I have tried every kind of bike racing in my life but nothing has hurt me more than a cyclocross event. And I was not even trying to win, just get to the end!
For those who are not too familiar with this sport, it requires accomplished bike-handling skills and sturdy physical fitness. Competitors have to ride many laps of a short circuit and carry their bikes over some sections, such as stairs, which requires the rider to quickly dismount and remount the bike several times. As if all this wasn’t enough, the races are held in autumn and winter when conditions are the harshest.
To me, cyclocross is like a tough, Spartan bike race.
How to become a cyclocross racer
I was trying to understand what are the key pillars of CX and found out there are two: aerobic training and bike-handling skills.
Cyclocross races are short, about one hour for pros and 30 minutes for amateurs (the first warning as to how brutal it is!). It is all about going full gas all the time with many sudden accelerations. So, cyclocross indeed takes a strong aerobic capacity. In fact, many cyclocross racers compete successfully in other disciplines like road biking. The first thing I asked Michal was about training: how to be one of the top riders in the field? And also, in general, how can we, mere mortals, have a shot at making it to the end of a CX race? Turns out I have good news! He explained that it is not easy but everyone can achieve that. All you need is patience and hard work for years and it will come. He rides his bike almost every day. During spring and summer, he maintains an endurance pace over more hours and then, before the season starts, he switches to faster and shorter rides.
Aerobic training, although super important, is not everything. Cyclocross racers need to master superior bike-handling skills. Cyclocross is also known as the steeplechase of cycling for a reason. Mounting and dismounting the bike is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, bunny hops and riding on slippery or sandy surfaces are on the agenda. I think it is also what makes this sport so fun to watch. I asked Michal if he specifically trains his bike-handling skills but his answer was that it just comes from years of racing although, during CX season, he has at least one cyclocross session a week that includes obstacles.
You need the right bike
Cyclocross bikes are specific. They are not gravel bikes and they are not road bikes although we could place them in the same family. In a nutshell, CX bikes are basically road bikes with a higher bottom bracket and more space between the tube and the fork/frame. They have disc brakes and accommodate larger tyres to adapt to different types of courses. Frames are normally designed to facilitate bike handling, meaning shorter frame reach and an altogether taller position.
Races and sport popularity
I asked Michal about his favourite world championship course and, without missing a beat, he mentioned the Oostmalle and Zonhoven, in Belgium. Apparently, there is an incredible atmosphere during the race and the course is extremely hard because of the sand.
I was not surprised by his answer. Cyclocross is big in Belgium but also in France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Lately, it has been gaining popularity in other countries such as the UK and the United States.
What I truly like about it is that I see it as a lifestyle. It is about enjoying the bike in an adventurous and versatile style, tackling whatever you get in your way. Gravel roads, rocks, obstacles, just clear them with a smile and keep going. Like in life.