The ‘Newbies’ guide to surviving a ‘cross race

Friend of Fluent in Cross Julie Phelan is a former elite level mountainbiker, now returned to cycling after a big break and finding herself strangely drawn to the delights of (muddy) ‘cross. In this guest article for FiC she dispenses some very handy pearls of wisdom on how to survive your first proper mudder…

This article was originally published on Julie’s website Woman on a Mission

Julie also runs off-road coaching courses for women in and around the Midlands area.




Last weekend was my first really muddy cross race of the season. As I approached the car and began sorting myself out, I felt rather pleased with myself. It wasn’t about my result, because that was the performance I had expected, but rather that I was now, a well organised cross racer. You might think, what the hell is she on about? But I can tell you life is much improved from my initial mud fest in Baggeridge Park a couple of years ago.

I recall approaching the car with it’s light blue upholstery, my backside and gloves plastered in mud and everywhere else, an interesting shade of brown. It was freezing and I knew my priority had to be getting dressed and warm. But how? I didn’t know where to start! I was on my own, but somehow, had to galvanize myself into action. How could getting undressed under a towel be that hard? I opened the car door with filthy hands, covered everything, and sure enough the car door closed on my muddy bum, as I reached over to fetch my clothes. There went the nice light blue interior and you can only imagine what it was like trying to ram a muddy bike into the back of the car.A total freezing mucky hell!

This isn’t a guide to buying a big van, pressure washer or organising staff to help you. We all begin by going to small races on our own with minimal kit. So how can you make it a bearable experience? Well here is my personal guide to surviving and making the whole thing enjoyable.The key is organisation.

I have the luxury of two bikes which are carried on a tow bar mounted rack. This has been the best present I have every had. No more mucky bikes in the car! I always pray for rain on the journey home, hoping I will arrive back with two sparkly bikes.

All post race clothes, shoes etc are thrown into a special plastic tub which can be swilled later. I do carry water, but usually a fair bit of this has to be used to wash the bike down after the practice ride, so there is little left for washing.Yep that sounds dreadful but believe me if you attempt to clean up with limited resources, the mess seems worse and most of it’s left on your towel. It seems better to just let it dry and jump in the shower at home. The use of a wet wipe on your face may be useful if you need to buy fuel or heaven forbid, talk to the RAC on the way home!

Faced with muddy wet legs, nice stretchy trousers like joggers or lycra bottoms pull on easily over filthy legs. Go for ease and speed, this is no time for vanity. You’ll just look like one of the ‘in crowd’!

On the way home I usually stop at the jet wash. I am slowly redistributing parts of the country, to a garage forecourt in Leek. Speed is your friend because by now you are dreaming about sitting on the settee with a well earned cup of tea and it’s beginning to get dark.

Once at home, all the muddy clothes are left soaking over night in a preprepared bucket outside by the back door.The washing machine usually gets a reprieve until the next morning.

So there you have it! Phelan’s guide to making a muddy cross race as easy as possible. I have no doubt you may have some additional ideas yourself. All you need to fret about, is how to pedal fast.

An after thought – Do you think dried mud under lycra feels like varicose veins? Not that I have got any but it does feel weird, Let me know? lol

FiC Drills Session

Cyclocross is all about technique and skill, not just fitness. But technical ability and skill don’t usually come out of nowhere, so ‘cross riders wishing to improve their racing or even just general riding and confidence need to practice those skills. Continually.

To help you improve, we’ve put together a handy lunchtime or evening session of drills for you to structure your efforts, and take you through a progressive session that will hit all the key techniques and skills in one fun session. Do this anytime of the season to keep you sharp, but particularly before the season starts and in it’s early weeks. If you have less time or limited facilities, just pick out the bits you can do more conveniently – a session on a couple of skills will still pay huge dividends when your are close to you max heart rate, and struggling for grip round a race lap in the future.

So, find yourself a convenient venue and get drilling!

Click here for a downloadable pdf version Fluent in Cross – 60 min Cyclocross Drill

Or get the 2 page drill session below:

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Grip or no grip? Testing Challenge Chicanes

I first became aware of the Chicane tread when Belgian-based UK ‘cross star Helen Wyman first started appearing at races in 2013 with a strange black and white set of tubs. In classic rider-led innovation, she had had made for her a set of prototype Chicanes, fashioned by cutting the middle out of some white Grifo XS file treads and surrounding it with the side knobs from a set of Limus mud tyres. Cue a hybrid, fast rolling tub that could handle some corners as well.



I have to say that I was skeptical at first – the Dugast Pipisquallo had already been on the market for a bit but had a pretty narrow operating range, particularly given the production versions had much less aggressive side knobs than on Marianne Vos’ (Rhino-esque) proto versions. It was, all in all, a bit of a disappointment, despite the hype. Still, the Limus tread on Helen’s test versions looked chunky enough, if it made it through production…

And it has, pretty much. The side knobs are still the same shape and still chunky, but have been spaced slightly closer together (than when in Limus form) on the production version to give a  constant level of tread right round the edge of the tyre Available in normal tubular, Team Edition tubular with cotton sidewalls and the highly successful Open Tubular (ie clincher) versions, I set about testing the normal tubular version in a variety of situations ranging from dry summer cyclocross to sodden wooden singletrack.

