Privateer VS Pro - CX Racing in Belgium

Privateer VS Pro - CX Racing in Belgium


Words - Nat Redmond
Cover image - Annick Lamb / @gritworldmedia

Cyclo-cross (CX) is a contradictory sport. Amateurs love its ‘rock up and race’ vibe allowing you to be as competitive (or relaxed) as you want to be. At the other extreme, a professional cyclocross racer has multiple bikes, multiple sets of wheels and an entourage to clean and service their equipment. At the European CX races, these setups are so extensive that spectators will often wander through the elite rider parking to get a glimpse of their favourite riders as they emerge from their heated motorhomes to head to the course. 


I'm an Australian racer who spent 3 months competing in 25 cyclocross races across Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany and Denmark. It is a huge logistical challenge for foreigners to organise support and equipment when you are constrained by what you can fly over with, or what you can buy/borrow/steal over here. The racing season runs over the European winter so you need to be equipped for all possible conditions from hot and dry to sub-zero and snowing. This is a run-through of the setup that my partner Mitch and I put together to give me the best chance when competing against the best riders in the World.


Spare bikes are essential when racing in Europe. Riders can swap bikes during the race by scooting through the pits, dismounting and thrusting their bike towards a waiting mechanic, grabbing their spare bike from another mechanic, remounting, and carrying on. On a dry, fast course a rider is only likely to change when they have a mechanical but on the heaviest mud courses riders may swap as often as every half-lap. Without a spare bike you would have to abandon races if you had a mechanical and your risk of getting a mechanical steadily increases the longer you ride the one bike during a heavy mud course. 


I have two Cannondale SuperXs set with identical geometry. Some people choose to have a high-use ‘training bike’ and a low-use ‘racing bike’ but I do all my training and start the race on my ‘main bike’ because it has a power meter crankset.

My bikes are running SRAM Force CX-1 with 38T chainring and a 11-32 cassette. This gearing has you covered for 95% of races, although there are only a few very steep courses where it might be preferable to have an even smaller gear this could easily be arranged by swapping to a 11-36 cassette. I really like the 1x because it's is one less derailleur and shifter to maintain. I also shoulder my bike on the drive-side which means I am less concerned about hitting the front derailleur. 


If a rider was going for the bare minimum equipment I'd still recommend they bring two sets of ‘racing wheels’ to Europe so both of their bikes will be race ready. I brought four sets of racing wheels and I changed the tyres throughout the season as the conditions steadily worsened. I started the season in September with two sets of intermediate tread tyres, one set of file treads (for the sand races) and one set of mud tyres. I finished the season in December with one set of intermediates, one set of semi-mud tyres and two sets of full-mud tyres. All my race wheels run tubular tyres which allows you to run pressures as low as 14 psi and is what almost every rider is racing on in Europe. I bought a set of basic road clincher wheels over here for warming up on and for road training that won't make it back to Australia.


Two bikes and four sets of race wheels seems like a lot, but most of the professional riders will have 3-4 bikes and 6-10 sets of wheels. They'll have a tyre option for any condition and a bike even if there is a catastrophic mechanical. When you have fewer wheels it pays to be more conservative with your tyre choices – better to be stuck with a mud tyre on a dry course than an intermediate tyre on a slippery course. It also becomes even more important that you go into the race weekend with all your equipment in great condition as you may not have the resources to fix it or replace it at the race. 


Clothing is a personal choice but the general rule is to have two of everything. I will wear one set of clothes during course practice and then change into fresh kit including dry shoes and socks for the race. It was very cold this season so I wore a thermal skinsuit when it dropped below 2 degrees. It is crucial to keep as warm as possible in the 15 minutes between finishing your warmup and starting your race. I wear zip-off pants and a thick jacket over the top of my racing kit to try and keep as warm as possible. The pants and jacket get ripped off and thrown to Mitch when the organisers call “two minutes before the start!”


