It’s that time of year again – falling leaves, endless rolls of tape and banners, barriers, cowbells, and spectator-friendly racing – it’s cyclocross season.
‘Cross offers several things that, when combined, make for a sport that is possibly the best thing to happen to cycling since pneumatic tires. Grueling efforts, viewable courses, high speeds, technical demands, the occasional spill, beer and, for whatever reason, costumes.
Plus, if you’ve decided to pin on a number it doesn’t matter if you’re off the front, off the middle, or off the back. There’s no crying in cyclocross; it’s a good time for all. ‘Cross races make for an afternoon well spent if you’re a spectator or a racer.
As such, it’s no surprise the industry has accepted cyclocross as ‘here to stay’ and greeted it with dedicated, full-carbon race bikes oozing with tech.
With so many options, we included tested 12 brands. To level the playing field as much as possible, we tested bikes built with SRAM Rival 1 in the $2,500-$3,500 / £1,899-£3,000 range. Nine of the brands brought their latest and greatest to the mix.
The scientific-ish method
Over two months I took the bikes on two different test courses, both including gravel, hard-pack grass, off-camber slopes, elevation, rocks and roots, wet and dry conditions, and a bit of pavement. The idea was to get a representative test of the most typical ’cross conditions (sans sand).
Geometry, front-to-back balance of compliance, acceleration, braking performance, carrying comfort, and frame quality (seatpost binder, caliper mount-facing, creaking and popping, and paint quality) all contributed to the results. Other points of contention include gear sizing, cockpit comfort, thru axle configurations, and overall quality of parts.
Choosing the best mix for the price is up to you!
Of all these bikes, there’s not one that hasn’t proven a great bike in some capacity. Some would be terrific gravel bikes, or mixed terrain commuters, but this is a “Best CX Bike” test, and therefore, the results are focused on the attributes that make for an ideal race bike.
Industry Nine neutralizers
Included in my testing protocol was a ‘neutral’ set of wheels.
Since wheels can contribute greatly to how a bike rides, and given that many ’cross racers will replace the stock wheels for racing, I tested the bikes with Industry Nine
ULCX tubeless disc wheels and Schwalbe X-One All-Round 33mm tires, in addition to the stock setup.
I set up the Industry Nine wheels tubeless at 26psi (rear) and 25psi (front) for every test. This approach successfully exposed frameset performance that on occasion was otherwise hidden by inexpensive wheelsets.
Keep your eyes peeled for a review of the Industry Nine ULCX wheels.
Here are our picks for the best ’cross bikes of 2017.
2018 Specialized CruX Elite 1X ($3,200 / £3,000)
For any bike, product managers have to prioritize characteristics. For the Crux, it was straightforward: light and fast.
While a few of the bikes on test proved more compliant, the Crux has the best balance of comfort, power transfer, and keeping the wheels in contact with the ground. It was also the lightest on test at 17.5lb / 7.9kg, despite heavier parts than some bikes.
With a light and stiff bike, you can feel the course and adapt to it on subsequent laps. In my book, this is a good thing.
Make no mistake, the CruX isn’t uncomfortable. But if a cush ride is your top priority, there are others waiting for you. However, all of them come at the expense of the CruX’s unmatched acceleration, so you’ll have to pick your poison.
2018 Norco Threshold C Force 1 ($4,199 / £TBD)
I foolishly underestimated this bike. Of course I’m familiar with how great Norco’s mountain bikes are, but the Threshold Carbon has been an eye-opener.
The Threshold offers a similar ride character to the CruX with impressive acceleration and balanced handling. It’s just not quite as light.
But there are reasonable explanations with added fender compatibility and industrial design of the frame’s tube shapes. That’s to say the weight penalty is a side-effect of versatility and style.
The bike on test was delivered as a frame up build, which is typically avoided when dealing with the media. But as a mechanic I was left empty-handed in the complaints department.
The Threshold is certainly head and shoulders above any of the other race-worthy models providing fender mounts, so if that suits your wheelhouse, this is the bike for you.
2018 Canyon Inflite CF SLX 9.0 ($3,299 / £2,899)
My first impressions focused on the integrated stem/bar, and the industrial design. One critical note of Canyon is that you have to appreciate function before forming an opinion of form – the German bikes bear a unique aesthetic.
The Inflite rides like CruX and the Threshold, but it doesn’t quite possess the excitability of either of them. While the geo is nearly identical to the CruX and Threshold, the Canyon is more suitable to riders preferring a bit more comfort and don’t concern themselves with the line-knowledge stemming from course feedback.
Some of that comfort comes from the integrated bar and stem, which I did find purposeful. However, while the frame stack and reach were spot on for my fit, the bar was not. The ergonomics of the round drop weren’t ideal, and the reach and drop dimensions as a whole weren’t suitable. This poses a small challenge because the steerer is 1-1/4” (not the more common 1-1/8”).
Canyon makes 8 sizes of the bike, which is remarkable, so if you do your homework you can likely find the perfect setup.
Yes, the front triangle is a bit unusual, but it too had benefits that proved useful. It is incredibly comfortable to carry, and the dropped seatstays do contribute to abundant rear-end compliance.
2018 Giant TCX Advanced Pro 2 ($2,575 / £2,299)
The TCX Advanced Pro 2 hits its stride at full speed.
