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From Hand-Ups to Handshakes: Why More Women Need to Race Cyclocross

As someone who’s been involved in the cycling industry, in one way or another, for the better part of 24 years, I’ve heard over and over again that women are not as competitive as men. And while it pains me to hear it, after attempting to start a women’s cycling magazine, and also being party to several surveys aimed at getting more women to ride, I actually feel the weight in the words.

But is it that women aren’t inherently competitive, or is it that they just don’t compete in cycling? If you take a look at triathlon participation, for example, women are routinely 30% of the field. The percentage of women who run marathons is even a bit higher. So, the question begs to be asked, “What’s the difference between triathlon and cycling?

In its own way, triathlon is all about the finishers, not just the first to cross the finish line. In fact, during long course races, the last few finishers that clawed their way to meet the 17-hour cut-off often get the greatest applause. When was the last time you saw anyone cheering for the sag wagon in a road race? When was the last time you were handed a “finisher’s medal” at the end of a Sunday criterium series? So, maybe it’s not that women aren’t competitive, maybe it’s just that they’d rather compete in an atmosphere that’s both supportive and non-exclusive.

If you’re female, and you want to both race and have fun without feeling like you’re a sheep in a room full of wolves, cyclocross is calling your name.

It’s really all about keeping things fun—balancing competitive spirit and silliness. I mean, really, why else would you dress up like a zombie to race your bike? Those “non-aero” costumes guarantee that you won’t be cutting through the air any faster than an elephant in a wind tunnel. And it’s not just on Halloween that the costumes come out. Depending on where you live, it’s every weekend.

Also, cyclocross is all-inclusive. Trust me. You won’t find the typical lettuce-eating, Lycra-swathed peloton in this crowd. Instead, you won’t have to feel bad that you ate that doughnut for breakfast, nor will you worry about turning your body in the camera approved “hip/leg-slimming angle.” The last podium shot I saw was a jersey-less tan-off contest between the Masters’ guys, and my eyes are still burning. Ladies, no matter what you do, please keep it classy.


Cyclocross courses are designed to be short. Riders jockey for position on the first lap, and then the field, for the most part, strings out. And while you may not relish being in last place, there really isn’t anything wrong with it. You won’t get pulled into a sag wagon, no one will laugh. Quite the contrary, actually. In my experience, it’s often the last few riders who get the most respect, and the most beer, bacon, cupcakes, or beer/bacon-cupcake hand-ups. It’s a plebeian sport. After the race, pros don’t just retreat to their team buses. No, they will party with you. If I had a dollar for every female friend who has a photo with themselves and Sven Nys at the 2013 World’s after party, I’d own a new Ridley X-Night.

Besides the obvious camaraderie and the less-than-cutthroat competition, from a gear and fitness perspective, cyclocross is pretty easy to get involved in. Gear-wise you’re able to race on anything from a mountain bike to a single speed. So it’s not a huge investment of your hard-earned money. It seems that one of the biggest roadblocks to getting more women involved in cycling is that many women have children, and many of those women also have jobs. And when you add the two together, it equates to far less time to train. The good news is that cyclocross races are short, with most being 40 minutes or less. They start with a sprint for the hole shot, and then they continue with a lung-burning effort. However, unlike road or stage races, where half the battle is developing an endurance engine, the short hard efforts of cyclocross are much more tolerable to the less-than-trained. In fact, you’re able to walk if you need to, and there’s always a ready supply of beer for a quick boost of carbs.

Cyclocross really is the only discipline in cycling that’s a party (well, except the six-day races, but those are a whole other form of entertainment). To that end, racers don’t just come, warmup, race, and leave. Everyone watches everyone else. And at the end of the day, this leads to lasting friendships and a pleasant race experience. So, if you’ve had the itch to race, but haven’t narrowed down a discipline, give ‘cross a shot this winter—you won’t regret it.

Photos: Ben Kuhns