First impressions were less than positive. At lower pressures, on the hard surfaces on the way to my favourite ‘cross circuit they felt really sketchy and I nearly lost the front wheel in slow, tight turns as grip from the files suddenly evaporated and the side knobs skittered. But tarmac is hardly a fair test for a cyclocross tread so I soldiered on and got stuck in to more suitable terrain. And then as I rode more surfaces ranging from dusty trail to light mud, and at higher speeds, I realised how they needed to be ridden. Assertively.

It seems obvious really, that the light file tread might not have too much grip but that changes when the Limus bit gets stuck in, and that’s exactly how it is. But you Dear Rider, have to be the one to do it. In other words, lean in assertively and get those Limus bits to do what they do well. Think about it, half-commit to it, don’t lean the bike in enough or go really slow and it can be somewhat unnerving as the level of grip you want isn’t there. At least not until you slide slightly alarmingly enough to get at an angle when suddenly your Limus advantage kicks in. Turn in positively, at speed and even in quite slippy mud there is a lot of grip. Faff and it’s not so fun. Keeping your speed up in the corners has never been so important.



Overall, once I had learned to work the tyres, the level of grip was in excess of what I had imagined possible. Of course heavy mud overwhelms them, particularly in terms of grip on climbs or through really boggy sections. But in the kind of conditions you would run an intermediate tread like  Dugast Typhoon or Challenge Grifo for cornering traction alone, they feel faster and just as grippy. I even went out onto some offcambered, and recently wet grass assuming I would quickly find their limits but not so. The limit was there, but at a level way beyond what I had expected.

The requirement that you ‘work’ them and exploit rather than politely explore their operating ‘window’ means they may not be suitable for everyone, and particularly those not used to how low pressure tubulars squirm amd move beneath you. But, spend a bit of time learning them, commit to going fast on them when conditions are less than dry and you will find a tread that has a surprisingly large operating range from bone dry grassy summer ‘cross to early season winter races and even perhaps colder, icy and snowy races where conditions are slippy but not full on modder. Worth investing in as an alternative to your default mud tubs if you are a UK rider.


Stately coaching Super Cross style

As venues go, it’s not too shabby really. Broughton Hall, near Skipton, Yorkshire dates back to 1597 and the 300 acre estate has been in the same family for all the intervening time. Extensive and well contoured grassland, good access and a beautiful location make for a very special cyclocross experience.

It’s become a firm favourite on the Northern leg of the ever popular 3 part Rapha Super Cross series, and along with the usual fab Super Cross atmosphere, cowbells, beer, foam machine and general shenanigans, we were very pleased to be doing some free skills coaching organised by Rapha, on Day 1 of the double header weekend of 18/19 October this year. A small but keen group worked on their dismounts, remounts, cornering and carrying technique, several in preparation for racing later in the day. With varying degrees of experience from minimal to extensive, it was good to work on bedding in and fine tuning those essential ‘cross skills.

Coaches Mark and Alan also had a quick turnaround to get onto the start line of the combined Senior, Junior, Vets and Women’s race on an excellent course that threw fast corners, slow corners, off cambers, hurdles and some quite sticky mud at competitors.

First pic: Mark Turner

All other pics: Jo Allen


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Free skills coaching from FiC at Rapha Super Cross, Broughton Hall

Fluent in Cross will be providing two free 1hr coaching sessions at the Rapha Super Cross round, Broughton Hall on Saturday 18th October.

Aimed at beginners hoping to race ‘cross for the very first time at the 2014 Rapha Super Cross series, or in the near future, these sessions will cover how to get off and back on the bike safely and smoothly as well as carrying and cornering techniques.

Max 20 per session so book now!

Session times:

11am or 12pm

Please book on the links below:

Session 1: 11am – 18th October

Session 2: 12pm – 18th October

Venue for both sessions:

Broughton Hall
Skipton, Yorkshire BD23 3AE

A Race Tech reminder

Friend of Fluent in Cross Dave Haygarth has had a very short season this year, but reflects for us on how, even only after three races, he’s been rejuvenated by the importance of riding a race with head skills as well as fitness

Read more

The Crossjunkie/FiC Mud Index

A Mud Index for Cyclocross Riders

The original idea for this index came from an article in about 2000 by Dave Carr, a stalwart of the Californian Norcal cross scene. I’ve adapted it for European and more specifically, North West England conditions and changed the classification a little.

For the purposes of this Index, mud is ranked on a scale of 0 to 10 according to moisture content, zero being hard and dry and 10 being liquid water. Other properties include material content, color, stickiness, and so on.

