Winter brings with it colder weather, shorter days and an end to the road racing season, but for many riders it also ushers in their favorite time of the year: cyclocross season.
A gloriously mucky and chaotic species of off-road racing, cyclocross is many things: a competitive winter outlet for road riders; a fun way of maintaining condition in the off-season; a great day out for spectators and, in its heartland of Belgium, practically a national religion.
If you’re keen to give ‘cross a go this winter – maybe you’ve previously dipped your toe in the (muddy) CX waters, or maybe you’ve been to a race and thought it looks like fun -you’re going to need a bike that suits.
While it is technically possible to compete on a standard road bike or MTB, a dedicated cyclocross bike is specially designed to cope with the rigors of the sport, and can also double up as a tourer, tough city commuter or adventure bike.
Read on for our guide to the defining characteristics of a modern cyclocross bike, and what you should look for when parting with your cash.
What is cyclocross?
Variously known as cyclocross, cyclo-cross, CX or just ‘cross, cyclocross is a form of short-course bike racing on off-road tracks, usually held from the months of October to February. While ‘cross has some elements in common with MTB and road racing (especially XC MTB or even road criterium racing), it’s a discipline all of its own, and specialist bikes (and riders) have evolved to compete.
Races are typically 30mins to one hour in duration and consist of laps of a short (2-3km) course, often featuring a mixture of surfaces including grass, sand, singletrack and of course mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Cyclocross races are also characterized by their use of obstacle-style challenges which require the rider to dismount and carry or ‘shoulder’ their bike, including railway sleepers, steps or steep ramps. Indeed all these things are a major part of the draw for racers and spectators alike with fluid dismounts, bike-hoisting runs and even bunny hops all regarded as essential elements of the ‘crosser’s skillset.
Poor conditions, slippery surfaces, obstacles and intense racing also make for a lot of crashes and tumbles, which again add to the spectator appeal (Belgian ‘cross races are traditionally a marriage of that country’s two finest traditions – beer and cycling – with a riotous atmosphere more akin to a music festival than a sedate sporting event).
So if all this sounds like your idea of a good time – and it certainly does to us – you’re going to need a bike to compete.
Cyclocross bikes – the essentials
At first glance ‘cross bikes may appear identical to normal road bikes – alloy or carbon frame, rigid for, ‘dropped’ racing handlebars, 700c wheels and relatively narrow tyres – but there are some key differences which make them suited to the demands of the sport.
Frame: At the heart of the CX bike is the frame, which like a standard road bike is typically made from aluminum alloy, carbon fiber or even steel/titanium. In comparison to a road bike frame, a CX bike frame is likely to be tougher and a little stiffer, more suited to the rough and tumble of off-road racing and with light-weight not much of an issue. Geometry-wise, the bottom bracket is a little bit higher to allow for more clearance of rocks, roots and obstacles.
The riding position will also be more upright – with a steeper seat angle and taller head tube than on a comparable road bike – to offer more stable and responsive handling at the expense of aerodynamic positioning (not really an issue in ‘cross).
CX bikes also traditionally featured cable routing that deliberately avoided the underside of the top tube, so as to make shouldering the bike more comfortable (some frame designers even flatten the profile of the top tube a little for this reason) although with the majority of modern frames featuring fully internal cable routing, this is no longer such a point of difference.
Many CX bikes forgo bottle mounts, the thinking here being that if you are shouldering/carrying your bike in a race, bottle cages will only get in the way. However, if you do want to use a CX bike as a commuting/touring/adventure bike, it’s worth looking out for features like this that may be absent from a purely race-focused frame (mudguard eyelets and rack mounts being other examples).
Where CX frames and forks also traditionally differed from their road cousins was also in offering much more tyre clearance, to enable the use of wider-profile, knobbly tyres and to allow plenty of room for mud and debris.
The need to offer plenty of mud clearance – enough so that the whole bike didn’t seize up when caked with inches of oozing clag – was also why traditional CX bikes used cantilever brakes instead of road-style calipers, although as we shall see below, the growth of disc brakes has all but solved the clearance issue, and led to a blurring of the lines between endurance road/adventure and CX bikes.
Wheels and tyres: As above, CX bikes use bigger tyres than standard road bikes, typically from 32-40c in width compared to 23-28c. Cyclocross-specific tyres also use grippy, knobbly treads for improved traction in muddy conditions, have tough sidewalls to protect from punctures, and are run at lower pressures than road tyres for increased grip.
Racers will traditionally have used tubular tyres to help prevent pinch flats (caused by the tube getting pinched against the rim when running low-pressure tyres in rough terrain) but the increasing availability of large-volume tubeless tyres – which can be run at very low pressures and which self-inflate when punctured – and matching wide-rimmed wheelsets has made tubeless an obvious option for more and more CX riders.
Wheels are built to be durable and tough, with higher spoke counts than standard road wheelsets and wider rims. Wheelsets can be alloy or carbon, although the aerodynamic advantages of deep-section carbon rims aren’t really relevant in ‘cross.
Brakes: Once upon a time ‘cross bikes were characterized by cantilever brakes, but in just the past couple of years ‘cantis’ have largely been superseded by MTB-style disc brakes, either mechanical (cable-operated) or hydraulic. Discs offer a range of advantages over rim brakes, with improved power modulation and wet weather performance.
