from a bubble machine, full tilt, not being able to see the other side? I have.
If your in good mtb shape, can halfway run and have decent skills because you really do have to have skills, your golden.

Props to the Utah CX Series, lots of fun.
  • 8 3
 There is also a less technical,less dirty,hipster variant called Gravel
  • 2 2
 MOUNTAIN biking in Denmark is kind of "challenging", isn't it? (highest point: Møllehøj: 171m above the sea).
Being a hipster in Denmark would rather consist in riding a mountain bike IMO
  • 1 0
 Sounds awful.
  • 3 2
 @danstonQ: Wrong. Highest Danish point would be Gunnbjørn, at a nice 3,694 m.
  • 1 2
 @mi-bike: "WOULD BE".
  • 1 0
 For me it is just a fun way to get some fitness. We have a weeknight series that I can pedal to after work, then race, then pedal home. It is FULL GAS for 45 minutes on the wrong bike in the wrong weather with loads of good people. it is a blast and once you start trusting your skinny CX tires jumping back on the MTB feels amazing.
  • 1 0
 Nice write-up Eric! I hope you are just as keen as I am for a full fledged CX season next year! Those Worlds races were quite awesome to watch, these guys and gals are super inspiring. It is funny how easy they make this stuff look, but those barriers definitely are not small in real life.
  • 4 0
 Whiskey Bacon and Cash - what a race
  • 2 0
 Everyone go ride cyclocross up some stairs. Mountain biking is lame anyway. - he says hoping for a less crowded trail next weekend.
  • 1 1
 Done plenty of racing, especially during the period when I was basically trying to race anything all the time. Hell, I did a triathlon one day, XC race the next day in that period. CX is great, but it isn't for me. I didn't enjoy it. Like all the worst parts of MTB and the worst parts of road riding put into one. The local courses in my area were great though. They always tried to incorporate fun obstacles like making us ride a long loop through a playground sand pit and such. Being in SoCal, the weather is almost always what most people would consider perfect XC conditions, so I couldn't complain about the cold and mud. But I just didn't have fun. Also got my ass extra kicked. But I always raced classes above my ability so I don't care about finishing last.
  • 2 0
 see I was the exact opposite, it blended the best parts of both road and MTB for me and I typically enjoyed racing CX more than either of the other two.... CX is a lot more fun when it's wet, cold and muddy even better with some snow mixed in.....
  • 1 0
 @RadBartTaylor: that's why I said "it isn't for me" as opposed to "it sucks". I don't think it sucks, I just didn't enjoy it.

I enjoy my 170mm coil bike and I enjoy my SuperSix Evo, but I don't enjoy my gravel bike (now just my winter commuter) and I didn't enjoy my CX bike/racing.

Tons of people love CX, I'm just not one of them.
  • 2 0
 @JSTootell: just conversing - wasn't insinuating you were wrong in any way
  • 2 0
 @RadBartTaylor: my misunderstanding
  • 3 0
 Been racing an amateur cx league on my full suspension. It’s definitely a workout
  • 1 1
 You have to discriminate the fun, almost ridiculous events as described in the article...And the Belgian/Dutch Cx philosophy that s no fun at all and is taken too seriously. Top that with a pinch of nationalistic/patriotic shit and you got a very nasty way of cycling. I hope MVDP and Wout (that are Belgians) do not share this side of the sport, I hope...
  • 1 0
 @nicoMF I hate to be harsh... but VdP would puke to be called Belgian Smile
  • 1 0
 @weeksy59: My bad... he's a Dutch Belgian born (Kapellen) with a French grandfather. Sincere apologies.
  • 2 0
 The Devo hats are awesome , the bikes caked in mud, is not where’s its at for me. More power to the riders that enjoy it.
  • 2 0
 Cool that a Devo hat fits over a bike helm-- Oh Sh*t it's Sarah Sturm, Son!!
  • 1 1
 Actually I´ve bring a gravel bike home for my gf to try it out. Of course I had to check if its safe etc so I´ve done few tens of kms and I gotta say I´d prefer to ride one as a commuter and pub bike instead of SB150
  • 2 0
 I hope this means I will get the derailleur hanger I ordered from them back in November 2022.
  • 2 0
 I've competed in one CX amateur race in my life, it was 40 minutes of pure max pulse hell. It was definitely an experience!
  • 2 0
 CX riders are better at dirt and drinking that xc riders.
  • 2 1
 #1 don't do it
#2 don't freaking do it!
#3 g* d*mn m*ther f*cker, you're getting the hose
  • 2 0
 Just can't get past the cold and wet.
  • 3 1
 How many beer can holders does your fame have ?
  • 1 0
 So, it was not invented after some road guys drank too much pints after a race in Belgium ? i'm disappointed
  • 1 0
 How is it that the curly bars, steep angles and narrow tyred bikes are fastest?
  • 4 7
 Sure, cyclocross brings some epic battles of the best pros, but to be honest, without the passion and culture of Belgian and Dutch fans, sponsors and organizers it would not survive...just compare the progress the courses have made in MTB and cyclocross...riding rigid bikes on grass, sand and mud looks stupid when you know how MTBs have evolved... Smile this would not happen in a MTB race - www.youtube.com/watch?v=79ZjbhdRXEI
  • 2 1
 This is the awkward side of CX that makes it unique, fun and challenging. Some might find it "too easy" on a proper mtb.
  • 1 0
 Must watch video: two world champions collide and have a good cry.
  • 1 0
 CX to MTB, MTB to gravel, gravel to CX Oh how the wheel turns
  • 1 0
 Please don't remind us that time is real and we will all be reduced to spandex wearing animals in a tape cage
  • 2 1
 Cross racing was the first bike racing I enjoyed doing in 25 years.
  • 1 1
 Don't really care about CX, but I would love you to cover the SSCXWC again. That was a great article
  • 2 1
 Pinkbike should.

But here is coverage from this year's on the Radavist.

  • 1 0
 The best way to spend an hour pedalling and puking furiously...
  • 1 1
 The worst parts of road and mountain biking combined! Long live needless suffering.
  • 1 1
 Appears to me if Adam Sandler did a movie similar to Happy Gilmore! The geeks and freaks come out of the woodwork!
  • 1 2
 This is like writing about F1 racing for a rally racing crowd. Interesting but WGAF anyway? ...I love F1 racing BTW.
  • 1 0
  • 5 6
 Just seems masochistic like a bunch of spandex related sports. Have fun
  • 2 4
 so xc mountain biking from the late 80s
  • 4 0
 Yeah except cross pre-dates mountain biking by like 50-60 years.
  • 2 4
 @arghana: I know - its boring AF
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