Today I rode the New Year’s Day cyclo-cross at Goldwell Park in Newbury, Berkshire, and what a wonderful way to see in 2016! Full marks to organiser Chris Boulton and the Palmer Park velo club*.
For tedious reasons this was my return to competition after a spell away, and after coming in “cold” it seems a good time to make a few observations on cyclo-cross, which I hope are interesting to both the seasoned and the curious:
-The bike doesn’t matter much; lighter is nicer, but how much difference does that make when you’re carrying 3kg of mud?
-Brakes aren’t important – anything that squeezes the rims will do, unless you have disks in which case anything that squeezes that steel plate bolted to your hub will do.
-Seriously, brakes don’t matter much. Once in a while you’ll need to lay into them so as not to hit somebody who fell off for no apparent reason or went wide or completely lost traction and stopped. But beyond that, don’t pay much heed to fuss about brakes; the ones you have are fine, and anything else is probably money that would be better spent on entry fees and travel, tyres or maybe a natty one-piece suit.
-Having said that, if you’re going to buy a new bike anyway, consider disks. In any other other discipline I’d say the balance of trade-offs points to lighter-simpler-cheaper callipers, but in ‘cross it helps to keep the forks and stays as clear as possible of mud-catchers.
-Having said that, don’t run out and buy a new bike just to have disks; they may ease one part of the problem but no matter what you do, mud still packs up around the front mech and bottom bracket, and it’s not many minutes in that all the gunk thrown off your front wheel is gunging up your rear mech and chainrings. All of this is worse when the mud is sticky (without having any samples lab-tested, I’ll venture a guess that there’s plenty of clay in English soil). Many courses cover grassy parks and fields; a handful of grass mixed into mud, recall, is a key component of what our pre-industrial brethren knew as wattle-and-daub, which is probably still a good way to build houses. See also: “adobe”.
-General observation 1: a casual survey of post-race damage says cantilevers are just about as satisfactory mud-wise as disks, certainly plenty good enough. Mini-Vs are cheaper and easier to set up and adjust, but less good with mud and grass. The best solution is two bikes and a confederate with a pressure washer in the pits, but that’s getting into big money and a lot of hassle.
-General observation 2: A single chainring is enough for many courses if you carry a very wide range of 10 or 11 sprockets. But 10s and 11s aren’t good when the mech gets gunged up. And, with a single ring you still, really, need a chain-holder – which has all the mud-carrying capacity of a front mech. The 2×8 or 2×9 setup that’s on your bike already is a pretty good compromise.
[Note to self: home workshop experiment turning an old spoke into a brake boss-mounted rear wheel mud scraper was an epic fail.]
-One thing that does matter is tyre pressure; low is good, maybe in the 20s PSI if the ground is really soft and slippy. This is one of those areas where experience pays off. Try things in warm-up or training. As long as you won’t roll a tyre you’re probably OK. Tubulars make some sense – but what an expense and hassle.
-On the equipment check-list, pedals and shoes matter. If you aren’t happy with your set-up – and getting in and out easily, especially back in when it’s muddy, is important – have a look at what other people are using and ask for advice/opinions.
Mostly, get out there and do it! Whether you’re riding to win or riding to finish, CX is fun and the people are nice. If you get wet you get wet, which you expect in the winter, and there’s always a cup of tea to be had to warm things up at the finish. Road racing in the spring is often wet and still cold, and cold and wet is a lot less fun on the road.
* Chris and his team set out a challenging course that used every square foot of ground available, and laid on a slick operation, from sign-in to showers and a celebratory wall of foam. They weren’t of course responsible for the good weather, but after days of stormy rain it was a pleasure to ride under clearish skies, however wet the ground.