Learn the basics
Barriers, dismounts and remounts, shouldering the bike, and riding through mud or sand. The more natural these things come to you, the more comfortable your races will be. Find a clinic in your area, pick up some books, and hit up YouTube. Try different techniques and see what works for you.
Lap 1 in a 75 person field is no time to be refining your technique. We hold an open practice on Mondays in Cambridge. A group practice is great so that you can get feedback and learn from others, but if there’s not a practice near you, just set up some makeshift barriers in your backyard or local park, find a hill to practice run ups, and get to going.
Join a club/team
Joining a team will help keep you motivated and committed throughout the season. You’ll learn from more experienced racers, and have the practical benefits of team tents, carpools, and last minute equipment help. Find team near you that is active in cyclo-cross with riders that share your goal. Many road or mountain bike focused clubs wind down during cross season, so be sure to ask if they’re active year round.
Run what you brung
Commuter, mountain, old road bike, even a hybrid? Sure! Cross is made for a combination of bikes, so whatever you’ve got, you can use it to get your feet wet before laying out cash for a dedicated bike. You can also ask around your team (you joined a team, right?) since many people who’ve been racing for a few years will have a spare bike you can borrow.
The best way to get faster and have fun is to race early and often. You’ll pick up technique, skills and fitness as you go. Don’t just race and head home – stick around. Staying for the higher category race is also always a good idea for picking up skills. Watch other starts, or any area of the course you had trouble on, and see how they tackle it.
Avoid the mega-races for your first season. Go and spectate, but keep it local until you know you can hang with the pack.
Train hard, race hard, but, remember that it’s supposed to be fun. No matter where you are in the race, enjoy what you’re doing. Take this too seriously and you’ll only be disappointed, and end up as one of those masters racers that gets in post race fistfights. Don’t be that guy.