With the braking surface removed from the rim of the wheel, discs also prolong the life of your wheelset – no longer are you’re grinding your wheels down an abrasive mix of grit and water every time you want to come to a halt.
Disc brakes also make it easier for CX frame designers to provide ample frame/fork clearance for wide, mud-encrusted tyres. Dispensing with the need for a brake bridge frees up lots more space at the fork crown and between the seat stays, so fitting in fat rubber is no longer a squeeze. We’re seeing a similar evolution with disc-equipped road bikes which, particularly in the adventure/endurance sector, are also now being ridden with wider 28mm tyres for extra comfort and cushioning.
The dawn of the ‘do it all’ bike isn’t quite upon us, but we are seeing CX bikes that with a tyre change could serve perfectly well as road machines, and vice-versa with some disc-equipped endurance road or ‘allroad’ bikes – stick a set of knobblies in there and there’s nothing to stop you entering your local CX league.
Gearing: With courses characterized by short, sharp efforts, CX bikes typically offer gears in the lower range than their road cousins, to help with spinning up steep climbs or maintaining traction in sticky conditions.
A standard road race setup, for example, marries a 53-39t front chainset with an 11spd, 11-28t rear cassette offering a 22-speed gear range with a wide range of ratios. A CX chainset, in comparison, might offer a 46-36t chainset and 12-32t cassette to give a selection of lower gears (with a long-cage rear mech to handle the chain slack when using such a big lowest sprocket).
Most CX bikes will use 10- or 11-spd rear cassettes, but we are increasingly seeing the road-style double chainset being ditched in favor of a 1x (‘one by’) setup for CX.
This means that no front mech is needed and instead of having 22 gears, but with a lot of overlap in the ratios, we have a simplified 10- or 11-spd setup. 1x gearing has a lot of appeal for CX riders (as well as MTBers) because it’s simpler and lighter than 2x, and with no front mech there is less chance of the entire drivetrain being clogged up with mud.
The latest generation of clutch rear mechs and narrow-wide 1x chainrings meanwhile mean there are no issues with chain retention, and the range of gears on offer (and the gaps between them) are perfectly fine for CX.
Which CX bike is right for me?
There is a huge range of great CX bikes on the market at the moment aPrt a wide selection of price points so it’s not hard to find one that suits your need.
When choosing a CX bike there are two key questions to consider: what is your budget, and how much racing will you do?
The answer to the first will guide your choices, while if you intend for the bike to be a bit of an ‘all-rounder’ as opposed to a pure race machine, you’ll need to check for features such as bottle cage mounts, pannier mounts and mudguard eyelets.
Once you have your budget decided, here are some of the main things to look for:
ENTRY-LEVEL CX BIKES
Price point: Below €1,500/£1,340
What to look for: At the entry level, the majority of frames will be tough, durable aluminum alloy – perfect for the rough and tumble of ‘cross competition but not as lightweight as their carbon cousins. If your budget is limited we still recommend alloy over carbon – low-end carbon frames don’t offer much of a performance advantage over good quality alloy ones, and you’ll often find that compromises have been made in the rest of the kit selection.
You may consider a cantilever-braked bike if you can pick up a bargain, but for the most part the ‘cross community has embraced disc brakes, and even entry-level bikes will have mechanical stoppers from Shimano, Avid, Tektro or TRP (the latter’s Spyre models are a well-regarded alternative to hydraulic brakes).
Gearing-wise, you’ll be looking at 9- or 10-speed versions of the lower/mid-tier groupsets from Shimano or SRAM. Nine-speed Shimano Sora will be found at the bottom of the price range, followed by (the excellent 10spd) Tiagra or even 11spd 105 (or its SRAM equivalent, Rival). At this price point, wheelsets are likely to be basic, but look for good-quality CX tyres.
Again, if you are just testing with the waters with CX and want a versatile, do-it-all drop bar bike, check for extras such as bottle bolts and ‘guard/rack mounts.
Buy if: You like the idea of giving CX racing a try, and a second bike could also see service as a city commuter, winter explorer or summer tourer.
MID-RANGE CX BIKES
Price point: €1,500-€2,500/£1,340-€2,230
What to look for: At this price point, you’ll be looking at a carbon fiber frame and a mid-tier 11spd groupset such as Shimano 105, Shimano Ultegra or SRAM Force. With this budget, you may also have the option of going for a 1x setup (usually SRAM Rival or Force). Depending on the groupset you may still find mechanical brakes in use, but you should really be looking for hydraulic brakes, a mid-range alloy wheelset and decent tyres.
Buy if: You want to give the local CX league a decent crack this winter and need a bike that’s up to the job.
HIGH-END CX BIKES
Price point: Over €2,500/€2,230
What to look for: At the top end of the range, you are looking at race-bred machines whose sole focus is helping you get to the finish line, faster. Lightweight carbon frames and top-tier groupsets are a given, with hydraulic braking and 1x options widely available, and electronic shifting also making an appearance.
High-end carbon wheelsets shave weight for performance benefits, and expect few if any concessions to non-race practicality (bottle bosses or rack mounts) – these machines are bred for racing, and racing only.
Buy if: You are already an experienced CX racer looking for a performance advantage with the best available equipment.