So you thought cyclo-crossers were the domain of grown men who revel in skinny tyred, mud-splattered weekends, think again.
We've long revered the humble versatility of the 'cross frame: built for abuse, strong in all the right places, all at a cost of just an extra pound or two in weight. Plus, there's bags of room for mudguards and wider tyres to boot. Even the bigger bike manufacturers are taking note with their own, 'cross derived renditions. But there's no reason not to buy a traditional, quality frameset and build it up to suit. Which is exactly what cycle specialist Pearson have done with the Ridley Crossbow Custom. As such, the Crossbow aims to provide the ultimate in all weather commuting, whilst still promising audax and winter road riding potential too. So is it really as well rounded as this?
Frame - 8
Great detailing, lack of rack mounts will be an issue for some
At just over 1.6kg, the Crossbow is pretty light for a 'cross frame, whilst still maintaining a reassuringly solid feel - the walls don't sound paper thin and seem like they could take a knock or two. In fact, the triple-butted 7005 aluminium is an extruded, lightweight but durable set of pipes, often found on Mtbs and track bikes. Teardrop tubing puts strength and rigidity where it's most needed, and there are bigger weld points at the bottom bracket and head tube.
There's a neat, integrated headset and like most 'cross frames, it's got a hanger to make running rear canti's easier. With bags of clearance, there's plenty of room for most 35c tyres and mudguards too. And if the urge takes you to race, a flattened, horizontal top tube means shouldering the bike is easy.
This European racing heritage is also evident in the cable routing; all running along the top of the top tube, out of muddy harm's way in the midst of winter. The front mech cable feeds down the headtube, and the rear mech cable runs down the seat stay, which should translate well to commutes, where protection from road muck will help keep maintenance down. There's just one bottle mount though, which may become a problem on longer audax rides. And being a racing 'cross frame at heart, no rear rack mounts also means it's trickier to fit rear panniers or a rack top bag. The Zormyc carbon fork has an aluminium steerer, which has been left long enough for a comfortable riding position.
While it would have been nice to have a fork with 'guard eyelets, Pearson have inventively solved this issue with an adaptor that fits through the skewer. Frame and fork are available separately for £399, or upgrade to the ITM carbon fork with mudguard eyelets for an extra £100.
Handling - 8
A well-balanced ride that's ideal for canal paths too
We racked up the miles on the Bristol-Bath cycleway, as well as several longer hilly day rides and a few forays onto the local canal path. The Conti Top Touring 2000s offered a surprisingly fast ride when pumped up to their 85psi max, and with that extra cushion of air, helped to take the edge off a stiff, efficient frame. Even with mudguards, there's plenty of clearance - we had no problems riding along grimy, wintry canal paths so often caked with mud. But with these heavier tyres, the Crossbow does take a little longer to kick up to speed. There's toe overlap too, though without the 'guards you'll be fine.
Despite being officially a 54cm (I usually ride a 56) the fit was spot on, with perfect reach and an even spread of weight across all the contact points. The angles are relatively slack too, so steering is relaxed rather than edgy - no bad thing on a long audax ride, and conducive to signalling on the daily commute. In fact, with a saddlebag and bar bag, it would pretty much be spot on for light touring too.
Wheels - 8
Strong yet lightweight, suited to wider tyres
Our Crossbow came fitted with a snazzy looking Xero Tarmac XBR- 1 wheelset. Surprisingly light at around 1500g, these wheels are actually built with audaxers in mind. They use a 22mm wide rim that will comfortably seat the kind of 25c and 28c rubber best suited to longer rides, while still maintaining a decent profile - unlike narrower road wheels. This wider rim also works better with canti brakes, as the pads seem to hit the rim more straight on.
The front wheel is radially laced with 20 spokes, the rear is cross laced on the drive side with 24, on strong, box section rims that feature a handy wear line indicator. Although fully handbuilt, they're not the most serviceable of wheels. Unusually, the spokes are positioned parallel to each other across the rim, which makes truing a little more awkward, while the cap on the offside has to be removed to change a spoke - the soon to be released 2006 wheels look easier to maintain.
Despite the lack of spokes, Pearson report that they've found these wheels to be unusually strong, and we certainly found them robust enough for fairly rough canal paths - it wasn't until clipped by a car in Bath that they were knocked out of true. Conti's hard-wearing Top Touring 2000s are something of a classic, and feature a fast rolling central tread with strong sidewalls, though there are no reflectors.
Equipment - 9
Great detailing and sensible drivetrain choice
The Crossbow's been thoughtfully specced. Ours came in at a £1180; a reasonable price given the quality of the frameset and list of extras, such as smooth clipping VP Powerplay SPD pedals, carbon headset spacers and an elegant Tacx bottle mount. There's even a flashing LED replacing the cap on the right side drop bar - which really does encourage drivers to give you a little extra room when overtaking.
The carbon seat pin is solid and easily micro-adjusted, teamed with a comfortable, tirailed Fizik Pavé saddle. The 10- speed Veloce drivetrain has a dependable feel and while it may not be as light in action as 105, it seems to take less fettling for smooth shifting. I've always preferred the flatter hoods of Campagnolo levers as they offer a more comfortable hand position. Plus, they're easily trimmed at the front, while gears can be shifted in clusters - the thumb reach is perfect too. The PZ Compact, set up with a compact Veloce front mech, doesn't ramp up as crisply as the Shimano version I've been using recently, but it does the job fine. In any case, a compact really does make sense for this kind of bike.
With 34T/54T chainrings and a 13-26 cluster, the gearing's easier on the knees, while still offering plenty at the top end for everyone, bar hardcore racers. While canti's don't offer quite as much bite as long pull Ultegra callipers, even with wider rims, the matching auxiliary levers are very comfortable to use when riding on the tops - though this does mean you're limited with the kind of bar bag you can run.
Quality SKS mudguards are good to see too and the whole setup displays the hallmarks of a well-built machine. What's more, you can tweak the bike to suit your budget. A sample spec featuring Campag Mirage and Ambrosia EvolutionVuelta wheels came in at £928, including 'guards and pedals.
We've long been harping on about how adaptable 'cross frames are, and the Ridley is a strong example of one that can be built up for a variety of uses. Its ample tyre clearance and comfortable geometry suits commutes, especially if canal paths are part of your ride or if you prefer wider tyres for winter use. It's also well suited to your average mixed terrain Sustrans route, and even audaxes too.
With heavier tyres and a greater overall weight, the Crossbow doesn't feel as light as a conventional winter road bike, such as our recently tested £700 Ribble, and the lack of rear eyelets will certainly be an issue for some. But those beefy tyres and extra clearance give it a sturdier feel, with a far wider range of riding surfaces on tap. Its high quality 'cross frame, fl ash wheelset and well-specced finishing kit justify the extra price, and there are plenty of options for tailoring it to your individual whims too.