Cyclocross (also cyclo-cross, ‘cross or cx) is my favourite discipline of riding bikes. There are a bunch of reasons for that, which I’ll be detailing below, along with some history and further reading1 by people who know more than me.

cyclocross as a sport

So you know about riding a bike right? Bikes have two wheels and pedals and handlebars to steer. The important thing you learn as a kid is how to balance and then off you go. You ride around on the sidewalk, on the road, in fields, through the woods and maybe build a ramp and do some sick jumps. You’re just riding a bike.

Well, as is so often the case in this world market segmentation came for cycling2. Nowadays there are a pile of different disciplines of cycling (and attendant different bikes3). Your big divisions are between Road Cycling and Mountain Biking. Road biking is skinnier tires (22-30c) on paved roads. This is the Tour de France kind of thing. Mountain Biking happens off road and uses burlier bikes with bigger tires (like 2-4 inches wide). Each of these has a host of different subdivisions (Time Trials, Track, Cross-Country, Downhill, Enduro, Touring) people can specialize in4 because each rewards different skills.

Cyclocross is a specific kind of bike racing (so it’s not a transportation-focused kind of riding) that happens off-road but with road-ish bikes. In its contemporary form you ride your bike around in a field and sometimes have to get off your bike and carry it because the hills are too steep or there are stairs or someone put a bunch of boards across the track. I often think of it as the least efficient way of using your bike. It’s awesome.

One of the things that makes it awesome is its compactness. A good cyclocross course is a couple of kilometres long and loops around in twists and turns in a small space. This means it’s easy to watch. Riders are doing multiple laps and everyone is going at different speeds so as a spectator you can be in one spot and stuff will happen in front of you for you to cheer for. Sure, your favourite rider might take 10 minutes to come back around but there’ll be others in the meantime.

That’s as a spectator, but as a rider what I love is how fucking hard it can be. You’re riding a bike really inefficiently purely for the absurd joy of doing it. There’s no pretense of transportation, just effort and technique. But it’s also a manageable length of time. Elite races are only an hour long. When I race (in the slowpoke category) we’re only talking 45 minutes. That feels endless when your legs are burning and lungs are popping, but it really isn’t. You’re constantly managing that amount of fatigue, and knowing it’s only a set amount of time you can go harder and really push your limits. Also, knowing that if something happens to you or your bike you’re walking distance from your car is pretty helpful too.

cyclocross course features

According to the UCI5’s rule 5.1.012:

A cyclo-cross course shall include road, country and forest paths and meadowland alternating in such a way as to ensure changes in the pace of the race and allowing riders to recuperate after difficult sections.

Then in rule 5.1.017 we get:

The course must form a closed circuit of a minimum length of 2.5 km and maximum 3.5 km, of which at least 90% shall be ridable.

And the very next rule (5.1.018) says:

The course must be at least 3 meters wide throughout and clearly marked and protected on both sides.

The markings referred to there are usually long ribbons of tape attached to poles on spikes around here, but in fancy-pants races they can be much more elaborate. On courses where you go through the woods there’s generally a trail with trees or bushes to the sides so you might not be putting up barriers.

So that’s what a ‘cross course looks like. It sounds so simple, but that leaves out all the cool bits.

the steep stuff

If a CX course is supposed to be 90% rideable, what makes something unrideable? Sometimes it’s just a really steep bit. Climbing up a short “wall” of dirt might be doable if you had a lot of momentum coming in, but these courses are twisty so often you’re coming in relatively slowly, making hopping off the bike, shouldering it and scrambling up the hill the most practical approach.

Of course, if you can ride up that, this kind of feature can be a “difference maker” for a rider with good enough skills.

Nevertheless, Nys proved on lap five of seven that his technique was unmatched on this course. In particular, his ability to ride up the off camber and incredibly steep “100% hill” when no other rider could gave him two to three seconds every lap.6

Some courses will have stairs that you have to run up as well7.

In my experience (as a terrible old fearful cx rider) the really steep downhills can also be a problem especially with a tight corner at the bottom, and sometimes you’ll see that in elite races, but usually because it’s slippery or there’s a surface change8 or something.

That slipperiness makes a real difference in races though. Even if something isn’t too steep to ride if it’s dry, if it’s wet or muddy and you’d be fighting your tires the whole way up, you often see even good riders just running up a hill instead of messing about.


Barriers in cyclocross are low walls across the course that people have to get off their bike to jump over, or if they’re good enough bike handlers they can hop their bikes over them. Not everyone even in the pro ranks hops the planks, but it sure looks cool when they do.

At one of the ABA races in 2023, someone tried to hop the barrier and hit it which bent the heck out of it. The next day’s race one of the organizers told everyone in the novice class that there are only a couple of people who could clear the barriers with a bunnyhop at the race and none of them were in our class. So don’t do it!

just using tape

When courses have a big open flattish area sometimes course designers weave the tape around to make corkscrewy paths to ride around. Making ‘cross riders do sharp turns slows people down and means you’re doing a bunch of sharp accelerations.

further reading

cyclocross and me

  1. Further reading on this site (which will be more personal responses and the like) can be found under the cx tag↩︎

  2. This happened decades ago; you weren’t around for some actual purer time of cycling (apart from just being a kid and riding your bike without giving a shit about any of this). ↩︎

  3. and accessories and clothes and podcasts etc. ↩︎

  4. and buy shit for ↩︎

  5. Union Cycliste Internationale - the organizing body and no fun police of official cycling. If you want to be a world champion you gotta follow their rules. North American ‘Cross can get much wackier. ↩︎

  6. from Thibau Nys wins his first World Cup in Waterloo by Logan Jones-Wilkins ↩︎

  7. Unless you have insane bike-handling skills like Thibau Nys displayed at Waterloo in 2023 ↩︎

  8. Going from wet grass to pavement to mud or what have you. ↩︎