While cyclo-cross gets increasingly popular each year, seasoned racers fear events are losing a lot of their character as more and more restrictions are being placed on course design.

There are exceptions, such as the Three Peaks of course, but in the main, some of cyclo-cross’s best features have been faded out.

Take stream crossings. Once a frequent highlight in cyclo-cross events, now you’d be hard pressed to find one anywhere. According to British Cycling’s technical regulations: “Courses shall not be directed through water where an alternative route can be found.”

cyclo cross

Back in the good old days, stream crossings were a regular feature of cyclo-cross.

As for singletrack, this “should be avoided”, reads the event promotion guidelines in BC’s cyclo-cross handbook. “It is not a feature of modern cyclo-cross.”

Instead, regulations insist courses should be “sufficiently wide to allow overtaking at all points”.

In top events, courses have to be at least three metres wide the entire way around. Then there are steps, obstacles and sandpits to consider. All are governed by measurement and frequency restrictions that conspire to make at least 90 per cent of a cross course rideable.

“I think some of the old-school stuff was excellent,” remembers former national champion Nick Craig. “It was hard and made you very fit. Old school British races used to be quite extreme really. But we’ve sanitised it now in line with Europe. I think the theory is to produce better riders. But I think we are missing a trick. I think we need to toughen them up a bit.”

Although Craig admits he doesn’t miss the stream crossings (“when it’s December and it’s minus seven, you can do without them”), he really laments the loss of steep running sections.

“Running up a steep run-up and jumping on your bike used to be part of cyclo cross,” he says. “They’re dirty, they’re hard, they’re horrible and your legs hurt when you jump on because you’re in oxygen debt. But that’s the physical side of cyclo-cross that we now miss out on.”

Illustrating the loss, Craig recalls a race he recently rode at Leverhulme Park in Bolton.

“I rode my first ever cross race there when I was nine. There used to be a run-up, but now everything’s rideable. That’s a shame.”  

Nick Craig on Simon Fell, Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross 2010

Only at the Three Peaks can Nick Craig find a decent run-up nowadays.

Craig is not alone in ruing the dumbing down of cyclo-cross. Numerous other riders we’ve spoken to are also in agreement. National Trophy leader Paul Oldham is one. CW’s own South of England Champion, Stu Bowers, is another.

“It’s a very strong sentiment but cyclo-cross is having the soul sucked out of it,” says Bowers. “Natural dismounts, for example, used to be very much a part of cross back in the day. It didn’t have to be a regulation 40cm plank back then. If there was a dead body on the course, that would have been the dismount! Now things like fallen trees are vetoed. Everything has to be regimented.”

Although some of the new rules have been introduced following increased concern over health and safety litigation, many other regulations that cover cyclo-cross races have trickled down to the domestic level from international race rules devised by the UCI.

Forever keen to homogenise cycling, its changes have made cyclo-cross more like a winter form of road racing.

Now, where is the fun in that?

cyclo cross

Lost courses

It can easily be argued that less technical courses have made cyclo-cross events more welcoming to beginners and youth riders. And with numbers increasingly going up at local league events across the country, it’s hard to claim more sanitised courses are proving a complete turn-off.

Craig points out: “you just can’t put 170 riders on a technical old school course. That’s the sort of turn-out they’ve been getting in some of the senior events at the Notts and Derby league. Even with the newer style courses, if numbers go up much more than that, they’re going to have to consider running two races.”

Of course, a more accessible sport -that encourages more participants- is no bad thing. But stringent course specification means there’s not even the option of putting on a more challenging, old-school-style event.

Minimum width restrictions and an almost blanket ban on technical sections have resulted in the loss of some of our favourite courses.

Listed below are just a few of them.

Bagshot Scramble
Took place on an army trench-warfare training ground in Surrey. A romp around the sandy heathland was interspersed with scrambles through the dugouts.

Crow Hill
A tough, woodland-based number that went up and down a slippery technical hillside near Ringwood.