Grade 0 – Dry Dusty Trail. Rare and iconic, this grade almost doesn’t make the classification due to its hugely infrequent appearances, seen only at the occasional summer cross. When it does appear, the smugness of those who have held onto file treads in the forlorn hope they might get some use, is something to behold. Not really fit for purpose in a cross race…

Grade 1 – Damp Earth. Nice and soft, tacky. Makes a pleasant sound as tires roll over it. Fun and effortless to ride on. Ultimate traction. Never separates from the ground, or if it does it doesn’t stick to the bike. Your bike won’t need cleaning which is nice, but because of that you forget that your tyres will drop mud all over the house when you move them after it has dried.

Grade 2 – Crosser’s Clay. A bad kind of damp earth, with not much more moisture content but a high clay content, found in several regions of the North West. Soft and sticky, it sticks well enough to shoes, but doesn’t separate from the ground too easily. meaning it slows down the bike and drains a rider’s energy subtlety and mercilessly. Irritatingly too, it fills the pedal cleats on shoes, rendering them heavy and impossible to clip in. Following rain, this type quickly transforms into Grade 3, which is even worse.

Grade 3 – Play-Doh. Water content is up to about 20-30%, leading to major sticking action. Literally jumps from the earth to your bike. Clogs up all treads (clincher or tubular) period, except perhaps an FMB SuperMud tub. Or possibly and old original Green Michelin Mud, clincher or tub conversion. Fills up the spaces between the tyre and frame, and quickly renders your gears to jumping single speed status. Causes the bike to gain 5 kilos in a matter of minutes. Requires pressure sprayer and brush to remove. And a spare bike and pit monkey or 3.

Grade 3F: Frozen Play-Doh. Occasionally frozen conditions in January can give to rise to this living hell for crossers. Don’t even bother racing without a spare bike and pit crew…

Grade 4 – Peanut Butter. Less sticky than Play-doh; more likely to stay on the ground. Moisture content is up to 40% or so. This stuff is sticky enough that one can’t really plow through it, yet it’s slippery and makes it hard to control the bike. Ruts form which may yield to a tyre, or send the bike careening off in an unanticipated direction. Requires ferocious pedaling to keep momentum – think parts of Leverhulme Park, Bolton. Occasionally a piece sticks to the tire and is thrown into the air, subsequently landing on another rider’s face. Good for photographers.

Grade 5 – Goo. About as thick and sticky as the energy gel you eat during a race, only brown and slightly less tasty, and more likely to be lumpy. Like Peanut Butter, Goo stays on the ground, but is less resistant to the advancing tire. At the now defunct Scorton Cross, large sections of this often included some content of cow dung or rotting flesh. In more pleasant venues Goo may be found on the verge of a wet grassy area where a few tires have passed.

Grade 6 – Slime. This is the level of mud where a rider really begins to have fun. Slime is wet enough that it sticks to everything but doesn’t really build up on the bike. Sticks together well enough that it will fly through the air in large masses. Slime often is found in corners where it can wreak havoc with traction, leading to a slide on your butt on the wet ground. Think Avenham Park Sept 2012….

Grade 7 – Glop. This is the wettest consistency of mud that can still hold a shape. When tires pass through Glop, a furrow is left that heals up slowly over time to a smooth surface. Liquid water may come to the top. It’s better to have thin ‘cross tires to slice through this stuff – yep, old school 28s and 30s. Imparts a shiny appearance to bicycle and body parts but at least cleaning is not so bad if you don’t let it dry.

Grade 8 – Slop. The bottom of a very wet mud puddle that is not refreshed by a stream. Still retains some lumpy qualities, unlike Grade 9 – Soup. Splatters very nicely and stains clothing better than any other type. Those in white kit will moan and their washing machine will shudder. Renders your glasses completely opaque. Remember not to smile at your friends after a dunk in this stuff unless you want them to laugh hysterically at the mud between your teeth.

Grade 8a – Bog. Specific to 3 Peaks Cyclocross, this is mostly water but with enough organic matter to coat everything and stop forward progress in an instant – see ‘Go on Ian’ faceplant

Grade 9 – Soup. 80-90% water, heavily laden with sand, particulate and goo, but without the lumps characteristic of Slop. Scientists might classify this grade as a “Non-Newtonian Fluid.” Typical of a stream crossing where the stream flow isn’t fast enough to refresh the mud. Will soak your jersey completely, while leaving the particulate matter all over the front. Doesn’t stick to the bike, instead just runs off onto the ground. Aim for this if your bike is clogging with mud elsewhere on the course.

Grade 10 – River Water. Might feature some residual brown colour (peat) but doesn’t stick to anything. Just wet and cold without any redeeming qualities other than it may loosen up thicker grades of mud from your tires and shoes. Mainly confined to the 3 Peaks Cyclocross.