Cyclo-cross racing is challenging, and while the equipment choices are broad, there are different courses with varied ground and weather conditions to make racing interesting. Here's Part three of our cyclo-cross series.
Lightweight frames are important, and lightweight wheels, most of carbon fibre, have made their mark. Tubulars are becoming more popular among the serious (or generously sponsored) crowd, too. Here's BikeRadar's menu of complete `cross bikes, framesets and component recommendations, including entry-level to top of the line.
With cyclo-cross, it's all about speed, handling, weight and portability. The best `cross frames are designed with 700c wheels, and ample mud clearance between seatstays, chainstays, and fork crown. Much like a mountain bike, the bottom bracket height is a bit higher than a road bike. Compact frames are uncommon in `cross; with all the dismounting and carrying you'll do, it pays to have a larger diamond to reach through for shouldering the bike. It's also easier to grab and lift a frame with a horizontal top tube.
Frame materials run the gamut from affordable aluminium to custom titanium, with steel and carbon in between. Because 'light makes right' with 'cross, aluminium is the popular choice with scandium-aluminium alloys at the top-end. Aluminium tubing can also be manipulated, shaped, ovalised and butted, making it thechoice of large company frame designers.
Independent US framebuilders like Rock Lobster, Richard Sachs, and Co-Motion prefer steel, while the medium sizers like Seven, Independent Fabrications and Serotta offer steel and titanium in custom sizing and colours. UK builders include Mercian, Monoc, Dolan, Robin Mather and Nimbus and offer a mix of steel, aluminium and titanium framesets.
Carbon fibre 'cross forks are somewhat new on the scene but have become expected by most 'crossers. Handbuilt steel forks offer the liveliest ride, but don't usually match the larger diameter frame tubing, making them somewhat unappealing as a whole. There have been some titanium forks in the pro ranks, but most are unsightly and very expensive, almost twice the price of a carbon or steel fork. Suspension forks are not among the choices for 'crossing.
It's always cost effective to buy a complete bike. Many companies, including Redline, LeMond, Scott, Trek and Cannondale, offer great spec for an affordable price. Dipping one's toe into the `cross scene is easiest this way, and it's important to decide up front which gearing works best for the sort of training and/or racing you're going to do. There isn't a true industry standard for geometry, gearing, etc., so do a little asking among your local 'cross scene. UK choices include Condor, Focus, and Bob Jackson. European brands include Guercotti, Pinarello, Bianchi and Alan.
Semi-slick clincher tyres, those with medium to subtle side lugs and chevron patterns and file tread in the middle, seem to still work across most race courses. Remember, the mix of asphalt, sand, mud, gravel, and wood chip makes it virtually impossible to be too tread specific. Sometimes wider is better (700 x 35c versus 30 or 31c), but for very muddy courses thinner works best because you'll sink down a bit more and avoid hydroplaning, especially in the corners and at race speed.
Michelin, WTB, Bontrager, Ritchey, Hutchinson and Panaracer offer fine clinchers.
There's a trend toward deep section carbon tubular rims, but this can be very expensive. Yes, deep section rims are stiffer, can be lighter, but tubular tyres (they're glued onto the channel-less rim versus hook onto a clincher rim) are expensive and are very hard to find.
Sponsored riders are the ones benefitting from this recent movement, but the selection of fine, lightweight 'cross tubulars is limited to Dugast, Challenge, Vittoria and TUFO. If you're accustomed to tubs on the road, go for it!
Bikes used by pros are typically drop-bar road-style bikes with cantilever brake studs for V-brakes or cantis; cantis work best with integrated brake/shifters. Oddly, the International Cycling Union (UCI) outlaws disc brakes in the pro ranks, but allows them on mountain bikes. The rest of us need not worry about running disc brakes n `cross races. I've tested `cross bikes with disc brakes, and still prefer cantis. Popular mountain bike V-brakes require extra cable adapters for the road brake/shift levers, and still feel a tad mushy compared to cantis. Shimano, Tektro, Paul and Spooky are excellent choices.