We really had to save weight on tools for the flight over. It just isn’t practical to fly over with a work stand and a floor pump but you don’t want to fly back with anything you purchase either. Helen and Stef Wyman lent us a Feedback sports work stand which eliminated one bulky and expensive purchase. To reduce the risk of misplacing something Mitch keeps everything in a great tool roll from Acre. The most used tools in our set are the 5mm hex key for all the things, the T25 for adjusting disc brakes, the torque wrench for tightening headsets and masterlink pliers for taking chains off to re-wax.


You'll also want to have some common spare parts on hand at the races. You can always be more prepared but we take the following spares to races: brake pads, hangers, jockey wheels, inner and outer gear cables, chains and a rear derailleur. We also have spare tubular tyres ready to go at home if you puncture on the Saturday race and need a new tyre for the Sunday race. It’s probably easier to re-glue a tubular tyre and get it to sit straight with a truing stand but you can manage without.

We use a bunch of cleaning and lube products for the constant cleaning at races and post training plus the fortnightly overhauls.  Some of the key products are SRAM shifter lube for all those times the bike goes headfirst into sand and waterproof grease for the headset which is constantly under attack from mud and water. Servicing wheel and bottom bracket bearings beyond a surface clean and re-grease is a few more tools than we have so we get bike shops to do that work when necessary.

We have been running Molten Speed Wax chains for a year now, and it’s been interesting to see how we managed away from home base. Rewaxing chains is done by melting wax in a slow cooker, swishing the chain in the melted wax and then hanging the chain to dry and set. The mechanics job at both muddy and sandy races is much easier with waxed chains as the wax doesn’t pick up grit like a greased chain. However, because of pressure washing bikes we will often re-wax after only one or two races which is much more frequently than you would for a road bike. The chain on the main bike has done over 30 races is just about to hit 0.5 wear on the chain checker, so it will be retired this weekend. 


For pre-race warmups and indoor training during the week we bought a Feedback Sports Omnium Trainer. This is great for CX bikes as it works for thru-axle, has progressive resistance, is very quiet, and is reasonably light and compact.


We hired a Mercedes Citan (it’s a rebadged Renault Kangoo) as our own mini motorhome. It’s big enough to take all our equipment and to change in! Without team stickers or my face on the van, we sometimes have trouble getting into the elite parking section. The advantage of a van with no logos, no windows and a steel bulkhead is that it is hopefully not a target for criminals. The one purchase I didn’t make but would have liked to was a 3x3 tent as the weather was occasionally too wet and miserable to not have a tent to warmup and work on bikes under. 

We don’t have a personal pressure washer and air compressor like the majority of riders. They are expensive and we don’t have a generator to power that equipment anyway. Instead we fill 2 or 3, 10-litre containers with hot water when we leave home for the race, so it is still warm when you need it in the afternoon! You can get your bike sparkling clean with some water in a bucket, a dash of dishwashing liquid, a brush and some elbow grease. Pressure washers are a must in the pits for their speed, but if you can wash by hand its probably better for the bike – in particular, water pressure can rot out the sidewalls on your tubular tyres. That said, a fully caked bike is not very easy to clean by hand and needs an initial rinse with the pressure washer. 

How the pros do it

How the pros do it

We don’t have the luxury of a motorhome with a fridge or a cooker, but when it’s 3 degrees outside your ham sandwich and recovery chocolate milk will be at an optimal temperature.
The most important part of your set up is having at least one other person to help you at the race. Most of the time Mitch is my only support, he sometimes has a harder job than the racer. Over the course of the day I will: Do one or two course practice sessions depending on the course, warmup on the trainer, race for around 45 minutes and cooldown. At the same time Mitch will unload the car and get the bikes set up with the wheels I want to ride, clean my bike after course practice, get the other bike set up when I finish my warmup, take my jacket at the start line, work the pits for me during the race, clean my bike after the race and repack the van so we can go home. I know which job I would rather be doing. 


For those considering taking the next step and racing in Europe it is important to reach out beforehand to other riders and lean on their experience. If you can reduce your stress by being well organised and having a support team you will get so much more out of every race. It is certainly challenging for Australian’s and other riders from developing CX countries to make the leap into European CX races. However, the calibre of the riders, the depth of the fields, the difficulty of the courses and the professionalism of the races create an experience which is incomparable to anything else in the world and so worthwhile.

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