Get Across It

Some say cyclocross is the most fun you can have on two wheels. Mud-splattered, sand-blasted… there’s always a gleaming set of pearly whites amidst the grime. We spoke to five riders to help you get across road cycling’s fun little sibling.

17 September 2018


The domestic elite

A Russian-born resident of Philadelphia, Dan Chabanov rides for a bike team belonging to legendary frame builder Richard Sachs. This year, RSCX will be competing at the biggest US races wearing Rapha Custom kit, with Dan – a former bike messenger turned three-time Red Hook Crit winner – likely to be at the pointy end, elbows out.

How do I get into cross?

Think back on some of the recent rides you’ve done. Remember that gravel road that veered off your usual route? Have you been down it? Then congratulations, you’ve dabbled in cyclocross. This has always been my advice to people looking to try the sport: just go find a gravel road and see where it takes you. After that, go find some single track and really try to get yourself into some trouble.

Do I need a cross bike?

It’s ok if you don’t have one. Just stick the fattest tyres possible on your road bike and go ride in the woods. This is exactly where I started about a decade ago, taking my road bike down gravel roads, and paths, trying to find new things to add to my routes that challenged me. The best advice I got? Ride a little slower but otherwise just pretend it’s a paved road. Beyond that, relax your upper body, try not to death grip your bars. Easy does it on the steering.

How do I start racing?

Don’t hold back, just go for it. I wholeheartedly recommend jumping in the deep end and figuring it out from there. But if that doesn’t appeal to you then reach out to your local cycling community. If you do decide to head to a race, my final bit of advice is get there early and stay late. Unlike road racing, the social scene at cross races is one of the best aspects of the whole endeavor. Pre-ride the course with some friends and then hang out and cheer on your enemies in other races. Pro tip here: heckling is so 2012. Stick to cheering, everyone digs that.


The US legend

A north american racing stalwart who retired from the road in 2013, Meredith Miller continues to leave everyone in the dust on the cross circuit, despite having officially ‘retired’ in 2016. When not inspiring riders in her job as the Rapha Cycling Club Coordinator in Boulder, Meredith wins wherever she goes: CrossVegas, Grinduro, CX Single Speed Nationals, it goes on…

What are cross races like?

Cross racing is short, but it's one of the most intense types of racing you can do. For thirty minutes to an hour, you go all out from beginning to end…unless you stop for that beer hand-up of course. And just after you’ve tossed back that beer, you have to dismount and carry your bike while running up stairs. Before your vision goes completely blurry, you’ve got to collect your wits to navigate your way across a muddy, off-camber hillside without sliding butt-first into the fencing at the bottom of the course. Now that you and your bike are covered in an extra five pounds of mud, you must find your way to the pit to gracefully exchange bikes for a clean one with your significant other who’s yelling at you to “go faster!”. And then you get to do it all over again four more times. (NB. Not every race has beer hand-ups, although if it does, lucky you.)

How did you improve?

I was a roadie through and through when I first picked up a cyclocross bike. I had an engine for the long, powerful straights but the engine couldn’t help me navigate the thick peanut butter-like mud, and my body froze before dropping into steep, rutted descents. I may have cried a little trying to drive my bike across sheer ice. But rarely could I practice these skills in Colorado where muddy races are practically non-existent and the courses are tame compared to those in Europe. I practiced basic skills in local parks. I hopped in practice races. I rode my mountain bike to get comfortable with two-wheel drifts. I followed my teammates around as they bunny hopped curbs, railed the ruts, and whipped through the thick mud like it was soup. Mostly it was learned trial by fire.

When did you know it was love?

Racing under the lights. The ‘cross-crazed fans lining the tape, cheering and heckling as each and every rider went by. Beer hand-ups. Dollar hand-ups. Barriers. Running. So much energy buzzing in that grassy soccer complex. It was electrifying. I’ve never suffered and smiled so big at the same time. One race and I was hooked. CrossVegas, baby. CrossVegas.


The world-class euro pro

Sophie de Boer is one of the best cyclocross racers in the world. The Amsterdam local was the queen of consistency in 2016/17, winning the overall World Cup trophy. Plagued by injuries and a long rehab last year, Sophie now heads into the new season healthy and ambitious to hit the heights again.

What’s the best thing about cross?

Riding in the woods or off-road always requires lots of focus and attention. I love that I just completely focus, 100 percent, and don’t think about other things. For instance, if I train on a road bike, my thoughts go everywhere. Sometimes that’s nice, but I really appreciate that cyclocross requires all your attention.