A recent addition to the 'cross brake scene includes interrupters, which look like BMX levers mounted on each side of the stem. This provides extra braking when descending, and gives 'crossers with more of a mountain bike background more of a comfort level.
Road-style drop bars are the norm. Advantages include multiple hand positions for leverage, and a natural stretched out position when on the brake hoods. For races that allow mountain bikes (typical in the UK, rarer elsewhere), the bar-ends have to be removed.
Beginning 'crossers often benefit from making slight modifications to an existing mountain bike: replacing heavy, wide tyres with semi-slicks (26 x 1.5s are good), and removing bar-ends. Flat bars lack multiple hand positions, but adept riders can make the most of their off-road skills to get into the grove, buying some time before making the choice to upgrade to a dedicated 'cross bike with drop bars.
In the US and UK, some beginning 'crossers use touring bikes, which perform admirably but are a bit heavier. Product managers are designing touring bikes to be interchangeable as `cross bikes, so it's not a real stretch to go this route at first.
Bar tape is usually thicker for 'crossing (think Paris-Roubaix), and the newer gel cork stuff is wonderful, comfortable, and washable. Velo, Plant Bike and Cinelli are good choices.
Typical rear frame spacing on better 'cross bikes is the same as road: 130mm. This makes swapping out your lightweight road wheels for training on the road a snap. Cheaper touring/`cross bikes tend to have 135mm mountain bike rear spacing, which limits this versatility.
Disc brake wheels for 'cross are becoming popular thanks to better mechanicals (cable), bit while discs work best in slippery mud and wet conditions, you won't be able to easily swap out your favourite road wheelset for training. And, most serious 'cross racers bring an extra set of wheels (or a spare bike!) to the venue, so you'd want to maintain compatibility across the board. As I mentioned earleir, disc brakes are forbidden in UCI races only.
This is where you need to pay close attention, based on your riding abilities, intended use and course styles. Nine-speed cassettes are standard in the rear, with a single or double chainring up front. Most 'crossers need two, and 46/34 is a fairly popular tooth count. A chainguard is recommended for a the single chainring crowd to eliminate chain slippage; sometimes an 8-speed cassette works best to eliminate cross chaining with a 44 or 42 tooth up front. If that's your choice, an 11-28 or 11-32 tooth cassette is a good combination.
Cyclo-crossing requires frequent dismounts, which includes running up hills, hopping over barriers (18-inch boards, picnic tables, logs, etc.) and riding/running through sand, so double-sided mountain bike clipless pedals work best. Time and Crankbrothers rule the roost among 'crossers, providing the best mud-shedding and performance, while Speedplay and Shimano work well. Look is entering this arena with its upcoming Quartz pedal series.
A wise 'crosser once told me to wax my frame before every 'cross race to keep the mud build-up to a minimum. It's also paramount to use the appropriate chain lube; remember, if you're going to power up steep muddy embankments and berms, your chain will need some extra attention. Pedro's, ProLink and Finish Line offer condition-specific lubes, so go with what you know or try something during training before you change.
Featured 'cross bikes
The Specialized TriCross Carbon is a top-spec all-carbon racer from Morgan Hill, CA. Predictor-Lotto's Chris Horner raced one in 2006, and the sculpted top and down tube make it an easy grab to hoist and shoulder over barriers and up the run-ups. Shimano Dura-Ace gruppo. Weight: 17lbs. (58cm). Price: $6,000US. Visit Specialized.
The Redline Team Conquest, one of the most popular `cross bikes on the US market. Lightweight Scandium, chock full of Ritchey components. Shimano Ultegra gruppo with Hutchinson tyres. Price: $2,499US. Visit Redline.
The Vanilla Speedvagen is a singlespeed work of art from Portland, OR. Owner Sacha White has dedicated his efforts to `cross, and the Speedvagen is the culmination of what his riders asked for. Limited production. Visit Speedvagen.
© BikeRadar 2007