Brutal temps to greet bikers racing for Minnesota championship

What started as a way for road bike riders to pass the time in the off season has become a serious sport. Minnesota's abundance of bad weather and passionate cyclists have helped grow cyclocross in the state. Cyclocross racer Chris Smith answered a few questions about the sport before he jumps on his saddle at the Minnesota State Cyclocross Championships this weekend.

Chris Smith
Chris Smith competes on his bike. (Courtesy of Chris Smith by Peter Redin)

What is cyclocross? And where did it begin?

Cyclocross, also known as cross or CX, is a fall/winter cycling sport. A cyclocross race takes place on a circuit, normally a 1.5 to 2 mile loop, on surfaces that can include pavement, grass, gravel, dirt, sand or mud. Additionally, various obstacles can be found along the course that may require the rider to dismount and carry or push their bike for short periods of time before remounting the bike and continuing around the course.

Cyclocross began in Europe in the early 1900’s as an off season training activity to allow traditional road racers to stay in shape over the winter. It quickly became very popular in Europe as a standalone sport and European countries started hosting specific national championships for cyclocross as early as 1910. The United States hosted its first national championships for cyclocross in 1963 but it was not until the 1990’s that the sport really began to grow in the USA.

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At this point one might argue that cross is more popular in the United States than it is in Europe. While elite level events in Belgium may attract over 50,000 spectators there are usually less than 100 riders actually participating in the race itself. Here in the USA there are some events that can attract over 1500 participants. Europeans are always amazed how many people enjoy the participation in cross in the United States as compared to Europe.

GoPro video from a cyclocross race in October

The bikes looks like basic road bike, but what’s different?

A cyclocross bike can share many of the same components that a road bike does. Where you see differences are in the brakes and the tires. Cross bikes use either cantilever brakes or disc brakes like mountain bikes. You need more powerful brakes when riding off road and you also need to assure that any mud that might collect on the bike during the race does not interfere with braking and mountain bike style brakes work best in these situations.

The tires are wider and have a much more aggressive tread pattern than road tires do, but not nearly as aggressive as a mountain bike tire. Cyclocross bikes need to be fast in all conditions and terrains and a really aggressive mountain bike tire tread would have too much rolling resistance on pavement or grass. Cross bikes also need to be as light as possible when the rider has to pick the bike up. So lightweight tires, wheels and carbon fiber frames are very common.

Finally the pedals used on cyclocross bikes are the same as those use on mountain bikes and cyclocross riders use mountain bike shoes with soles made for walking or running when off the bike.

Does cyclocross have anything in common with mountain bike racing?

Other than a few similar components like the fact that the race takes place off road, cyclocross and mountain bike can be very different events. In mountain bike you will find situations where the course is so challenging that the bike requires the use of very wide tires, sometimes nearly 3 inches wide, as well as the use of front and rear shocks to keep the bike under control. Mountain bike events also tend to use a great deal of “single track” trails where the rider’s bike handling is critical to be able to drive the bike through very narrow sections of the course.

For the most part the courses are not as challenging for cyclocross so suspension is not required and the tire widths are much narrower. The course is also required to be at least 9 feet wide at all points to allow riders to pass each other during the race. This is not to say that the courses are not challenging, but it’s a much different kind of challenge and one that involves being able to identify the fastest line through a corner and knowing how fast you can ride that line without losing grip and crashing. Much like Formula One car racing, the best cross riders can quickly spot the best approach to a corner and know how hard they can ride the technical sections of a course without incident.

How long do races last?

Races for elite riders lasts 40-45 minutes for women and 60 minutes for men with races of shorter durations taking place for less experienced riders. Typically the first two laps are timed and then the race officials calculate how many laps the riders would be able to ride in the scheduled amount of time for the race and start counting down the laps remaining in the race at this point.

You mentioned that the courses involve obstacles that require a rider to dismount and run with the bike on your shoulder. What’s that about?

Sand pits, steep climbs, barriers up to 18 inches in height can all be found in a cyclocross race. The goal is to dismount your bike, clear the obstacle and then get back on your bike and up to speed as quickly as possible. There is a specific technique to this process and these obstacles are put in place in order to reward those riders who are able to execute this technique smoothest and fastest. Smart cross racers will spend a considerable amount of time just practicing their dismount and remount technique as this can be as important as aerobic training for success in cyclocross!

There are also riders who will practice not dismounting in these sections, choosing to ride the sand pits and steep climbs or jump their bikes over the barriers. This is a very high risk choice that can pay off for the rider who can clear these obstacles but can also severely punish those riders that get it wrong!

