Cyclocross bikes with disc brakes have suddenly become popular, and we put 10 of them to the test on race courses in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Regardless of how much you pay in cash — the bikes range from $1,600/£1,000 to more than $7,000/£4,500 — you’ll pay a weight penalty for each, as the metal calipers and rotors add some heft. For this, however, you'll gain better brake performance, especially in modulation.
As with most bikes, the more you pay, the more you get. Major differences in the bikes come in geometry — the Raleigh RXC Pro Disc has a high bottom bracket, the Specialized sits much lower, for example — and in the level of components and wheels. Most are carbon, but we also tested a titanium Litespeed and an aluminum Focus.
Read on for an overview of each bike, and click through to read complete reviews.
Cannondale SuperX Hi-Mod Disc
- $6,100/£3,699 — 7.62kg/16.8lb in size 52cm
- Pros: Silky yet agile ride, high-end spec, light weight
- Cons: High price
- Bottom line: One of the fastest and most capable ’cross race bikes we have tested
Its powerful and highly controllable disc brakes let us enter the corners hotter and more consistently, its incredibly silky ride quality is easier on the body, so you can stay on the gas longer and feel less beat up at the end of the hour, and it's impressively efficient and enviably lightweight.
The Cannondale SuperX Hi-Mod Disc's defining characteristic is its smoothness. It's a positively creamy ride on rough courses that might rattle your hands numb aboard a less forgiving machine, especially when you run the tires at suitably low pressures.
The stout fork is connected to a stiff front triangle for precise handling that seems especially suited to American-style courses. Together with the smart frame geometry – including a relatively low 67mm bottom bracket drop, 71.5-degree head tube angle, and reasonably tidy 430mm chain stays on our 52cm tester – the result is excellent agility through tight and slow 180-degree hairpins. We also experienced quick transitions from edge to edge when linking corners together, and the ability to confidently drift the whole bike through slippery, high-speed sweepers.
The comfort-tuned rear end doesn't seem as tremendously stiff as the front triangle. Nevertheless, the SuperX Hi-Mod Disc is efficient when you apply the power.
Cannondale's flagship 'cross bike comes with a mix of high-end components, including SRAM's latest Red transmission, FSA's excellent SL-K BB30 carbon fiber cranks with 'cross-specific 46/36T chainrings, Stan's NoTubes ZTR Alpha 340 Disc tubeless-compatible wheels wrapped in Schwalbe Racing Ralph clinchers, Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, a Fizik Tundra 2 saddle.
Also check out the Cannondale CAADX Disc Ultegra for $2,200 at 4.5 stars.
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Specialized Crux Expert Carbon Disc
- Pros: Snappy acceleration, confidence-inspiring geometry
- Cons: Heavy wheels
- Bottom line: A full-on race bike that would really shine with lighter wheels
Specialized call this new carbon Crux a "Tarmac for dirt" because it relies on a similar one-piece bottom bracket and chain stay assembly design to the one used on the Tarmac road bike to provide some serious get up and go. Stomp on the pedals and this thing moves.
The Crux features an American-style geometry punctuated by a low bottom bracket and neutral angles, which add to confidence in cornering. As with the alloy model, issues do arise in the worst conditions or when cornering on extreme off-cambers. The pedal strikes on rut walls or high edges of the off-cambers.
The frame is light, but that’s offset by the DT Axis 4.0 wheels.
There is a 'Love Handle' on the uge down tube, which is a depression that acts as a handle when you pick the bike up to shoulder it. Once up on your shoulder, the flattened top tube and larger down tube make porting the bike comfortable.
Shifting and braking is taken care of by SRAM’s Force transmission, and Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes. Specialized do sub in an FSA SL-K BB30 crank to fit their OSBB bottom bracket (PF30).
Ibis Hakkalügi Disc
- $3,900/£2,466 — 8.09kg/17.8lbs in size 55cm
- Pros: Stiff and responsive frame, light wheels, Ultegra group
- Cons: Limited size run (six sizes, 47-61cm, but no 56cm or 57cm)
- Bottom line: The unlikely (at this price) triple: great frameset, group and wheels
The stiff Hakkalügi Disc frame and light Stan’s NoTubes ZTR Iron Cross wheels combine for gratifying acceleration, and the Shimano Ultegra levers and calipers team up for solid, well-modulated braking. A lower bottom bracket (70mm) makes for a low and stable, centered-between-the-wheels ride. This low center of gravity helped navigate fast turns with confidence. On steep off-camber sections, however, we did occasionally clip a pedal as it bottomed out on the ground.
