What the heck is cyclocross?

cyclocross
Tim Johnson racing cyclocross. Photo: Cannondale

Within the American cycling world, cyclocross is growing in popularity. But the average person still has no idea what it is. So, what is it? It’s a hilarious and unique form of cycling racing that requires athletes to ride multiple loops filled with various obstacles, such as stairs, steep banks, sand pits, and wooden barriers. It also includes pit crews and NASCAR-esque pit stops, largely because cyclocross is, in a word, muddy. Its crowds are large, crazy (translation: drunk), and vuvuzela-blaring, and the races are cheap to enter and don’t require a special bike or gear at first. (Riders can obviously move up to a cyclocross-specific bike if they like the sport and want to put more time into it.)

To get the scoop on this rising sport, we caught up with former mountain bike racer Tim Johnson, who is now at the top of the cyclocross world. He tells us why people are riding skinny-tired bikes around city parks, how 'cross has grown, and what he does to stay strong.

How did you get into cyclocross (and cycling)? What’s your backstory?

I was introduced to 'cross in the late summer of 1995 after finishing up the mountain bike season at the World Championships in Germany. I was 18 and had just represented the U.S. as a junior rider. Stu Thorne, now of Cyclocrossworld.com and our Cannondale/Cyclocross world team manager, asked if I’d like to join them at the race in early October. That first road trip to a small race in New England was just the beginning. I loved it, and by the end of that season I was the national champ.

What does it take to be good at cyclocross? What skills do you need to have?

A great cyclocrosser needs to have the ability to push their engine very hard. Our races take place at the upper reaches of heart rate and power. Couple that with the ability to think tactically while navigating a course that is very technical and varied and you have lots going on, all at a high intensity level.

How do you train specifically for it?

We have to be able to recover from each effort as quick as possible. Sometimes you only have four to five seconds where you’re not pedaling and you have to hit the reset button each time. It’s physically impossible to go 100 percent for one hour. We just try to do 99 percent for the hour and make that 1 percent of “chilling out" count!

What advice would you give newbies?

Have fun. You’re riding a bike that looks like a road bike but you’re on the dirt and in the woods. It takes lots of concentration to keep upright and going in the correct direction. Take a look around at those next to you and remember that you’re not the only one having a potentially challenging time, ha!

cyclocross
Tim Johnson running his bike during a cyclocross race. Photo: Cannondale

Gear wise, if you’re making the move to cross, what do you need that’s different?

At first, not much. Cross races are really easy to jump into and try whether you're on a mountain bike or a townie (a more urban bike). After you’ve tried, it makes sense to figure out how to move up to a CX bike and then seek out the next few chances to race locally. A surprising part about cyclocross gear is the way that we use tire pressure to gain performance. We are limited by the size of the tires we use, so tread pattern and pressure is what we adjust. Sometimes I’ll race with 18psi in my tires on a CX bike while on a road bike it’s more like 100psi to 110psi.

What’s the coolest part of it? Why do you love it?

Without a doubt, it’s the atmosphere. A cyclocross event is just a great mix of people who are there for the exercise and outdoor time. Everyone is there for the party. It's not a bad bunch of folks we roll with.

Seems like a lot more people are racing cyclocross these days; how have you seen it change?

During my first CX race, we might have had 100 people across three categories in total. Now, we can have two to three events happening on the same weekend that each have 1,200 to 2,000 people. CX just passed mountain biking in number of “racer days” that USA Cycling uses to track cycling disciplines. Dropping into a non-UCI race from time to time reminds me just how much fun cross is to those who are finding it for the first time. The barriers to entry are so low that it’s really the most user-friendly of bike events.

Any personal rituals, tricks, or secrets?

I have gone through different phases over the years, but I think the most beneficial thing that I’ve added to my racing and training is eating well. Instead of seeking out food on race day when I’m hungry and risking getting hungry, I now plan ahead and make sure I have clean, whole food available for me to eat. I usually have rice and eggs, but I will usually time my meals so that I don’t have that empty stomach feeling where I’m in trouble. The racing we do is so high-intensity that we can burn more than 1,000 calories in just that one hour. With warmup time and bad weather, it becomes a tough day on the body.

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