2011 state championship

How big of a deal is cyclocross in Minnesota?

It’s grown quite a bit in the past 20 years. There are some cross events in Minnesota that attract as many participants as summer road races! A cross race is an enjoyable event since it is spectator friendly. You can come out and race in a very low stress environment and then stay and watch your friends race. It’s a lot of fun and people really enjoy being involved in the spectacle of it all!

What got you into this sport?

I started bike racing right out of high school and have been riding competitively for nearly 30 years now. I have raced on the road, on mountain bike and on the velodrome. I tried cross in the late 1990’s but, due to the failure to learn good technique, I ended up hurting myself and sort of scared myself away from the sport. But about 6 years ago I got the bug to try it again and got hooked right away. I ride the road and race some during the summer for training, but cyclocross is the only discipline of cycling that I really care about now!

Why do you do it?

The challenge. There is no drafting because the speeds are not high enough. There are minimal tactics. It’s usually the fastest guy or, depending upon the conditions the toughest guy, that wins. An hour seems like a long time during the race itself, but it’s not really that long so there is no time for goofing around. You literally have to ride as hard as you can the entire time. You have to be able to execute the dismount and remount techniques as quickly and smoothly as possible so as not to lose any speed. You have to be able to know how to handle your bike on wet grass, dusty fields, beach sand or mud. Just about every race is a new learning experience and I love the variety and pushing myself to see how I try and improve.

The Minnesota State Cyclocross Championships take place this weekend. What is the significance of this competition?

The State Championship is the final weekend of cross racing in Minnesota and the winners of each event will be crowned the state champion for the year. We will have racers as young as 10 years old and some over 65 years old, with everything in between. The state championship is one of the best attended races of the entire season as most riders use this weekend to put a cap on their cycling year. We have also used the same venue for the state championships for the past 20 years and everyone loves racing at this venue.

What kind of bike are you riding this weekend? What’s important to know about your set up? Will extreme cold change your set up?

Haha! I have had a bit of bad luck mechanically this year so I am taking a bit of a risk and building up a new bike for the weekend. I have a lot of confidence in the guys that work on my bikes so I don’t think it will be a problem. I don’t really use anything special or unique as compared to other racers. I will need to wait until the morning of the race before I make a decision what kind of tire tread pattern to use. One of the most important aspects of cross racing is tire tread selection and tire air pressure. If the course is dry and hard I will use a pretty minimal tread pattern since I won’t need as much grip but if it’s wet or soft I will use mud treads for more adhesion. As opposed to road tire pressure where one typically uses 90-100 psi of air pressure I will probably be closer to 25 psi air pressure. In cross you use mush less pressure in order to get as much grip on the ground as possible. But you need to practice riding at that low pressure so you don’t wreck your tires or smash your wheels. Again, lots of time practicing! Last year at the national championship race in Madison Wisconsin almost the entire course was covered with ice and I was running air pressure close to 18 psi. It was like riding flat tires! But I needed as much grip as I could get!

Extreme cold won’t change the bike set up. But it will determine how much I wear. Cover up as much as possible while still being able to control the bike. Fingers and toes will get cold, but it’s only an hour!

Who are the best riders in the state right now?

For the men Eric Thompson has won just about every race he has entered. Pat Lemieux might make him work for it but I think Eric is going to win. For the women it’s going to be a battle between Linda Sone and Corey Coogan Cisek. Linda is pretty tough locally but Corey has been doing a lot of national level racing so she might have the edge.

What advice do you have for anyone interested in getting into the sport?

I think cross is really the best discipline of cycling to try out. You don’t have to worry about drafting or tactics or strategy. If you fall off your bike you land on grass or dirt. There are lots of people around to cheer you on. You don’t really need anything special in regards to a bike, even a mountain bike works fine for your first try. Your friends and family can come watch and see a lot of the racing, and it does not last all day long. It’s really a lot of fun! The best thing to do for someone who wants to get into cyclocross is to join one of the cross clinics that take place in late summer or early fall so they can learn the proper techniques without getting into any bad habits. Then just go to a race and have a good time!

If you go: The state cyclocross championship races at Bassett Creek Park in Crystal will take place this Saturday and Sunday.

Chris Smith, 45, is the current President of the Minnesota Cycling Federation, the organization that promotes road and cyclocross races in Minnesota. He works part time as a cycling coach at The Fix Studio in South Minneapolis and in the bicycle industry doing PR and marketing for Lazer Sport, a Belgian cycling helmet and eyewear company. He lives in Minneapolis.