There is a weight penalty with the disc brakes, but compared to some other bikes we tested, the Hakkalügi weighed in at a respectable 8.09kg/17.8lbs. Because of the relatively light hoops, the Ibis cranked right up to speed out of corners.
The sloping top tube lends a modern look, but also means you have to reach a bit on dismounts. For this, we would prefer a straight top tube.
The carbon frame on our 55cm test bike weighed in at 1,120g. Ibis sells six sizes, from 47 to 61cm, but it’s somewhat unusual to have a 55 to 58cm gap. This could leave a number of riders – including a couple of our testers – missing their 56 or 57cm sweet spot.
Mud clearance at the fork and seat stays is good — enough to slide a fat finger all the way around the tire. At the chainstays, however, clearance between the sidewalls and the frame is pinched down to less than 1cm, but the space in front of the tire remains a generous 2.5cm. The design seems to be a good compromise between mud clearance and lateral rigidity.
- Pros: Intuitive handling, quality parts
- Cons: Down tube cable routing not ideal for those who frequently race in mud, price
- Bottom line: A top-of-the-line race bike with performance to back up the price tag
The F1X blends old world ideas of cyclocross geometry with a dash of the North American inclination toward lower and slacker ’cross steeds. The result is a bike with handling that’s instantly comfortable, predictable in most situations and requires minimal rider input while navigating tight and twisty courses.
The F1X isn’t the stiffest carbon ’cross bike we’ve ridden, and that’s a good thing. The frame is appreciably stiff and responsive, yet still forgiving enough that it absorbs chatter from rough and rutted courses without skittering around or leaving you more beat up than you expected after an hour of racing.
The parts package is a unique combination of WickWerks chainrings, SRAM Red group, Mavic Crossmax SLR wheels, a 3T Luteus fork, a 3T Palladio Team seatpost and Avid BB7 calipers with Ashima’s copiously machined AiRotors. Braking performance was acceptable – not quite as good as with Avid’s stock rotors (the trade-off for lightweight rotors that are barely there) – but worlds better than with cantilever brakes. The portion of the build that raised the most eyebrows was the, ahem, mountain bike wheelset. But Mavic’s Crossmax SLR 29 wheelset is appreciably stiff and light at 1,620g.The Crossmax SL 29 wheels were mated to Vittoria’s tubeless Cross XG Pro tires and performed without any problems. Weekend warriors might appreciate the ability to use one high-end wheelset and swap tires to suit conditions, while those who own a 29er may enjoy having another wheelset in their quiver.
The only component that didn't mesh with the overall feel of a rig built by a knowledgeable mechanic was the inclusion of SRAM's XG 1090 cassette. While light, this cassette has a well-deserved reputation for its inability to clear mud and debris – the reason most SRAM-sponsored cyclocross racers opt to run the PG 1070 model instead. The recently introduced XG 1090 Cyclocross Cassette would be a better choice for next year’s F1X.
Overall, the F1X leaves little to be desired in terms of performance and spec. The price is high but no corners have been cut in creating an appreciably light, race-ready cyclocross bike.
Fuji Altimira CX 1.3
- $2,979/£1,8789 — 8.73kg/19.2lb in size 56cm
- Pros: Snappy carbon frameset, graceful geometry, great price considering frame and Force group
- Cons: Heavy wheels
- Bottom line: Perhaps the most bike for the money in this test
The carbon heart of the bike is a good one – Fuji hasn’t skimped on the frame. The carbon fiber Altamira 1.3 comes drilled for Di2 routing, in six sizes from 49cm to 61cm, and our 56cm test frame weighed a respectable 1,124g. The middle-of-the-road steering (63mm of trail) works well in slow- and high-speed handling, and the new school geometry (67mm of bottom bracket drop) offers a centered feel. The carbon frameset’s snappy performance is somewhat hampered by the heavy wheels, though, especially under acceleration.
In any event, the wheels weigh 1,880g without skewers, rotors or rim strips, and the Challenge Grifo tire is a good all-around tread. We raced it between 30 and 35psi (for an 86kg / 190lb rider) with no flats.We appreciated the small details, such as the frame saver rubber sleeves on the shifter housing, and the barrel adjusters on both the shifter and brake housing. The internal cable routing doesn’t have guiding sleeves, making overhauling the cabling a bit tricky, with some fishing involved. But on the upside, the shift cables are almost completely protected from the elements.
All in all, the Fuji Altamira 1.3 is a perfectly raceable bike that would benefit from some better wheels.
