The nights are cooling down. the days are getting shorter, and the evening air is crisp and tinged with smoke.

For many cyclists, autumn marks a time away from the bike, a welcome lull after an intense summer of training. But while some are slipping into an end of season break, others are gearing up for another, just as gruelling challenge.

This is cyclocross, which is sort of like the rallying of the cycling world, and fits its season between September and February. This makes it a great way for road racers to keep their race engines finely tuned during the winter months.

But don’t expect such strict rules in this sport. Unless you are at the pro level, cyclocross is a nice relief from the stanuch seriosity of road riding; this is a sport that allows adults to be like kids again.

No one really knows where cyclo-cross came from, its origin myths are as mysterious and wide ranging as the obstacles you might find in a typical course. Some say that the sport was developed by European road racers taking short cuts across fields to win races, and hopping over fences on the way. This meant running over muddy sections,  and brief intense sprints when the land permitted.

All this might sound like it is reserved for only athletes of the highest calibre, but actually cyclocross is accessible to pretty much everyone, even if you don’t have a cyclocross bike. The ethos is inclusive, and for most races you can just turn up and have a go, even on a mountain bike or adapted road bike.

There are novice races, youth races, ladies races and veteran races, this turns a short race into a family event, complete with food, beer, and a vibrant atmosphere. But despite being open to all, there is still the possibility of going pro,  and serious racers need to train just as hard to learn a completely different set of skills.

While you can get by with a bit of fitness and balance, in order to excel you will need to negotiate a course that seems designed for anything other than cycling.

Muddy pits, jump barriers, steps, steep ascents, gravelly descents, and pretty much anything you can dream of. This  means you need a combination of cycling skills, stunt riding skills, and scrambling skills!

Often when parts of the course are too boggy of steep for bikes, then riders will dismount and jog to save time. This means you will need to will need to master the art of dismounting at speed, a fluid motion that preserves momentum, and then be able to run like the wind with the bike on your back. Although getting off and on a bike might sound simple, in the adrenalized race atmosphere it can be tricky. This crucial maneuver can save you valuable seconds, but executed improperly can cause a massive pile up! 

If you can master dismounting at speed, then the next stunt would be the bunnyhop, allowing you to gracefully bounce over obstacles without needing to dismount at all.  Balance these technical skills with adequate fitness and you might get a good time in the race, which lasts between 30 minutes and an hour, and is generally rushed on (or jeered) by a cheering crowd!

Photo by Dave Haygarth | Flickr

If the thought of it has got the adrenaline pumping, or maybe you just want to keep fit over the winter months, then you find more info on the British Cycling website.

The rapid growth of cyclocross in the UK and USA has meant more and more events are springing up around the country, which means you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding one near you. And fear not if you haven’t got a cyclocross bike, apparently races have even been won on mountain bikes, which is pretty damn impressive, although kitted out road bikes are the more standard fare.