The inclusion of obstacles and varied terrain help set ’cross apart from the other bike racing disciplines. Beneath it all, ’cross is a bike race, but specific features can really give some personality to a particular course. USAC rulings limit barriers to 40cm high and 4-6m apart, with no more than two in succession. Unsanctioned events typically use those rules as a guideline, then create their own ‘illegal’ features. Check out our features on the history of cyclocross courses in Issue 19 and Issue 21.
In nearly any course, you’ll come across the barrier (wooden plank) section. In most cases, this describes a part of the course that has a set of two (or sometimes three) vertical boards running horizontally across the course. Racers must dismount and lift their bikes up and over these barriers.
But just because the official rules mandate a plank of a certain height and spacing, doesn’t mean you won’t come across a giant log (or two) or even a rock wall.
Run-ups are typically hills too steep, sandy or muddy to ride up, forcing racers to dismount, then push, carry or drag their machines up before riding on. Knee-deep peanut butter mud may also be encountered.
Depending on your geographical location, big tree roots might be a part of the course, as could sand pits or sandy beach sections. For some of us, though, a volleyball court might be the closest we’ll ever get to a beach.
Stairs and flyovers are other common man-made features. Stairs may be built into the side of a hill as a way of forcing riders to dismount and break up the race a bit. Exceptional bike handlers may attempt to just ride them.
Flyovers can seem daunting at first, but break them down into separate sections and you’ve got stairs to run up, and a quick remount followed by a short steep descent. Aside from the fun-factor, flyovers have practical use allowing a course to cross back on itself like a figure eight, which is useful in limited space.
Sometimes, a beer garden could be classified as a barrier. If you’re intimidated by loud noises, then you might have to brace yourself. Grabbing a beer or dollar hand-up might cause you to lose precious seconds, or even be disqualified if it’s a USA Cycling event.
Race venues are typically places with easy access and lots of parking such as schools, parks, or fairgrounds. The type of terrain nearby can give an advantage to certain types of rider. For instance, a grass or dirt course that’s relatively flat may favor a road rider, whereas a course with technical sections in the woods with slick roots and big ruts may provide an advantage to mountain bikers.
Most course designers try not to skew their layout one way or the other. With a little creative thinking, even a flatter venue can have some technical bits built in like twisty chicanes or U-turns. On the contrary, the entry to a slick muddy section could be a straight gravel road requiring a big engine to motor through.