Ridley X-Fire Disc
- $3,999/£2,522 — 1.4kg/3.09lb frame
- Pros: Stable ride, stiff and efficient frame, good pedal clearance due to high bottom bracket
- Cons: Not the quickest handling
- Bottom line: Ultra-stable chassis from the motherland of cyclocross
Updated for the 2012-13 season with optional disc brake tabs and 135mmrear hub spacing, the Ridley X-Fire Disc isn't the lightest, stiffest, or most comfortable machine we've tested but it's a faithful workhorse well suited to nasty conditions.
The X-Fire Disc is brilliant through deep sand. The bottom bracket on our 52cm sample drops just 59mm relative to the hub axles – more than 10mm taller than the Specialized CruX, for example – and provides more pedal clearance when your tires and rims are buried in the ground. Moreover, the front end's incredible stability helps you hold your line as you're charging out of the sand and back towards terra firma. The downside of that tall center of gravity, though, is a somewhat 'tippy' feel plus some reluctance to change direction through successive corners. The front end is also so stable on-center that it doesn't naturally initiate an arc through corners. Instead, we found it best to aggressively muscle the bars and lean the front end hard in the direction you want to go.
Get on the gas and the impressively stout X-Fire is more than eager to respond, though, with a rigid front triangle that amply bolsters itself against out-of-saddle handlebar wrestling and a stout rear end that efficiently transmits power from pedal to ground with little mushiness. The fork is a monstrous beast with ample fore-aft stiffness, too, giving the X-Fire a nicely balanced feel front-to-back with both ends behaving similarly when you really start to throw it around.
Cable routing is partially internal, with the rear brake and rear derailleur lines running through the top tube and the one for the front derailleur snaking its way through the down tube, so there's no pulley required. Housing is full-length throughout, with simple entry and exit ports cut into the tubes. The lack of guides can make maintenance tricky if you're not careful, and the use of high-quality housing is key for good performance and lever feel. On the plus side, the system is also essentially sealed from end to end, so you shouldn't have to do much past the initial build.
Ridley offers the X-Fire Disc as a bare frameset ($1,595/£1,190) or a complete bike with Shimano Ultegra ($3,399/£2,290) or SRAM Apex components. SRAM's second-tier Force group is an outstanding pick for the rough and tumble of 'cross racing, with precise front and rear shift performance, very positive and feedback-laden shifter action, and – at least compared to the top-end Red – fairly reasonable component replacement costs.
Litespeed CX (frame only)
- $2,500/£1,577 — 1.71kg/3.77lb frame in size 52cm
- Pros: Fantastic ride quality, brilliant handling
- Cons: Heavy, somewhat lacking in sharp accelerations
- Bottom line: A comfortable, titanium departure from the norm
Solid underfoot, the Litespeed CX offer a fantastic ride quality and brilliant handling, proving that carbon fiber isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all when it comes to high-performance machines.
Top-end racers might still find it a little heavy for serious competition, and the CX is also lacking in some of the more advanced shaping afforded by composite construction. But everyday riders and privateers will still revel in the bombproof titanium frame's durability, impact resistance, and idiot-proof finish.
Handling is surprisingly versatile and adaptable, with a mix of a tall, 6cm bottom bracket drop and a steepish 72-degree head tube angle. We'd normally expect such a high bottom bracket (which is great for navigating deep mud) to feel a little tippy through twisty corners but it's largely offset by the steep front end, which helps to quickly point the front end toward the apex of a corner. Toss in the long front center and short stem and what you get is a geometry that's stable when sliding through a fast, slippery corner but quick and nimble in slower situations.
Front-end rigidity is very good, owing to the large-diameter down tube and seat tube plus the 44mm-diameter head tube surrounding the ultra-stout 3T Luteus tapered carbon fiber fork.
However, Litespeed uses the same diameter tubing for both the chain stays and seat stays, so while the CX is smooth over the rough stuff it's not as snappy under power as some higher-end carbon bikes we've tested.
Raleigh RXC Pro Disc
- $6,000/£3,784 — 8.87kg/19.6lb in size 57cm
- Pros: Stiff carbon frameset, element-proof Ultegra Di2
- Cons: Heavy wheels with narrow rimst
- Bottom line: Great potential bike with a high bottom bracket, but needs better wheels for the price
The Raleigh RXC Pro Disc looks great, and its performance almost lives up to the visual expectations. The Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting and ENVE fork and cockpit deliver a luxury cockpit experience, but the heavy and narrow Cole wheels left us underwhelmed.
