Cycling Weekly’s definitive guide to cyclocross bikes
Three little words to get your heart pumping, sweat collecting on your brow and breath quickening: cross is coming.
Cyclocross racing has outgrown its historic reputation as a niche winter sport from Belgium, to become an exploit enjoyed all over the world. It’s even shaken off the winter-only prerequisite, as there are summer leagues now, too.
Cyclocross races are sub hour events which take place on closed-off road circuits – these can contain grass, tracks, sand and obstacles such as low barriers, steps and steep banks.
Riders complete laps of the same course, which means that they can be incredibly accessible for beginners. The most competitive athletes can run rings around the slowest of athletes, completing several extra laps, and the two can still be seen on the same course.
Cyclocross bikes: seven bikes to check out
We’ve teamed up with a selection of brands to highlight some of the coolest ‘cross bikes on the market, to help inspire your decision and demonstrate what’s available at various price points..
Cannondale SuperX Di2 cyclocross bike: £4,299.99
Tailored to the race needs of cyclocross riders, this BallisTec carbon cross bike borrows tech from the race winning cross and mountain bikes within the Cannondale range. That means SAVE micro suspension, like that you’d find on the Synampse endurance road bike to dampen the bumps, as well as the Ai offset drive train which moves the hub and chain ring 6mm to the drive side to accommodate larger tyres and allow for better mud shedding.
This top end selection features in-house 35mm deep HollowGram carbon clinchers and HollowGram 40-tooth chainset, with Shimano XT Di2 clutched rear mech to shift between cogs on an 11-32 cassette.
Boardman CXR 9.4 cyclocross bike: £2,299.99
The range topping model within a five bike line up is a favourite of Chris Boardman himself. C10 carbon frame is dressed in hydraulic disc brakes which are supported by thru-axle hubs, to offer a rigid interface between frame and wheels and make wheel swaps easier.
A SRAM Force 1 single ring groupset and clutched rear mech maintain chain tension when shifting across the 11-36 cassette. Internal cable routing is ideal for ‘cross conditions, and it all rolls on Boardman’s tubeless ready CXR Elite Five wheels.
Kinesis CX Race Evo cyclocross bike: £999.99
UK brand Kinesis sells this bike as a frame only, and we checked out the built model that comes in a penny under £1k, with Rival 1 Build Kit from Upgrade bikes.
The aluminium frame sports a threaded bottom bracket shell, 142x12mm thru-axle and flat mount disc brakes. A carbon fork drops the weight and sizing runs from 45cm up to 60cm to suit riders from the junior and youth ranks up to full-grown adults who still like to play in the mud.
Canyon Inflite CF SLX cyclocross bike: £3,599
The most notable feature of this UCI legal frame is perhaps the kinked top tube, which opens up the central triangle and makes shouldering the bike easier. The seat post clamp sits under the top tube, which increases the length and offers a smoother ride, allowing for powerful pedal strokes when seated.
The two smallest Inflite models from Canyon come with 650b rather than 700c wheels, so smaller riders enjoy the same handling experience. The cockpit on this model is a one-piece carbon Ergocockpit, and this model comes with SRAM Force 1 Quarq Prime Carbon 40 tooth chainset, 11-36 cassette, and Schwalbe X-One 33mm tyres on Reynolds Assault LE Disc carbon wheels.
Vitus Energie CycloX cyclocross bike: £949.99
A sub-£1k option from Chain Reaction Cycles’ in-house brand, the Vitus Energie can afford to offer some high end spec for the price.
The alloy frame is bolstered by a high modulus carbon fork, and fitted with a single chain ring groupset – in this case a SRAM Apex 1 40 tooth with 11-32 cassette. The WTB tubeless ready rims come dressed in 35mm Cross Boss rubber.
Internal cable routing keeps dirt out, and saves them from getting caught on obstacles. There’s three other models, ranging from £1,200 to £1,800 with carbon frame and SRAM Force 1.
Cube Cross Race C:62 SL cyclocross bike – £2,499
Featuring advanced twin-mould tech, the C:62 from Cube offers a carbon frameset with all-carbon fork – resulting in a light and strong machine. The geometry has been tailored to offer a stable ride off-road, and a beefed up tapered steerer ensures a robust machine and our version comes with Newmen Evolution SL R.32 wheels and a Schwalbe tyres.
The Newmen seatpost is constructed from carbon too, as is the matching bar and stem; all in, the size 53cm frame tips the scales at just 7.65kg. A SRAM Force 1 drivetrain with hydraulic brakes and EC90 chainset with 40 tooth chainring sits next to an 11-36 cassette.
Ridley X-Night Disc Rival 1 cyclocross bike – £2,899.99
This ‘cross bike comes from Belgium brand Ridley, the ride of choice for the Belgian Marlux-Napoleon Games men’s pro team, its under-23 feeder team and the Dutch WM3 women’s pro team.
