Cyclo-Cross racing has become a popular winter sport here in the US, to the extent that some think it is a relatively new sport. Not so, Cyclo-cross has been around in Europe since the 1930s and possibly before. In the 1940s after WWII there was a World Championship of Cyclo-Cross.
I rode some cyclo-cross as far back as 1956 but it was in the mid-1970s, at the height of my framebuilding career that I took the sport seriously. During the spring and summer months I was far too busy building frames to find the time to train and race on the road, but winter time, the work load slowed.
My daily bike commute to work, 29 miles each way, kept me fit the year round.
When I couldn’t ride due to bad weather, I would run at least two miles. Plus I rode a cyclo-cross race every weekend.
I lived in the West-Midlands area of England, close to Birmingham, a hot bed for cycle racing. There was a full calendar of races, within easy driving distance, every weekend from October through January.
There were a small group of professional cyclo-cross riders in the West Midlands area. Too small to have their own separate events, so they raced alongside the amateurs, but there were separate prizes. This made the racing more interesting and competitive.
Also in some of the bigger races, pros and amateurs from Belgium, France and Switzerland would enter. One could learn a lot from just riding with this caliber of rider. For example I learned to pick up my bike and carry it differently.
The most obvious way is to pick the bike up by the down tube, the carry it on your right shoulder, with your right arm under the down tube and hold on to the left side of the handlebars with your right hand.
But the first thing that happens is you grab a handful of mud that has collected under the down tube. This is then transferred to the handlebar tape and it becomes a slippery wet mess. The rest of the downtube mud gets rubbed off on the sleeve of your jersey.
I started doing as the European pros did and picked up my bike by the top tube which is cleaner. Then held on to the bike with my arm around the head tube, and my right hand on the left side of the handlebars. (See pictures.)
Also I found when jumping over a ditch or a wooden fence, the top of the left crank arm would always smack me in the lower back as I landed. Carrying the bike with my arm round the head tube kept the crank, chainwheel, and bottom bracket away from my back.
I also noticed that the top European riders were all the same build as me. Small but physically strong. Weighing about 150 lbs. you can skim over the mud, whereas guys 30 or 40 lbs. heaver got bogged down.
I noticed also, the top riders pushed some really high gears through the mud. A higher gear means more traction, and more speed the less time to sink in the mud. However, I was already in my forties and past my prime. This was one technique I could not emulate.
Our bikes were very simple. I built my own frame of course. A one inch bigger frame than I used on the road brought the handlebars up to just below saddle height.
A little more fork rake gave more toe clearance. This meant a little less trail, but when riding on soft ground, the mud gets pushed up ahead of the front wheel and has the effect of increasing the trail.
I used a single chainring 46 or 48 teeth, with a chainguard to prevent to chain coming off.
A five-speed freewheel with 14-16-19-22-25 teeth gave me all the gears I needed. Lower gears only caused the rear wheel to slip on a steep climb and I could run faster.
A single bar end shifter on the left with the cable routed along the top tube, leaving my right hand free to operate the rear brake.
Cantilever brakes, not for the stopping power but because the collected less mud.
I used knobley tubular tires and as I never had the luxury of a pump with a pressure gauge, I cannot tell you what pressure I used. It was whatever felt right under my thumb.
I always reckoned, one hour of cyclo-cross was the equivalent of 80 miles on the road. At least that is what my legs told me after every race.
When I came across these old pictures the other day, it reminded me of the great times I had. I rode in the colors of the Worcester St. John's Cycling Club. One of the oldest cycling clubs in England dating back to the late 1800s soon after the bicycle was invented.
I didn’t win too many awards but had a whole lot of fun, and met some great people. After several years I got pretty good and beat many guys younger and stronger than me, purely on technique.
This was forty years ago, so some of the stuff I have told you here is probably outdated. Also a cross race in certain areas of the US where they have a dryer climate there will not be the mud, and to me mud is what makes a cyclo-cross race what it is.