A Chasers Guide to getting into ‘Cross – Part 1. It’s All About The Bike

Sam, from The Chasers Collective (racing for Crawley Wheelers) talks us through his first couple of seasons of ‘cross, what he’s learnt and gives us some advice on how to get started – this time he looks at bike prep…

Cross is back! It has been a long time but finally the familiar sights, sounds, smells and feelings of everyone’s favourite two wheeled, mud filled, cow-bell ringing, slip sliding passion is on the start line and listening for the whistle.

Having caught the cross bug at the end of the 2018 season, whilst racing in the season finale Team Championships at Ardingly- I bought a cross bike that day, at the race, and set about training and riding off-road ready for the 2019 season. By the time that came about I was raring to go, having learnt and rediscovered skills from my mountain biking youth. What came that season was the best fun I’ve had on a bike and this little blog is all about that – to hopefully inspire anyone thinking about it and perhaps reignite the fires for those who have seen it all before. I also hope to give some advice that is always good to remind yourself of before the season starts- and will maybe give you a head start as you enter the 2021/22 season.

The beauty of cross (in my view) is the whole range of conditions you and your bike are exposed to over the season. This means that bike setup (and how you ride it) is an ongoing process that evolves even during races – let alone between them! However, keeping it simple is something you can do, and here’s how…

For those starting out I will give this advice – your skills are still the main factor in how fast your bike travels. Yes, there are circumstances where riding a slick dry tyre in deep mud will be far slower than a pure mud tyre, but in general, don’t sweat the gear choices and spend all your money, when some simple choices can suffice for your first seasons as you learn the trade and hone your skills. When you see how fast the experienced riders go on tyres with less tread, you realise how little you are pushing the grip of your far chunkier tyres.

Going for a tyre like a Challenge Grifo or Vittoria Terreno Mix will see you able to compete and ride in all conditions. I myself have one set of tyres and wheels for the season ahead and will be using Vittoria Terreno Wets- they have plenty of grip and run well in dry too- you can never have too much grip, so why risk it? Going round corners fast is the fun part anyway. For those of you with multiple sets of wheels or bikes, then you have the luxury of choice, but my point is that for cross, it is just a luxury, not a necessity. The beauty is in the simplicity, until you get to tyre pressure…

Depending on your type of tyre – clincher with a normal tube or latex, tubular, or tubeless- pressure ranges that work for you will vary. Add to this your weight and the type of course you are riding and that’s a good few hours of calculations (and years of experience) needed to find the perfect number. There are many arguments for each of these choices but the go to is tubulars for performance. Again, at the level I race at, is there a big enough difference to warrant new wheels, gluing them for 17 months and paying for expensive tyres that might puncture and need replacing? Not for me, but if you have multiple wheels, got a bargain on some extras, want to have the best performance going and like getting glue on your living room floor- go for it! That’s why I love cross, everyone can compete on a variety of budgets.

Tubeless has improved so much over the last 5 years that many setups are very close to the performance of tubs but with the ease (ha, good one) of setup and puncture protection. This is a popular choice for those using their wheels and tyres for other adventures such as: gravel, adventure riding, gravel adventure riding, bike packing on gravel, adventure backpacking on gravel and extreme road aka gravel.

Then there are clinchers- they’ll do the job if you don’t have any tubeless rims and latex tubes are worth the extra cost to get a nice tub-like feel. Be careful with pressures though to avoid pinch flats. Riders starting out always seem to go way too hard- much like road riders, people are slowly working out that hard tyres might feel fast, but are indeed slower. It is all about trial and error but a wise man once told me that the ideal pressure is you ding the rim (lightly) once per lap- and that’s as low as you need. I’ve run 9psi in my tyres in a particularly muddy race before, and the grip was joyful. It takes time to learn to ride on such soft tyres but once you know the limits, you can really push. Drier courses need more air but again you would be surprised how low you can go for that all important grip. Experiment, alter your riding style to accommodate softer pressures and reign in the benefits!

There is always lots of debate about 1x or 2x (one front chainring or two, with a front mech), disc or canti. The truth is again that for the majority of riders it will be pretty much the same on either type. Mud clearance might become an issue (where mud gets clogged up in the brakes and mech) but good riders learn to pick lines and get round it on cantis with front mechs, 1x and discs allow you to be less choosy perhaps but is that always a good thing? Whatever you have- as long as it can fit CX tyres, you’ll be grand. My advice is get your hands on whatever is available and give it a go – you’ll love it!

If you want to find out more, please join the Sussex and London Cyclocross Facebook group or get in touch with your local club. Crawley Wheelers and Southborough District Wheelers are two very big clubs with fantastic cyclocross divisions, with practice sessions, great support and plenty of people to race with.

Next time we’ll talk about practice laps and the perfect start (clipping in within the first 15 minutes). Check out The Chasers’ Cycling Podcast on Spotify and iTunes to hear all about the races we do this year.

Words and Pics by Sam Bacon. Sam rides for Crawley Wheelers race Team and does skids and other adventures with The Chasers Collective.

Additional Photo and Intro by Glen Whittington.