It normally happens around the middle of June. I open the garage and take a sneaky peek and make sure everything's OK. I start to get slightly twitchy. There's an occasional wistful daydream - I've been accused of having a far-away look in my eye. Then there are the covetous glances. Furtive looks out the corner of my eye - a few seconds of trail here, a bit of a muddy puddle there, a fallen branch that's just the right height; maybe even my absolute favourite, a half-hidden set of wooden steps.

An expert in his field... Olly in action. Photo: Matt Cain
An expert in his field... Olly in action. Photo: Matt Cain

As the summer passes by, the daydreaming gets worse, the wistful looks are longer and the covetous glances become ever more obvious. Come the middle of August and fever pitch is building. I start dreaming of warm-up balm, the splatter of mud on freshly shaved lower limb and the delicious love/hate feeling of pushing my heart rate way above where it should be.

As the last dying days of summer crawl slowly past I think I might just burst with excitement. And then finally it's here - the 1st of September sneaks up and just like a kid at Christmas, I'm so happy I'm almost hopping up and down on the spot. It takes every ounce of self-control that I have to not bounce out of bed at 3am to go and look under the metaphorical Christmas tree and see whether Santa's been yet.*

So what am I getting so unnecessarily excited about, you may well be asking?

September 1st is traditionally considered to be the first day of the cyclocross season (of course). With the end of summer comes the start of what may well be the best 5 months of cycling in the calendar. OK, so the weather gets steadily colder, darker and probably wetter, but for a 'cross rider, part of the fun is triumphing over adversity - it's trying to nail a lethally slippery off-camber corner in a grassy park somewhere, whilst a large majority of the cycling community are peering out through a rain-lashed window, eating too much and carefully cultivating a bit of winter "plumage" around their midriffs.

So, what the hell is 'cross and more importantly, why should you, as a sportivista, consider adding it to your repertoire?

When the roads start looking like this  it's time to swap your road bike for something a little more rugged. Photo: OS
When the roads start looking like this it's time to swap your road bike for something a little more rugged. Photo: OS

CX: the back story

Basically cyclocross is riding an inappropriate bike on inappropriate terrain. It started back in the mists of time when, so the story goes, a small group of slightly off-kilter French/Belgian/Dutch (depending on which version you believe) road racers were getting trigger-happy in the off-season and decided to take to their road bikes on an adventure on the farm tracks, dirt roads and wasteland close to where they lived. They rode their normal road bikes, albeit with some judicious bodging to fit in slightly fatter tyres, and they may have worn slightly warmer clothing. Although then again, if they were Belgian, hardship and suffering seem to be their forte, so perhaps they just wore their normal summer race kit. They rode until they were exhausted. And then came home and drank beer and ate frites avec mayo.

And that, in essence is where 'cross started and to a large extent, where it still is now. For many road riders (and racers) it's seen as a perfect way of maintaining fitness, motivation and skills in the off-season.

Of course, as with most things in cycling, as time has progressed, the sport has diversified and subtle changes have kicked in. 'cross was originally seen as exclusively a winter hard man's way of keeping fit and was 99% built around racing. These races were (and still are) short, hard, crazily fast and relied on the racers having a phenomenal mix of speed, power, skill and nous - the top races are often won through clever tactics and finely honed race-craft as much as they are by sheer fitness or speed.

Over the course of the last five years or so though, there's been a sea change in the way 'cross is viewed. It used to be all about racing, but now a huge majority of 'cross bikes will never go anywhere near a race-course - they'll be used for the towpath commute to work, a winter ride with friends or as the perfect machine to pop down to the shops on when the weather's less than perfect.

Our cousins over the pond to the west have really got the 'cross bug and have been trying to mutate its genetic makeup even further. Out there the brash younger brother of cyclocross is gravel racing (fast, hard, "road" racing on non-tarmacked farm roads that they seem to have in spades in parts of the States).

On a beach  waiting for the Belgians to show up. Photo: OS
On a beach waiting for the Belgians to show up. Photo: OS
On the continent, on the other hand, they have been taking their bikes to the seaside for a day out. Beach racing, on 'cross bikes with greater fork/frame clearances to allow them to run fatter tyres, is this year's big thing if you're Belgian.

In the UK, 'cross is growing and diversifying too. Not content with "just" a few months in the winter, there are now summer race series popping up all over the country, and big numbers attending regular weekday evening races. There are infamous annual night-time 'cross races, urban 'cross races, and for the first time, we're even going to have a round of the World Cup in the UK this November.

In racing terms, being asked to host a round of the UCI 'cross world cup is the equivalent of Mssrs Wiggins and Froome asking if they can come and join your Sunday club ride - it shows that we've made it in the world of 'cross racing.

The big issues

So far I've looked at the origins and growth of 'cross, but there's so much more still to consider. I haven't got onto the disc brake versus canti brake argument; I've failed to mention whether you need to shave your legs or not; I haven't discussed the tubs versus clinchers thing, or even considered whether you should run a single chainring or a traditional double chainset?

How about bunny hopping barriers or jumping over them on foot? How do I broach the cowbells or vuvuzellas topic; and, maybe most importantly, what constitutes the right amount of mayo to have with your frites?

Next time I'm going to be reporting from the World Cup, so I'll see how many of these exciting topics I can find the answers to there and I'll let you know. In the mean time, if you find yourself casting longing glances at a muddy trail or hillside in the coming weeks, why not take the plunge and get 'cross. You'll find a bit of extra inspiration here...

*Actually, all of that is a lot of "poetic licence" as I ride my 'cross bike year round and love it more than any bike I've ever owned. But who ever let the truth get in the way of a good story....