The bike sits higher than some thanks to its 55mm bottom bracket drop, which puts the BB about 1cm higher than most others in this test. On the plus side, the higher bottom bracket gives you a bit more clearance to ride over short obstacles and pedal on off-camber sections without clipping a pedal, but the high center of gravity is noticeable when leaning the bike.
The most notable difference in handling compared with other disc brake CX bikes was from the wheels and tires. Although the Cole C38 hoops have good, smooth bearings and fairly stiff tension, the rims are surprisingly heavy for carbon, and disappointingly narrow. With rotor, the front wheel weighs a relatively heavy 1.1kg (2.43lb). Worse, the skinny 19mm rim means your tire is skinny (an internal rim diameter of 13mm makes the stock Vittoria Cross XG Pro 32 measure a slim 29mm).
The rear of the bike is fairly stiff laterally, for good power transfer. The flattened seatstays are designed to flex a bit vertically, and may provide a modicum of comfort. But honestly, you will get much more of your cushioning from the tires.
The RXC Pro also has a chain stay-mounted rear caliper. While tucking the brake neatly inside the frame instead of sitting it on the seat stay, this design also brings the frame much closer to your left heel. On our 57cm bike with size 45 shoes, we would occasionally bump the bike with our foot when out of the saddle.
Colnago World Cup 2.0
- $1,899/£1,198 — 10.26kg/22.6lb in size 56cm
- Pros: Comfortable but stiff ride
- Cons: Cable routing isn't mud-friendly, heavy
- Bottom line: Fun but heavy bike that would benefit from better cable routing
The Colnago World Cup 2.0 is great fun but weighty. Lighter wheels/tyres and finishing kit would help, but in thick mud that huge down tube and cable pulley will collect crud, negating the excellent brakes’ benefit. We found the Selle Italia Q-Bik saddle reassuringly padded, and the Colnago’s massively rigid frame and fork gave confidence in spades when we attacked fast, loose trails or descents.
Although the bike sports Avid BB5s, fine control of the brakes was excellent, and the bike was well balanced, with good weight distribution helping cornering and climbing grip.
Snicking up though the 105 drivetrain out of a slow corner, we barreled down a bumpy descent, revelling in the bike’s willingness to soak up the hits without any drama. We dismounted, though, and had a surprise… The huge down tube is easy to grab when picking the bike up to shoulder, and there’s even a curved carrying support, but the 10.26kg (22.6lb) weight was a shock, briefly halting forward motion. By the crest we were glad to put it down.
The stiff frame does help power delivery, but that’s negated in part by the heavy wheelset, at 3.86kg/8.51lb including tyres. The Colnago was still fun, with precise handling, and its supple Kenda Kwicker tyres willingly grasped tree roots and bit into the soft ground through the ever-trickier woods. However, the front derailleur cable pulley was causing mud clearance issues.
Focus Mares AX 2.0
- $1,679/£1,059 — 10.04kg/22.14lb in size 52cm
- Pros: Relatively inexpensive, slack front end is beginner friendly
- Cons: Weight, fork shudder under braking
- Bottom line: A reasonably priced aluminum bike that needs a better fork
The Mares AX 2.0 Disc is an aluminum cyclocross bike with a sensible build kit and a price tag that’s within the reach of many cyclists.
The frame is reasonably stiff and responsive. Smaller riders might appreciate the slack front end, as there’s considerably less toe-overlap than is often found on steeper bikes. New riders may find the handling confidence inspiring, while seasoned veterans might find the geometry numbers excel in high-speed situations – the faster you go, the more intuitive the bike’s handling becomes.
The downside to this design philosophy is that the front end requires significantly more input when navigating slow-speed turns, and the low bottom bracket might result in more pedal strikes.
We experienced significant brake shudder from the Mares’ carbon fork. Under hard braking, the lower legs would flex approximately an inch fore and aft – worse than poorly adjusted cantilevers. After making sure the headset was properly adjusted, we set about swapping out the stock quick-release, rotor, brake caliper and wheel in an effort to eliminate the shudder. All for nothing, as the culprit appeared to be the fork itself. Focus say this is the first they’ve heard of the issue. Nevertheless, it was a disconcerting experience to come in hot to a turn, grab a fistful of brake and watch as the front end chattered off the desired line.
Of all the ’cross bikes we tested this season, this one had the most progressive geometry: 70mm of bottom bracket drop and a head tube angle of 70° on our 52cm test model. And it comes with Shimano’s 105 shifters and derailleurs, which means stellar value and reliable performance.
The Mares AX 2.0 Disc is several pounds heavier than its more expensive, carbon-clad brethren. Our 52cm test bike weighed 10.04kg/22.14lb.