What’s the hardest thing about racing?

Your start needs to be really, really good. Every race I feel the pressure that my start has to be great, even though I actually am a good starter, and I often get the ‘hole shot’ [first place into the first corner]. The season is very long, too. We begin in September, and each week we have two or more races until it ends in February. Compare this to road cycling, where you can recharge your batteries between periods of racing. At the end of the cross season, around January or February, I feel completely exhausted.

What does it feel like in a race?

How I experience a race really depends on how good the legs are. Sometimes I have races where I’m at the front and everything is great, the suffering is great, you hear the crowd but it doesn’t distract you. You enjoy it and you’re in the flow. But if you’ve got bad legs, you’re feeling the pressure or are ill, then you feel the pain more. You hear what people say too, and it gets in your head. Sometimes people say funny things like ‘Sophie will you marry me!’ and I laugh, but it can also be negative: ‘Oh come on girl, this isn’t good’, or ‘Oh no, you should be doing better.’ I really like racing in the USA because people would never say that.


The beginner who went long

The coordinator of Rapha’s product wear testing programme, Melbourne-born Hamish Low discovered cyclocross last year. One of twenty-or-so keen CX riders at Rapha HQ in London, Hamish joined two fellow employees to ride the 900km-long off-road ultra endurance race, the Italy Divide, in April. As he says, “you can do anything on a cross bike, it’s really that versatile.”

How has cross changed the way you ride?

Riding cross has exposed me to parts of the city that I didn’t know existed. All the riding is so much closer to where I lived than I realised. I’d been riding through the forest, on the roads, not even realising the incredible trails that could be ridden on a bike with drop bars. There’s something about road riding that makes you more ‘precious and protective’ about yourself. Whereas with cross, you're totally prepared to get filthy and will most likely come home with a few bumps and bruises. It’s all part of it. You hit the deck, have a laugh and then jump straight back on the bike. It’s like being a kid again.

When did you really get into CX?

At Rapha, we are lucky to be able to ride on Wednesday mornings and in the autumn and winter, a group of us hit the trails of Epping Forest each week. It’s up there with the most fun I have on a bike. It was so much more interactive than I expected too. I’m a lot more vocal, shouting out when I escape a tricky situation, or when others do the same. You get a real buzz from riding on the limit of crashing.

Why cross an entire country?

In late 2017, myself and a couple of the guys from Rapha were looking for a challenge that was difficult, adventurous, and we could do on our cross bikes. We settled on the Italy Divide, a non-stop off-road race from Rome to Lake Garda. I would consider myself a complete punter when it comes to doing a long-distance trek, and didn’t even do that much preparation beyond riding to Belgium and back for the Tour of Flanders, but we made it all the way. An unforgettable experience.

Neil Phillips

The all-round talent

Coming from Cornwall in south west England, Neil is a familiar face at Rapha having appeared in Road, Brevet and Cross campaigns over the years. He's also a prolific rider. A first category road cyclist, this summer he held his own at the Tour Series racing alongside elite professional riders. On a cross bike he saw the podium eight times last season, and in 2016 he came second in one of cycling's foremost self-supported, ultra-distance cycling races, the Transcontinental.

What's your favourite discipline?

It's so hard to pick a favourite, and I love that I can flow from one to another through the year. However, cross pips it as the one I love most. It's alway super social, from group training sessions to racing. Locally it’s taken less seriously and I love that all abilities can race together, competing with the riders in front and behind their current position. I love being outdoors, and cross keeps me outside all year round, always improving how I handle a bike when things get technical, which benefits my crit and road racing through the British summers.

What's been your highlight on a cross bike?

Last season as a whole was special, my fitness and ability took a leap. Two highlights though would be 13th place at the Three Peaks – arguably the toughest cross event of the UK calendar taking place over three peaks in Yorkshire, England. It’s a 'type 2 fun' kind of race, but the views and people are worth it. But on a traditional level, finishing top 20 at a National Trophy last year was up there. Especially when battling it out with a true hero of the sport, Nick Craig – a multiple British cyclocross and cross country national champion.

Why race across an entire continent?

At the time it was an unknown to me, physically, mentally and geographically. Pushing my abilities in another direction, to see what I could learn and discover. Getting a glimpse of life and the surroundings riding through areas you've never visited, and may never have visited if the route hadn’t taken you through them.

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