With a carbon frame constructed from a mix of high-modulus and high-resistance 24-tonne unidirectional fibres, it’s a stiff and compliant ride. The classic cross frame features a horizontal top tube which is easy to carry.
The X-Range bikes predominantly feature disc brakes, with two models sporting cantilever stoppers. Bucking the trends of the year, the X-Night Disc Rival 1 is also the only model with a single chainring – the others sport 46/36 doubles as opposed to the 42 tooth chainring and 11-32 cassette on the Rival 1 bike.
What is a cyclocross bike?
A cyclocross bike is built a bit differently from a standard road bike – with tweaks made to create a machine that’s more suited to off-road riding.
These include a slacker head angle, for better off-road handling, and a higher bottom bracket to avoid too many accidents involving rocks and roots.
The wheelbase will often be longer, creating greater stability, and the top tube (often flattened for ease of shouldering) is often a little shorter to provide a more upright riding position. The bars and saddle are usually closer to being level, allowing the rider to shift their weight around more easily to tackle obstacles and to control traction.
Of course, all of the above sits on a sliding scale – more aggressive race orientated cyclocross bikes will sacrifice some security for a more nimble ride quality, whilst the closer they get to the adventure road category, the greater the stability on offer.
Mud is almost inevitable in cross races, and cyclocross bikes are built with plenty of space between the tyres and the frame so that the wheels keep turning even when it collects on the bike during the race. This is evident around the forks, the chain stays and the seat stays and there’s also more space between the rear tyre and the seat tube and bottom bracket than on a road bike.
Aluminium (with a carbon fork) is a popular frame choice, thanks to its combination of low weight and robust properties, but some pricey options come with a carbon frame.
To ensure grip in off-road conditions, a cyclocross bike will be fitted with wide tyres. The UCI, world cycling’s governing body, uses a formula which usually limits tyre width to 33mm for competitions, but many cyclocross bikes are sold with 35mm tyres for extra grip and stability.
Tread patterns differ dependent on the conditions on the course. Hard or sandy conditions are usually tackled on file treaded tyres, as low rolling resistance is more important than grip. Once it starts to get wet or muddy, tyres with knobs come into their own, with the knob size and tread pattern increasing as the conditions become more sketchy to add more grip and mud-shedding capability.
Many cross bikes come with clincher tyres, although professionals and more serious amateurs typically ride on treaded tubulars which can be run at lower pressures for more grip. Tubeless clincher tyres are also beginning to appear, which have the advantages of tubulars but are easier to set up and provide puncture resistance too.
Tyre pressure is critical to off-road handling with pros often riding tyres at below 30psi. This is easier with tubular or tubeless clincher tyres, neither of which is susceptible to pinch flats. For a standard clincher set-up a pressure nearer 40psi provides a bit more protection from bottoming out the tyre on the rim, which can cause pinch flats.
Brakes on a cyclocross bike
In 2013 the UCI permitted the use of disc brakes on cyclocross bikes used in competition. Now the majority of cross bikes are sold with discs. Lower end bikes will have mechanical disc brakes, although full-hydraulic systems are becoming more and more prevalent as component manufacturers offer more options.
Previously, cyclocross bikes used cantilever rim brakes for their mud clearance. Many cyclocross pros still use them in competition and a few cyclocross bikes and frames are sold with cantilever brakes or with additional mounts for cantilevers as well as disc brakes.
Disc brakes provide quicker and more consistent braking and it is easier to modulate them to get the correct amount of stopping power than for cantilevers. To handle the stresses on the wheels from disc brakes, cyclocross bikes are increasingly being specified with thru axles. These are borrowed from mountain bikes and result in a more rigid wheel to frame connection than a quick release. They may be used at the front only or for both axles. Rear axle spacing is usually 135mm but bikes with 142mm axles are appearing too. Thru axles also help improve accuracy of disc placement in the brake calipers.
Up until this year, a typical cyclocross bike designed for competition would come with a 46/36t double chainset and a fairly wide range cassette.
However, 2017 and 2018 launches included a high percentage of bikes using SRAM’s 1x (pronounced One-By) transmission. This dispenses with the second chainring in favour of a much wider spread of sprockets in the cassette, so that the number of gears drops from 22 to 11 but the available range remains similar.
The chainring has alternating wide and narrow teeth to mesh better with the wide and narrow links in the chain, helping to clear mud and prevent chain drop. The rear derailleur too has a unique design with a clutch to prevent chain slap.
Pedals and shoes
Cyclocross bikes are usually set up with clipless mountain bike pedals and riders use shoes which will take two bolt style cleats and which have grips and sometimes studs.
These may be mountain bike shoes but there are an increasing number of cyclocross-specific shoes becoming available too.