It first became popular when used by cyclists to keep fit in the off-season, but cyclo-cross is growing so fast it’s now becoming a major sport on its own. Aaron S. Lee provides a guide to the hottest new way to keep fit on two wheels.
The popular European sport of cyclo-cross (CX) has begun to take root Down Under. Combining elements of mountain biking, cross-country cycling and criterium racing, the sport’s recent growth spurt is perhaps due to the attraction of riders from all other cycling disciplines who initially used it as a way to maintain fitness in the off-season.
Participation in CX has increased so much that specialists are now emerging who focus solely on the sport and vie for podiums and prize purses. Australia has also seen the development of weekly riding groups, monthly club races and even an annual elite national series that culminates with the crowning of the series winner.
But just what exactly is CX, and how do you get started?
Originating in early-1900 France, the sport of cyclo-cross consists of technical, twisting off-road circuits of up to 3.5km in length.
The course takes riders across grass, dirt, mud, gravel, sand and pavement, all while navigating steep hills and obstacles that might require the rider to quickly dismount and carry the bike.
Races are based on a set time, not distance. For beginners, a race can be as quick as 30 minutes, while pro events are set by the UCI (the Union Cycliste Internationale) at 45 minutes for women and 60 minutes for men. The number of laps is determined by race officials following the completion of the first lap, with most hour-long races finishing after seven to nine laps depending on the calibre of the riders and difficulty of the course.
While some beginner races allow the use of any bike, including traditional flat-bar mountain bikes, UCI-sanctioned competitions require CX-specific bicycles that are most aesthetically similar to road racing bikes with lightweight frames, narrow tyres and drop handlebars, but with greater tyre clearance, lower gearing, stronger frames and a more upright riding position.
The CX bike also shares some similarities with a mountain bike, with a knobby tread on the tyres for traction and either mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes for stopping — although low-spec models may feature cantilever brakes instead.
Prices range from $1,500 for alloy-based bikes, while carbon-fibre constructed versions can cost more than $5,000 when featuring higher-end componentry and wheelsets.
What to ride
FOCUS MARES CX
CX has always been a big priority for the German-engineered Focus Bikes brand and its 2016 lineup is no different.
Ridden by reigning three-time women’s Australian national CX champion Lisa Jacobs and under-23 champion Chris Aitken, the highly regarded Mares CX range has opted for thru-axles and hydraulic disc brakes on all of its models and comes at a competitive price point. The smaller tube diameters over its predecessors offer a more luxurious ride without sacrificing speed-inducing performance.
The popular Mares CX Disc 105 offers a full-carbon (frame and fork) ride and Shimano’s durable 105 componentry. The bike retails for $3,299, while the Mares CX Disc Ultegra offers gearing and spec upgrades at cost of $4,699. A SRAM-equipped Mares CX Disc Rival is slotted in the middle at $3,799.
TREK BOONE 5 DISC
There is little difference between the 2016 Trek Boone series and it’s 2015 award-winning predecessor. Voted “Dream Bike of the Year” by CX Magazine, the Trek Boone, similar to the custom built bike ridden by Australian national CX bronze medallist Garry Millburn, is fitted with both mountain bike-style thru-axles for added rigidity and alignment for its pair of fitted hydraulic disc brakes.
While Millburn’s bike is fitted with SRAM componentry, the Boone 5 Disc comes with Shimano 11-speed 105 drivetrain mounted on the 600 Series OCLV Carbon frame featuring Trek’s patented IsoSpeed technology which is specifically designed for comfort and performance over the world’s most gruelling surfaces.
The Boone 5 Disc retails for $3,899, while the upgraded Boone 9 Disc features a full Shimano Ultegra drivetrain and Bongtrager Affinity Elite TLR wheelset for $4,999.
The couple that ‘Crosses’ together…
Ask anyone who already participates in CX why they do it and the answer is usually always the same – “It’s fun!”
That’s what Australian elite men bronze medalist Garry Millburn, 28, and his partner Fiona Morris, 30, both of Sydney, told Fitness First mag while training in Belgium for the upcoming 2016 UCI CX World Championships.