When getting warmed up on the way to the courses, I found the TCX a bit stiff in the rear. But with maximum on-course effort, the balance of comfort from front to back becomes apparent. The bike suddenly feels balanced and much more comfortable at race pace, which is surely an artifact of thoughtful engineering.
It’s not as snappy as some of the competition, but I found a significant component of that lackluster acceleration was due to the wheelset; with Industry Nine ULCX wheels mounted, the bike took on a new life.
Hoops aside, the bike delivers what ’cross racers need in terms of handling, acceleration and compliance.
2018 Cannondale SuperX Force 1 ($3,599 / £2,999)
Two things stand out with the SuperX: a long and slack front end, and a cushioned ride.
With a 71-degree head tube angle, the SuperX changes you can approach technical sections at speed, but with a very ‘early-29er’ sensation of heavy steering.
The frame shaping and construction collaborate for a frame that at times felt more like titanium than carbon. Some riders love this feel; others find it too soft.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t test the bike with the Industry Nine ULCX wheelset because Cannondale requires a complete re-dish of the rear wheel, which is something worth considering for riders like myself that swap wheelsets between road disc, gravel and ’cross. But, this engineering strategy allows Cannondale to shorten the chainstays by 0.5mm compared to other bikes, so it’s not without reason. Plus, the re-dished rear wheel has much better triangulation, and that’s a good thing.
For riders seeking maximum comfort, or those that see more gravel miles than ’cross tape, the SuperX is blessed with abundant tire clearance, fantastic vertical compliance and clean lines.
2018 Trek Crockett 7 Disc ($2,999 / £2,800)
Trek arrived at the gunfight with a knife, being the only alloy competitor. But Trek had good reason to be confident; the Crockett is an awesome race-ready rig at a good price with a Force 1 group.
The Crockett 7 Disc can be set up 1x11, as it’s sold, or as a single-speed. Of course, this doesn’t speak to all riders, but the engineering they used to create this adaptability is crafty, making for a somewhat easy transition between ‘freshly shaven’ and ‘moustache-flannel’.
The front end is a tad unforgiving on bigger hits, but a very comfy bar wrap takes the edge off. Additionally, this is likely an artifact of alloy, rather than a flaw in the bike’s design or the full carbon fork.
The Crockett also possesses a cable management system that clearly shows Trek’s passion for ’cross, overall attention to detail and longstanding commitment to aluminum. The Crockett’s full-housing strategy has seamless entry and exit points for easy service and clean aesthetics.
Trek’s carbon Boone remains an excellent race rig, of course, and you can read the review from last season here. (The bike hasn’t change since.)
2018 Felt F4X Rival 1 ($2,999 / £2,499)
The F4X was clearly the stiffest overall frame on test, but perhaps a tad too much for some riders. Stiffness can be a true benefit when pushing the limits, but it can also impede traction when accelerating or braking if the conditions are rough.
When the rear wheel stays in contact with the ground, that stiffness is a blessing. Really, it would depend on your typical course terrain.
Similarly, tire clearance is limited, as a 37.4mm wide (measured) tire is barely fitting with 3mm of clearance, so wide, treaded mixed-terrain tires are a no-go.
Future versions would benefit from growing the rear chainstay and seat tube junction for more tire clearance. Dropping the seat binder lower could also add compliance to the rear.
For riders seeking absolute stiffness, the F4X delivers.
2018 Niner BSB 9 RDO ($3,800 / £TBD)
Blood, sweat and beers. That’s the title of this bike with a predictable middle-ground geometry and well-balanced, front-to-back compliance.
It’s an easy bike to ride, if not as manically urgent in acceleration as some of the others.
The stock Stan’s Grail wheels are great all-rounders, just as able as mixed-terrain tubeless wheels for the daily rides as for weekend racing.
Build quality is absolutely top shelf. This is the type of thing that often goes overlooked until things start creaking, popping, and grinding. While it may be easy to dismiss something like this, poor assembly can quickly lead to escalating service bills.
2018 Masi CXRC Force 1 ($3,639 / £TBD)
This bike’s stiffness is as in-your-face as the paint job. The robust tube dimensions make for great acceleration and handling, but for this 70kg rider, a bit more compliance would have been welcomed.
The spec’d Stans Grail wheels, and 3T carbon bar make for some highlights. But the black PC1130 cassette and chain, while looking good, don’t perform well when really pushing through hard efforts.
Masi’s CXRC wins the award for the best front derailleur adapter system, as its execution is as clean as they come.
While the CXRC may not hit all the targets for the best race bike, the addition of hidden fender mounts and clearance for 37mm tires (with fenders) means this bike is capable of a lot more than just ’cross.
What are your priorities?
With Force 1, Rival 1 and Ultegra 2x11 all part of this test, it became nearly impossible to include pricing in the evaluation. The results mirror frame performance, engineering priorities and are only somewhat influenced by spec’ed components.
Read this article to get a clear picture of the difference between Rival 1 and Force 1, to help identify where your money is best spent.
As with any review, it’s up to you to decide what priorities make the best bike for you – as initially stated, the benchmark here was based on the demands of ’cross racing. But keep in mind that nearly every one of the bikes on test is available with different component spec, at higher and lower price-points.
We hope this simplifies your path to a new race rig. Enjoy your ’cross season!