The Dark Art Of The Cyclocross Course

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“The best courses have balance. Sure they have tough sections, but also have a place to catch a breath.”


I’m gonna put this on the record – those who design ’cross courses are the unsung artists within our sporting midst. I believe they’re visionaries, weaving races through sometimes imperfect landscapes, maestros directing play with barriers, stakes and tape, creative sadists who know how to make us suffer and excel in equal measure.
Unless you’ve been there with the plans and Sharpies, slogging in the rain, turning a sketch into three-dimensional dirty reality, you might not have given much thought as to what makes your own hour in hell so uniquely special. Think about it, cyclocross is a sport entirely built around change – few fixed venues, different parcours week on week, massively varied challenges at every location and then, of course, there’s the weather.
As riders we know that the best can cope and indeed thrive on that variety and uncertainty, but, no matter what level we’re at, we all have our favourite course and we certainly know which elements play to our particular strengths. But where to start? What fills the minds of those tasked with delivering the course and all that comes with?
“My goal is to design a course that creates tight, action-packed racing requiring riders to continually take risks, while flowing smoothly and logically throughout the venue,” says Patrick Goguen, Program Director for one of America’s most prestigious cyclocross events, the KMC Cross Fest. Patrick knows a thing or two about ’cross – he’s raced and coached at elite level and is now the Team Director of Race CF, promoting philanthropy for those living with cystic fibrosis. “I believe that rewarding and accommodating all parties involved or impacted by the course creates positive results,” and that extends to the riders, “I think they expect the designer to be passionate and to care.”
But obviously those dreaming up the twists and turns, run-ups and drop-offs can only work with what they have. “Course design starts with choosing a great location,” says Davie Hamill, lead organiser for Dig In at the Dock, probably Scotland’s best loved cyclocross race – the entries sold out in just 15 minutes last year. “There are loads of places where you can put on a good ’cross race, but not many of them are in great locations.”
Imagine for a minute you’ve got a different set of problems such as the lay of the land and climate. To get an alternative perspective on what makes a great ’cross course I caught up with Greg Murison, cyclocross coordinator with the Perth Mountain Bike Club and at the heart of an emerging scene in Western Australia. “We’re limited with terrain,” says Greg. “I’d love to have more mud, and Perth is also a very flat city on a river so we struggle to have courses with enough vertical terrain. At this stage we’ve never taken our races out of the city either, but that’s something I’m planning at the moment.”
What’s common the world over is that those at the sharp end are all passionate about what they do, no matter how they do it. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Incredibly Cross, an under-the radar, unsanctioned series of guerilla ’cross races held on rough ground in and around London, UK, usually at just a single day’s notice.
“Our only need is that everyone enjoys themselves and that’s probably what the riders expect from our races – to have a shitload of fun,” says one of their organisers, who, given what they do, would rather remain anonymous. “More often than not we’re also racing, so as long as we are having fun then everyone else probably is too!”
Understanding your target audience is at the heart of the design process.
Mike Yozell from Emmaus, Pennsylvania, USA, describes himself first and foremost as a competitor, but has a long history promoting grassroots clinics and helping get races off the ground in the mid-Atlantic region. He’s the brains behind the Nittany Lion Cross, a UCI-sanctioned C2 early season event at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center. He explains his thinking: “The area we work with is comprised of three adjacent flat fields with a slight rise, 20 feet of elevation change between them. There’s not a lot going on terrain-wise so that means lots of turns and creativity to get a course that’s long enough, fast, but still offers some handling challenges and utilises all the terrain has to offer.”
With most riders in Nittany Lion coming into the race straight out of road or mountain biking, the course design needs to bear in mind that underlying fitness. “We add planks (barriers) and a set of stairs, and use the small section of woods and attendant singletrack to craft a course that helps bridge the road/mountain bike season to the ’cross season.”
Getting the blend right between physical prowess and rider’s skill is a dark art in itself. Davie Hamill takes me through his rationale: “If the toughness of a course correlated directly with how good it was, then course design would be very easy – you just make it nearly impossible to get round. The best courses have balance. Sure they have tough sections, but also have a place to catch a breath. When you have a series of tough sections, one after the other without anywhere to catch a breath, then it’ll knock the stuffing out of most of your riders and they’ll go into survival mode where they are just trudging round.”
Back in Philly, Mike Yozell has similar thoughts: “Riders want to be challenged by both the course and their competition. So, offering something that keeps them on their toes, maybe pushes them a tad in the comfort department or has a real complement to that in terms of flow, pace changes and speed, allows both new and experienced riders to walk away from a venue perhaps having learned a new skill and at the same time have really raced their fellow competitors and the course equally.”
