The Dirt Dispatch: 5 tips for ’cross racing mountain bikers

Thinking of trading your fat tires for less fat tires? Follow these suggestions to have fun and go fast, in that order

As someone who cut his teeth on singletrack, I’m a little biased when I say that mountain bikers have an edge when they hop into a cyclocross race. That being said, pinning a number on a skinsuit is a little different than zip-tying a plate to your bars. Here is my advice for ’cross-curious mountain bikers, earned from years of often ill-fated experience.

1. Prep for the start like it’s Black Friday

Never underestimate the importance of the race start. Sure, in some locales, like my New England homeland, mountain bike races shoot you right into gnarly singletrack, but often, in places like the west, courses are a tad more leisurely as they climb fire roads from the gun. Do not think you’ll be able to sort things out after the pandemonium of a cyclocross start. You need to be riding in the top 10 to stay out of trouble. It’s like a Black Friday Target stampede, except a bit less NASCAR apparel and fewer lunch lady arms. If you want to get little Jimmy that PlayStation he wants, you’ll need to be quick and have sharp elbows.

2. Mind the corners

Thank goodness you aren’t a pure roadie. Those guys have a lot more to learn when it comes to the wildly variable surfaces encountered on a ’cross course. Mountain bikers know how it feels to get loose on kitty litter over hardpack, or how to let a bike follow its own line on a muddy day. The problem is, you know how this feels on a bike with a couple inches of travel, meaty tires, and functional brakes. Cornering on a mountain bike is like trying to pick up a date at a raucous frat party, while the same maneuver on a ’cross bike is like wooing a snobby debutante at a fancy wine tasting. Cyclocross is all about finesse.

3. Enjoy buying gear

I hope you like buying gear! Of all the cycling disciplines, cyclocross may be the most ridiculous when it comes to specialized equipment. I’m talking about stuff that’s only slightly more useful than the Slap Chop combo pack your parents got you for Christmas. Don’t worry about that. Of all your bike’s components, tires make the biggest difference. Tubulars are best, and remember, they are actually compatible with inexpensive aluminum rims — don’t be fooled by the plethora of thousand-dollar carbon fiber wheels on the start line. Skinsuits? They feel fast, but remember, no one ever won a race because they looked like an overstuffed bratwurst.

4. Yes, two bikes

Guess what? You actually need two bikes. That’s right, ’cross has pits, where you can get an entirely new bike at your leisure. If you’re concerned with winning the race, this is where you leave a second, identical bike, along with an unwitting (soon to be ex-) significant other who must acquaint themselves with the powerwasher. If you’re trying to do well, just chuck your mountain bike in the pit and hope the saddle is still at the right height. Alternatively, get a cooler with a six-pack of nice craft beer, and be ready to start drinking it if your bike breaks or you get tired of going in circles. You’re bound to meet a (soon to be eligible) lady or guy who will desperately need a cold drink.

5. Hop the barriers, you’re a mountain biker

Who put these boards in the course? Barriers are an incomprehensible nuance ingrained in cyclocross culture. Mostly, they serve to make the discipline seem even more contrived to the uninitiated, but, like it or not, you’re going to have to go over them. Just imagine the barrier is a rocky ledge in the middle of a fast trail that you have to hump over to avoid dabbing. Now pop up your front wheel, shift your weight, and jump them! That’s right, as a mountain biker, you’re equipped to be the life of the ’cross party by hopping barriers. Now, I’m not saying you’re equipped with the skills to do it successfully, but you have the right mindset to have a go. And let’s face it, you’re just as likely to get hurt running them.

Easy enough, right? Above all, the key to succeeding in ’cross is just trying to have fun. There will be a ton of super-serious roadies, and even — gasp — a few overly grumpy mountain bike racers out there. Plus, there’s an entire cult of hardcore ’crossers who monitor Sven Nys’ every move with the attentive fervor of a clutch of nuns awaiting the wisp of white smoke issued from the Vatican to announce a new pope. That doesn’t matter to you. You’re a mountain biker. Do things your way, go fast, have fun, and take beer feeds.