Southampton Sports Centre (Southampton International)
A phenomenal course that incorporated a steep descent, a river crossing and a natural dismount over a thigh-high fallen oak tree.

Shirley Hills (London Open Championships)
A proper hardcore cross course just down the road from CW Towers. A relentless roller-coaster route through woodland, with steps and tree roots aplenty.

Sutton Coldfield (National Championships 1999)
Featured a very steep section in and out of a quarry, and lots of tight turns in the woods. The 2010 Nationals took place in the same park but had to steer well clear of these parts.

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  • popeye doyle

    It all depends on what you want in a course, Far Im concerned might as well change its name as its not a cross country race for cycle& foot anymore as it should be But nothing more than a form of undulating grass track
    Fast yes ! but still grass track.

  • The future is bright

    I think this backward looking reminiscing is not at all helpful.

    Cross is having a revival precisely because it is accessible to all. The winging about 2 bikes is only applicable to a handful at the top, the rest of us in the middle and back of the field stop, clear out the muck by hand, jump back on and try and catch up our rivals.

    The format of most of the course being ride-able gives a good workout, with imaginative course design there are natural dismounts, dead turns to change the pace, and off camber to test bike handling.

    The point about all cycle racing is that it evolves, partly to reflect the evolution of equipment, and partly to meet the wishes of the riders. We should not steer cross back to long run-ups, twisty single track and jumps over walls, surely that is what XC Mountain Biking is all about?

  • sterv

    It’s not proper ‘cross if you don’t spend half the race searching for the bike you just chucked in the river:


  • old hedgey

    Barry is bang-on I reckon. Personally, I gave up ‘cross as it became impossible to compete, even in age-group racing, without at least two bikes, a helper (s), spare wheels etc. It seems to be getting to the point whereby you have to hire a Transit van to take all the equipment to a local race! I thought the idea was that you just turn up with a knobbly rear tire and away you go.

    Well, times change but we seem to be nowhere near competing meaningfully at international level so maybe ‘cross needs to reinvent itself into a peculiarly British pastime.

    If anyone is fortunate enough to possess a copy of Ron Good’s book of photographs, the supplementary DVD contains some incredible shots of riders almost drowning in an early 1960’s Cwmcarn Paragon event. A little over the top maybe but I bet there are people out there still shivering at the memory.

  • barry davies

    cross rider in the above article 3 of the top riders all say the same thing to quote Stu Bowers “It’s a very strong sentiment but cyclo-cross is having the soul sucked out of it ‘
    is he a top enough rider for you ??? when I was a top pro I rode old courses on decent tubs and nice wheels and was one of the few UK pro’s to finish on the podium in belgium more than once. whats your record ???
    the single bike rule works great here for our riders on our courses.

  • cross rider.

    as a top uk cross rider i would disagree totally,cyclo cross is changeing for the better,so we can ride more fluid races,I myself usually make up places on the run ups,but if you really want them you can find them in local leagues.I think if you want more techy go ride winter mtb leagues.As for the idea of having only one bike i think its ridiculous,cyclo cross is changing for the better and if you have raced much in belgium people may tend to agree with it.Make cyclo cross what you want but dont complain you want old style courses where you cant ride decent tubs or carbons and it is just a filthy ‘hole and spend half the winter ill because you have swallowed some dog sh)T.
    Just to point out this is a veiw carried by most of the top cyclo cross riders in the uk
    cross rider

  • Gethin Howells

    It’s a true shame that there aren’t more events like the Three Peaks as the UK has so many places ideally suited to such events. With the current increase in popularity of racing of all sorts and the increasing difficulty of ensuring police escorts and the like for road races more open moorland cyclocross races would surely be well attended.

  • barry davies

    here in north wales, the Revolution Bikes winter X league is run under TLI rules on old style courses,
    we have a no spare bike rule which means its a level playing field for all the riders although we allow as many spare wheels as needed.
    The TLI champs this weekend will be run on a old style course.
    I heard that one BC district has told organisers that they want courses where the riders do not have to get off there bikes !!!!!!!!!!!!