The couple are relatively new to the sport after Millburn made the switch from elite mountain biking to CX in late 2013 after taking some time away to focus on university, and Morris, who was a novice to cycling, joined him just a few months later.
“I pretty much got involved because of Garry,” says Morris. “I wasn’t a cyclist before I met him, but when he started cycling again, I took it up too.”
For Morris, the transition was easy and she firmly believes anyone can do it. “I thought it looked like fun, after all, who doesn’t like to play in the dirt and mud,” says Morris. “So I borrowed a CX bike from a friend and never looked back.
“For someone that is as athletically skilled as Garry, everything is super easy,” she continues. “But take it from me, the sport is extremely accessible and the CX community is very encouraging. If you have ever ridden a bike before then you can race CX.”
Millburn feels an active lifestyle and current gym membership is all you need to get out on the course and have crack. “Believe it or not, I think there’s a great crossover from spin classes to CX, in that spin classes are typically 45 minutes to an hour long, just like CX races,” he explains. “I’ve seen the guys and girls who like to go in and sweat it out and suffer in the indoor cycling classes. It’s weird, but you push yourself to the limit for an hour and you have a great time doing it, and that’s exactly what we do in CX.”
Club races can be found across the country, with entry fees ranging from $10 to $25, plus a $25 day license required to race if not already a member of Mountain Bike Australia. But according to Millburn, the racing element of CX is just a small portion of the sport’s growing mass appeal.
“At its core, CX is a sport that’s close to home and anyone can race, whether it be mum, dad or the kids,” says Millburn. “It’s inexpensive to participate and fun can be had by all.”
Morris, who will be heading Millburn’s pit crew at the world championships in January, agrees. “It’s probably the friendliest cycling discipline of all,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how good you are, you can just get in there and have a go and have fun — what’s the worst that can happen?”
The queen of CX
Morris is not the only Australian female that’s been bitten by the CX bug. Elite women’s roadie-turned-crossie Lisa Jacobs is yet another — a former national team rider who traded the epic routes of the women’s Giro d’Italia for the mud-caked CX paddocks of Australia and Europe.
Since moving to Melbourne to practice law, the 34-year-old attorney has taken the domestic CX scene by storm, capturing three national titles.
“My schedule is extremely tight, and cross is one of the few disciplines I feel that I can still compete in at a high level,” says Jacobs. “Doing something I love in a sport that is really interesting and fun all while working full time certainly ticks all the boxes.”
Jacobs’ coach, Donna Rae-Szalinski, agrees with her switch to CX and is not surprised by her protégé’s recent success. “Lisa is an elite cyclist, period,” says the Victorian Institute of Sport coach, who has guided Jacobs from the start of her professional cycling career. “She has great physiology and attributes. She couldn’t keep doing road cycling at the moment due to other commitments in her, life so I am not actually surprised that she is doing very well in cyclo-cross.”
As the reigning queen of Australian CX, Jacobs is en route to race her second world championships in three years and has never been more proud or felt more responsibility wearing the national jersey abroad.
“It’s a huge honour to wear the green and gold stripes,” claims Jacobs. “I guess I didn’t really appreciate how significant it was until I wore them overseas, and I’ve been lucky to wear them as much as I have and I take great pride in that.”
Australia, like the America, lacks the harsh wintery conditions of Europe. In order to hone the skills needed to compete amongst the world’s best in terms of terrain and temperature, she takes her role as champion seriously and makes no excuses regarding performance.
“Australians are always going to have a challenge going overseas and holding our own in Europe because our style of racing and the conditions in which we race is really different than what we see overseas,” explains Jacobs. “Typically we have a lot of dry, fast, grassy courses with maybe a little bit of mud — but it’s nothing like what we see in Belgium or France.
“I feel a sense of responsibility that if a national champion is going to race in another country they need to be able to show they are a good racer and the standard of racing in their country is worthy of a national champion,” she concludes.
“I’ve put in a lot of work trying to improve my racing and technical skills so I can be at the level that I think a national champion should be at. I’m proud of where I am, and I think that the results I’m getting are the ones that I am proud of as well.”