How to prep for your first cyclo-cross race

Photo by Jay Westcott

Right now, new and returning members can get special pricing on a USA Cycling racing license to help them take advantage of the hundreds of cyclo-cross events scheduled around the country! Click here to learn more!

by Gus Grissom

Summer is coming to an end and even though there are certainly some hot and sunny days left to come, cooler, often wetter fall conditions will be upon us soon. For many racers, this means the end of road season and the beginning of a series of “coffee shop” rides with friends. But for many – actually more and more each season! – it means the beginning of the next phase of the racing year: cyclo-cross season.

Certainly you’ve been hearing your friends talk about cross for months now, speaking of the glorious nature of dust, mud and occasional blood in reverential tones. Perhaps you’ve been considering giving this particular cycling discipline a try? But, as with most things in life, it’s hard to imagine that the reality lives up to the hype. Well, let me put your concerns at rest: cyclo-cross lives up to the hype! Once you get out to your first race, you (and your family) will be hooked.

But before you head out to your first race, here are a few questions to ask.


What gear do I need?

  • Bike – Ideally you’ll have a cross bike. There are subtle differences between a cross bike and a road bike, the biggest of which is the type of brakes. It’s not a big deal and you’ll feel much the same on a cross bike as you do on a road bike. But you might consider begging, borrowing, or buying one (perfect time for a used “beater” bike) prior to your first race. You can, of course, use a mountain bike just to get a feel for the races. So ask your teammates if they’ve got something to spare for a weekend or two.

  • Safety Gear – This is the same as road racing. You’ll need helmet, glasses, gloves, racing kit, and shoes. Many racers use skin suits as if they were in a time trial. But a normal racing kit is all you need. So if you’ve done road races, you’ve got the basic safety gear you’ll need.
  • Tires – Your cross bike will have knobby tires, wider than road tires but thinner than mountain bike tires. Yes, some tires are better than others for certain conditions, but for your first race, any cross tires will do. You’ll hear your buddies talking at length about the merits of various tires, tread patterns and air pressures. But don’t get too hung up on finding the perfect tire. It won’t matter that much at first.
Photo by Jay Westcott

How do I prepare for my first race?

  • Practice – There are a few cross-specific skills you’ll want to learn before your first race. At a minimum, you’ll want to know how to dismount for barriers and remount again. Talk to your friends about this. Most likely they are all setting up practice sessions at local parks. If you ask, they are almost guaranteed to say “no experience necessary.” With even one of these practice sessions under your belt, you will be ready for your first race.

  • Different Practice – One great way to get a feel for riding your cross bike is to join some friends on “gravel rides.” This means a few hours of riding in a group, just like usual, except that as much as possible the group will be on dirt roads, gravel roads and maybe even some trails in the woods. By simply learning what it feels like to have your bike bouncing around a little underneath you, you’ll be that much more prepared for the changing terrain and traction of your first cross race, which will probably be contested on a mix of grass, dirt and sandy areas in a local park.

  • Finding Races: Clearly your riding buddies will have a good sense of what races are opening up in your area and which ones are best for first-timers. But don’t get too hung up on specific conditions or finding the perfect race for your experience level. Instead, just use USA Cycling's "Find a Race" function to find a race and jump right in!

What do I take to my first race?

  • Sense of Humor – You will lay your bike down at least once in your first race, most likely in a particularly deep section of thick mud. You must be willing to laugh at yourself and realize that your hecklers are the embodiment of that old saying, “laughing with you, not at you.” Do not take yourself seriously in your first race (or even your first season!). Just enjoy the hilarity of being covered in mud and remember that you used to do this every day when you were a kid. It was wonderful then and it’s more wonderful now.

  • Basic Gear – Of course you’ll want to pack your basic bike gear: bike, kit, helmet, gloves, etc. Make a little checklist just as you would for a road race.

  • “The Kitchen Sink” – Additionally, however, you’ll want to prepare for any weather condition because fall weather can go from warm and sunny to cool and rainy in a flash. Take an extra base layer, some rain gear, an extra hat or skull cap, extra gloves, thicker gloves, warmer socks, a long sleeve jersey and maybe some tights. In short, put together a big bag in addition to your normal race-day bag. If you catch yourself looking at a piece of your cycling gear and asking “I wonder if I’ll need this,” assume the answer is “yes.” Take it.

  • Stationary Trainer – You’ll want this for your warm-up. Many courses have available time for a few practice laps, but generally cross racers will get warmed up on trainers because there’s not much extra space around the park to ride.

  • Towels / Baby Wipes – Remember, you’ll fall in the mud. Once you’re done laughing at yourself, go ahead and clean yourself. Some baby wipes, a plastic basin and maybe some jugs of water are perfect for cleaning up a bit.

  • Food – Plan to be at the race site for a while, perhaps all day. The atmosphere at these races is part race, part festival in the park. Be prepared to hang out with friends for a while. It’s not unheard of to see racers grilling meats and enjoying all manner of beverages after their race. This is a time for enjoying the company of teammates; take food to share and have a great day.

  • Chair – Again, plan to hang out in a team tent, whether it’s your team or a friend’s team. Taking a folding chair makes this even more fun. You’ll enjoy your race, be heckled when you fall in the mud, and then turn right around for payback as you heckle those who fall in the same mud in the very next race.

  • Family – Yes, take your family. Cross is not like an office park criterium. It’s going to be in a park and there’s going to be lots to do: music, food, friends, and atmosphere. There may even be events for kids only. Moon bounces, foam pits, kids races, and carnival games are often fixtures at cross races. So make your race a family affair. If nothing else, it’ll be that much more fun when you realize your biggest heckler is actually your own child! They’ll love seeing you covered in mud as much as you enjoy being covered in mud.

Is this list exhaustive? Certainly not. There’s much more to cross racing than meets the eye. But if you think about these items as a good starting point, you will certainly be ready to enjoy your first race. By leaving your ego at home and packing an extra dose of your sense of humor instead, you and your family will quickly realize that your friends are absolutely correct: cyclo-cross really is the dirtiest fun you can have on two wheels. Enjoy!

Further Reading