Cyclocross bikes are often called the ultimate do-it-all machines. Flat or hilly, rough or smooth, work or play – the ‘cross bike can tackle it all.
Cyclocross (‘cross or CX) bikes are essentially road bikes designed to go off road. But this doesn’t mean they are only good for muddy fields and winter training. Oh no, with a few simple modifications a ‘cross bike could be the most versatile bike you’ll ever own.
Add to that the transferable skills learnt from ‘cross rides and the benefits of owning one are many.
What is cyclocross?
Cyclocross has its origins in mainland Europe where road racers who wanted to continue racing during the winter months used their road bikes shod with different tyres to race on off-road circuits.
This usually involved a few technical sections and stepped areas where the bike had to be carried so provided a good all round winter workout.
The race ethos is still the same today where races take place mostly in the autumn-winter seasons covering multiple laps of short off-road courses with many obstacles and terrain changes.
Cyclocross bikes may initially look like standard road bikes with drop bars and skinny wheels but look closer and the subtle differences add up.
The geometry is significantly different to a pure road bike too. Shorter and taller, more standover, lots of tyre clearance and often with a higher bottom bracket for pedal clearance. Often the underside of the top tube is flattened, smooth and broad – to make it easier to carry on your shoulder when hurdling over little obstacles.
Wider tyres may be the initial difference as the bigger knobbly tyres offer better traction, control and puncture protection, not to mention comfort.
The brakes are different too. Cantilever brakes used to be the norm as they provided extra clearance and are less prone to clogging up than calliper brakes but in the last few years disc brakes have become massively popular.
Discs offer more consistent braking no matter the weather or trail conditions and allow way more frame clearance as the brakes are based around the hubs.
Gearing is lower than standard road bikes with some fit – or fast running! – racers going single chainring on the front to save weight and add reliability.
Cabling is usually routed differently, mostly along the top of the top tube, to allow for easier carrying and to keep them away from dirt which can affect their performance.
Racing versus riding
Cyclocross races take place on a short circuit of mixed terrain and usually last about an hour maximum. There’s loads of categories, it’s cheap to enter, gives a good short sharp workout and helps improve bike handling skills.
This makes it perfect for road riders to do during the winter months and gives benefits transferable to the road such as fitness and control.
In the past few years there has also been a rise in the number of off road sportives geared towards cyclocross bikes with longer courses that are less technical than a full on mountain bike course.
Why should you try a cyclocross bike?
Never mind racing, there are many reasons to try a cyclocross bike. If you have a mountain bike and are competent off road, a ‘cross bike is a completely different riding experience; the more road orientated riding position, drop handlebars and larger skinny wheels means you’ll have to adjust your riding style.
Learn new handling skills.
Even if you’re more used to a road bike you’ll still find riding a ‘cross bike very different as the handling characteristics change once off road. ‘Cross is therefore a great leveller as no one group has a clear advantage, especially handy when riding with your mates from different riding circles.
Find new routes
Having the ability to go off road on training rides opens a whole new world of possibilities.
If you’re bored with the same old road routes then whey not mix in a bit of trail or bridleways to mix things up.
Having the confidence that your bike can handle different terrain will mean you will be looking for off road sections while out riding and will transform your rides.
As well as cycling, ‘cross is good for all over fitness as you’ll be running or carrying on some sections and will be using your upper body more to control the bike. Training with friends will push you harder but also make it more social. It’s easy to make your own circuit with all the aspects you need even in a city location.
Even just hacking about with mates without any structured plans or routes will bring benefits so don’t get hung up on specifics. Your bike handling will improve no end and you’ll have much more confidence when descending on cornering after trying the same off road.
A cyclocross bike can be so much more than a mud plugger or winter training tool. Switch to road tyres and you have an excellent training bike or maybe even have a spare set of wheels so you can swap between the two much easier.
Many manufacturers have realised not all bikes are used solely for racing so have fitted frames with mudguard and rack eyelets making them great commuting machines or even a light tourer.
Olympic gold medal cyclist Chris Boardman even revealed in a recent interview that riding a cross bike has really opened up the locality for him and he sees himself riding them a lot more in the future as they are the ultimate go anywhere road bike. High praise indeed for the humble cyclocross bike.
The UK cyclocross scene has been going through something of a purple patch of late. Races are on everywhere and they’re usually packed with competitors.
It’s during this autumn time of year, where the road racing season starts to fizzle out, that folks’ thoughts begin to turn to the start of cyclocross season. Whether you’re interested in racing on one of them or just getting one for exploring on, now’s the time to start looking seriously.