For me, it’s that harmony between the land, rider skills, and course layout that has led to some of my most satisfying racing experiences. Goguen tells me about the approach he’s taken in Providence: “I just try to optimally use the landscape I have available, I love drop-offs and very wide sections of course offering choices of difficulty and speed, but I never try to force something that just isn’t there or doesn’t make sense.” He adds: “It drives me crazy when designers stick the barriers in a slow section virtually eliminating any skill requirement or risk.”
Working with nature is a common theme amongst the designers, as Yozell explains: “If an area has lots of natural features that get the rider off the bike, like sand, hills, run-ups or terrain, there is little need for adding planks or stairs. But if we can’t get the natural terrain, then in they go. I do like to keep certain types of chicanes and closing radius linked turns in the course design. And I do like stairs.”
In Bowness, Scotland, it’s all about that natural environment: cobbles, camber and carrying the bike. “If I could have something else it would be sand or a sharp climb,” says Davie, “Our races get coverage in the national press, so there are a lot of people watching who have never seen cyclocross before. I want them to see quite fast racing and I want them to see people skipping off and on their bikes.”
Down under in Perth, Murison and his dedicated team of ’cross converts have to make the most of what they’ve got when it comes to their course. “We have a park with a huge sandpit, and we built some stairs, so that’s always a part of it too. Otherwise we put in the barriers, and space them out a bit. I like to include a straight bit of road, and there’s always a bunch of hairpin turns boxed together somewhere as well.”
Later in the all-too-brief season, the Limestone Cross at the Kiln race in Emmaus is as different again. Mike fills me in: “It’s located in a small valley with a flat plain and tall hillsides that offer up a long ride/run, difficult sections in the woods on the hillside, and interesting man-made and natural features and elevation changes. It’s more technical, much more of a ‘bike driver’s’ course, but because of the time of the season it’s held, most riders are at the peak of their skills and ready for that type of challenge.”
Whereas the Incredibly Cross guys and their word-of-mouth racing don’t have to worry about landowners, “We’re completely unsanctioned so we don’t get permission to hold our races (shhh, don’t tell) so actually the hardest thing is actually just finding a venue in the first place”, the aesthetic impacts of ’cross races on venues are a major worry, as Patrick Goguen tells me.
“These challenges vary greatly from venue to venue, but ultimately the biggest obstacle is the lack of public knowledge, awareness and acceptance of the sport. Locals in the community don’t know or care about cyclocross or even know anyone who does and, therefore, have very little tolerance for the mark left behind. Park superintendents and groundskeepers are not familiar with anything like it; they don’t have any knowledge of the true ground compaction caused by bicycles and there are not many resources available with that information. So naturally they assume the worst and often battle tooth and nail to limit course boundaries or lobby to ban cyclocross from the venue all together.”
In Pennsylvania, things are thankfully different where race organisers and landowners seem to have reached a consensus. “We detail a worst-case scenario for the land managers, show them pictures of the possible aftermath and show them our remediation plan for fixing the grounds,” explains Mike, “Then we follow through. We pre-seed the course with the [grass] variety the land manager asks us to use. That way the seed gets driven in and we roll any horrible areas after the race. We are also lucky to have those long-standing relationships. It helps smooth over any bumps in the road that do surface.”
And what if budget and resource were no issue?
“There are an incredible number of things I’d like to do if more labour and material resources were available to the event – sandpits, artificial drop-offs, high banked hairpin turns, pump track section, huge staircases, multi-level flyovers,” dreams Patrick Goguen. Mike Yozell confesses that he’s fascinated with the rhythm section at the Azencross in Loenhout, Belgium, “We are building a short five-bump section at our in-town course where we hold our weekly training race. We’ll see how that turns out!” Thinking big isn’t a problem for the Incredibly Cross guys: “Foam machine? Flyovers? Sand dunes! Realistically we’re limited only by our imaginations, and geography, and no budget!”
At the end of the day, though, it’s about the racing – so what’s the preference: fast and flowing or testing and technical? “Tough choice. Can I just choose mud?” asks Yozell. “Actually I like both. But really, if I had to pick one it would be the technical course. They play to the well-rounded rider rather than just the person that can sustain the most watts the longest.”
Aussie Greg Mursion shares that view: “I think that courses should incorporate both, so that it is balanced between power and skills. Our courses take on the characters of their builders, so you really notice slow sections and fast sections on the same lap.”
But the last word comes from Scotland: “I’ll go with fast and flowing as that’s better for spectators,” enthuses Davie Hamill. “I prefer watching testing and technical, but my spectators aren’t all ’cross geeks like me!”