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.
Cannondale SuperX 105 2019 cyclocross bike
Cannondale’s cyclocross range is divided into two families: the CAADX and the SuperX.
All of the SuperX bikes are race spec and feature single chainrings and carbon frames, whilst the CAADX bikes use aluminium and double rings, making them more all-rounders which could be used as winter road bikes or commuters.
When we tested the SuperX, we enjoyed the stable off-road handling, mud clearance and compliance built into the frame. The Shimano 105 version comes in at £1399.99 with hydraulic discs.
Boardman CXR 9.0 2019 cyclocross bike
Read more: Boardman CX Comp cyclocross bike review
A proper cyclocross race machine with a single front chain ring and high modulus C10 carbon frame. Boardman has opted to use a SRAM Apex 1 groupset with hydraulic disc brakes, for £1999.99.
The CXR Elite Five wheels come fitted with ready to race 33mm Clement MXP tyres which should work well even when conditions become properly ‘cross ready.
Trek Boone 5 2019 cyclocross bike
Read more: Trek Boone 5 2019 cyclocross bike
A race-winning bike that uses Trek’s IsoSpeed decoupler to smooth out the bumps, though we found the handling quit edgy.
The carbon frame is dressed up with SRAM Rival groupset with a 40T front chainring and 11-32 rear, plus hydraulic disc brakes for £2,600.
Designed for pro racers to use, the added comfort from the IsoSpeed means it’ll suit all-day gravel riders, too.
BMC Crossmachine CX01 TWO 2019 Cyclocross Bike
Read more: BMC Crossmachine CX01 2019 cyclocross bike
BMC’s Crossmachine uses its ACE technology – which means the layup and geometry has been selected after a multitude of potentials was run through a computer generated system, to find the ideal.
It’s a ‘cross bike for racing, with a light carbon frame, SRAM Rival 1x chainring with 11-42 rear cassette and hydraulic disc brakes for £2,700.
When testing this one, we loved the robust build and thoroughbred race geometry.
Santa Cruz Stigmata CC 2019 cyclocross bike
Read more: Santa Cruz Stigmata cyclocross bike review
Santa Cruz is best known for its mountain bikes, but it’s brought some of that knowledge to drop bars in the shape of its cyclocross range.
The model was used by Paul Oldham when he won the Three Peaks cyclo-cross race in 2015, and we really rated its handling prowess.
For 2019, it features SRAM Rival shifting, hydraulic discs and a top end carbon frame.
Scott Addict CX RC 2019 race bike
Read more: Scott Addict CX10 cyclocross bike review
Scott offers a selection of gravel specific bikes, and then its ‘CX RC race bike’ – which is a top end, more aggressive model designed for power hours in muddy fields.
Front and rear thru axles accompany a SRAM Force 1 groupset with hydraulic disc brakes, for £3,499.
We liked the outgoing model for its lightweight, responsive frame, and Scott say it’s both stiffer and more compliant this year.
MBR vs Cycling Weekly races cyclocross
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, from 2017 onwards launches have 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.