What is a Cyclocross Bike?
As a sport, cyclocross - or CX - began in early 20th Century in Europe, with the first French National Championship being held in 1902. It was used as a way for professional riders to keep fit during the winter months and improve their handling skills. The discipline involves riding off-road courses that incorporate obstacles and difficult sections of terrain, encouraging riders to dismount and run with their bike over their shoulder. Today it is one of the most spectator-friendly forms of cycling, with it having particularly popularity in Belgium and Holland.
Any non-cyclist could be forgiven for assuming a cyclocross bike is a road bike, and they wouldn't be far from the truth. Essentially, 'cross' bikes are road bikes with a few adaptations for off-road terrain like wider tyres and disc brakes.
Despite their racing pedigree, cyclocross bikes actually make for great all-rounders. Their ability to maintain speed on the road and handle off-road trails means they are great fun and can handle most things you can think of throwing at it. Modern CX bikes are very versatile and are increasingly popular choices for commuting, touring and winter bikes.
Are there different types of Cyclocross Bike?
Cyclocross Racing Bikes
Racing focussed cyclocross bikes are designed with durability in mind. Frames are built to be strong, but also light enough to allow riders to shoulder their bikes when they dismount. Traditionally, cantilever brakes are the norm, although modern bikes usually have disc brakes which give better mud clearance and improved stopping power in wet conditions.
The drivetrain of racing oriented CX bikes uses close-ratio gearing and sometimes just one chain-ring to prevent the chain falling off (this usefully makes the whole bike lighter, too). Manufacturers will specify all-around use tyres at the point of sale, but riders wanting to race may want to consider changing these as conditions shift throughout the racing season.
Gravel/Touring Cyclocross Bikes
More versatile and rugged cyclocross bikes are very popular at the moment, especially in the UK. They can vary from road-adapted versions of standard cyclocross bikes to full-on gravel grinders. For example, versatility focussed cyclocross bikes may be designed with eyelets for carrying luggage and extra details that make travelling by bike that bit easier. These usually feature gearing with a wide range of ratios, providing excellent top-end speed and allowing for more comfortable climbing when fully loaded.
Alternatively, gravel bikes offer a slightly more extreme variation on traditional racers. They often come with wider tyres than normal - 'plus' tyres - and some smaller companies even offer frames that can use mountain bike wheels. This allows riders to tackle tougher terrain, which standard cyclocross bikes couldn't even begin to handle. This makes this type of cyclocross bike extremely popular for endurance races like the Tour Divide.
What type of Cyclocross Bike should I buy?
The versatility of cyclocross bikes means that most variations are adaptable enough to suit a wide range of riding styles with only a few minor alterations. However, it is worth considering what your primary intention for a cyclocross bike will be, as a racing-focused build might not be as adaptable for touring and visa-versa.
Many experienced cyclists choose cyclocross bikes as their winter steed or commuting bike. Some will come with mudguard eyelets to keep you dry in the wetter months, whilst changing off-road tyres for a pair of 25mm slicks will mean you have no trouble keeping up during the Sunday club run. In this case, it's worth looking for bikes with more road-friendly gearing - a compact chain-set for example and frame bosses for versatility.
For riders looking to experience the fun of a Sunday morning mud-bath, cyclocross racing is the solution. Racing focussed bikes offer lightweight frames made of either alloy or carbon and a more aggressive geometry. Traditionally designed bikes will use cantilever brakes, but these are hard to adjust and don't have the same dependability offered by disc brakes. It's worth leaving a bit of extra cash in your budget for accessories like wheels and tyres, especially if you want to commit to a full season of cyclocross racing.
Gravel & Adventure Riding
Adventure cycling has become increasingly popular in recent years, and the rise of bike-packing has given a great deal of flexibility and personalisation to the traditional touring experience. Cyclocross bikes are perfect for these kind of adventures, especially those that venture off the beaten path. Steel frames are popular and give extra comfort for those long days in the saddle, whilst wider tyres provide a stable contact patch on rough terrain. Many bikes in this adventure category will also have a variety of frame details like spoke holders and extra bottle-cage mounts to account for every eventuality.
What should I look for when buying a Cyclocross Bike?
Cyclocross frames are very similar to road bike frames. Alloy and carbon fibre are the most popular materials for racier designs, whilst steel frames make for great adventure and gravel bikes. The choice of frame material really does depend on what you primarily intend to do with your cyclocross bike. If you want to give cyclocross racing a go, look for a frame that will provide stable handling, will be forgiving when you dismount and light enough to throw over your shoulder on the run.
Gears and Drivetrain
Due to the versatility of cyclocross bikes, getting the drivetrain right for your style of riding is key. However, many off-the-shelf drivetrains will cope with the majority of traditional cyclocross conditions. There's nothing wrong with using an adventure bike for the occasional race, but the wide range gearing will make it difficult to pick up momentum and be competitive. Equally, the narrow range of a cylcocross racer will make for difficult touring, so really do try and think about where the majority of your riding will be.
Disc brakes are by far the most popular on modern cyclocross bikes. They give great mud clearance when things get mucky and are reliable at stopping in wet conditions. Disc brakes can be cable actuated or hydraulic, with hydraulic discs giving more longevity and consistent performance.
Wheels and Tyres
Cyclocross wheels are built to handle big hits and rough ground, so will be studier than standard road wheels. With the increased use of disc brakes in cyclocross bikes, thru-axle locking mechanisms are becoming popular, offering better stiffness and consistent braking over traditional quick-release options.
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