Nobody really knows the true origins of cyclo-cross. The discipline of riding an adapted road-going bike on off-road surfaces seems to trace back to France at the turn of the century, when riders would compete in a 'steeplechase' across fields to reach a local town or village. Benedict Campbell's soon-to-be-released feature film For the Love of Mud traces the history and evolution of the sport that counts 1910 Tour de France winner, Octave Lapize, as a competitor during his off season.
In recent decades the lines of cyclo-cross have blurred. No longer is it just a weekend competition around a course and no longer does it involve going to one hour races. Instead groups of riders have been purchasing 'cross bikes and devising long winter rides connecting local bridleways, and for those that want to maintain top end fitness there are more races and leagues than ever before, with some shorter summer series taking place.
Try a weekend CX ride
A morning of exploring leaf strewn muddy trails, scaring sheep and taking in the surroundings from a different perspective is both fun and will break the monotony of winter riding, and take you away from cars. Local woodland is quiet and serene, sheltered from the wind and away from the bustle of the town. If you are in the market for some serious soul searching then a cyclo-cross ride is a good place to start.
"The rough terrain requires riders to think as you pedal; it is a break from the ordinary and a way to get out and ride with friends and explore", explains Greg Needham, senior sales advisor at Condor. "You see all sorts, too – stuff that is hidden from the road by hedges. Deer are a regular sight for me on my rides."
Planning a CX ride
Planning a ride is easy. Start with a either an OS map of the local area and pick out the brown dotted lines marking the bridleways, or use an online route making site such as Strava, Garmin Connect or Ride with GPS. If you are using one of the online sites, switch the mapping options to show bike paths/trails/byways or select 'Open Bike Map'.
- Make your route and download it to your Garmin device so you can follow it in the woodland.
- No route will completely off road so you'll need to link sections and trails via your local lanes.
- Keep an eye on the contour lines so you don't end up flinging yourself down a trail designed for a mountain biker!
- Don't make the route too long. You'll be going a little bit slower in the off road. A thirty mile route can take up to three hours.
Best time to ride
Any time from September through to January. Riding in snow is especially fun and the knobbly tyres grip the white stuff well, making an unusual crunching sound as you tread your path.
Unsure where to go and what to ride? Check out our London-based gravel rides from the Condor Route Club. Route Club rides come from routes we have for training, events we have run, or simply rides we do for the sheer fun of going for a spin. All the rides exemplify why cycling (fast or slow) is one of the most glorious of past times and professions. Each route has a downloadable GPS file and cue sheet, timed sections and our advice of where to grab a snack. Our west London ride takes in Richmond Park. To the south we use the North Downs way for our 24 mile loop and there is a central London to Hertfordshire cyclo-cross ride to complete too.
- Wimbledon and Richmond Park Gravel
- Hertfordshire and North East London Cyclo-cross
- Kentish Cyclo-cross
Sportful's No-Rain knee warmers are treated to repel water. On an all-day ride these warmers will stave off that uncomfortable, soggy back of the knee feeling caused by splashed mud.
The E-Case stops dirt, grit and splash backs from the puddles getting into the inner working of your smartphone. There is no need to take the phone out the case when you stop either – the clear plastic screen responds to touch.
Unlike other puncture sealants Panaracer Flat Away is lightweight and mess free. It lines the inside of your tyre and acts as a barrier against sharp stones and nasty thorns, so you don't have to stop and get your hands getting dirty changing punctures.
Ass Savers emergency guard clicks into the rails of your saddle in one motion. Dirty spray from the tyres is caught by the guard and not transferred up your back or sent seeping down into your shorts.
Defeet E-Touch gloves are an evolution of their popular cold weather specific Duraglove. Cordura and Coolmax materials keep the icy air at bay and you can still operate your smartphone through the use of specific yarns at the thumb, middle, and index fingers.
The pure form of cyclo-cross has existed for a century without too much variation in format. A forty to sixty minute competition taking multiple laps of a 2-4km course, all riders start together and try to ride as many laps as possible in the time limit.
"The first cyclo-cross I did was the closest I've come to vomiting on a bike, ever!" says BBC 5 Live presenter, OJ Borg. "I can safely say great fun, dangerous, exciting, felt like thirty minutes of anaerobic madness."
The riders will usually split into groups around the course with some riders riding out on their own. The course may have several obstacles on it which could require the racers to dismount and carry their bike. The obstacles include wooden hurdles, steep, slippy mud banks, and sometimes very thick mud which cannot be ridden through.
Cyclo-cross racing will help improve your handling skills, power, sprinting ability, threshold, and stave off the winter bulge.
Best time to ride
There are races nearly every weekend from September through to February. Avoid attending the wettest races if you've never been before. Use the British Cycling website to find events in your area. Get to the race an hour or so in advance to give yourself time to sign on, pre-ride the course, pin your number on and mess about a bit.
Get a pair of persimmon lenses or vented clear lenses for your Oakley glasses. All the mist and water in the air makes glasses steam up. The vents in the lens help keep your vision clear.
Keep your muscles warm with Rapha Winter Embrocation. Cold muscles are about as pliable as wood. Rubbing on a small amount of embro' to your legs will help them get ready for activity and stop you pulling something.
You have got to be on top form for an hour ready to sprint, power out of corners and attack. A caffeinated gel gives you an instant burst of energy as well as keeping you alert.
Apply Muc-Off Bike Spray to the frame after washing it. The spray brings an extra sparkle to the bike but also stops mud and dirt from sticking.
Choose a pair of race shoes that feel comfortable and do not have a suede upper, as that will make them difficult to clean. Replaceable studs are advantageous as they provide grip for running up muddied banks.