Regardless of whether you’ve caught Superprestige fever, or if you never want your race season to end, you’ve surely been wrestling with the idea of adding a cyclocross bike to your stable. And like anything in the weird world of cycling, there are a myriad of options to choose from. That’s why I’m going to walk you through some of the choices that you’re going to be faced with before you make your next big investment.
To get you started, hone in on why you actually want a ‘cross bike. If your goal is to just try a race or two, honestly, make a few modifications to your road or mountain bike in order to make the handling a little less awkward for narrow racing and dis/remounts. Along these lines, your tire choice will make the difference between a fun ride and a day of running with your bike on your shoulder. However, most road bikes come with caliper brakes that feature limited clearance, and more often than not, the largest tire that will fit is a slick 25mm. This is just one of many reasons of why a proper cyclocross frame is a necessity.
Although they generally feature similar geometry to a road frame, there are a few differences. The bottom bracket is higher, which allows for mud clearance and hopping barriers. The higher bottom bracket, often combined with a less aggressive top tube slope, often means that your frame size will not cross over. So, I always recommend that you first measure by top-tube length, and then take a look at standover height. Several other differences include a wider fork and seatstays for tire clearance.
In terms of setup, you have a few choices, namely Belgian versus everyone else. With the former, you would switch your rear brake to your left hand. This will make it infinitely easier to modulate speed with your left hand while you are rolling toward a dismount. Now for the small details: Remove your water bottle cages so that you can easily slip your arm through the triangle for carries. Change your pedals for a two-sided SPD, as they shed mud and are far easier to engage. And lastly, remove your saddle bag for race day, but feel free to leave it on for training.
If you’re serious about making a good first impression with your ninja bike-handling skills, move your hoods up on the bars a bit and try a slightly shorter stem. And while this position is not optimal for road racing, the more upright position makes handling easier on a ‘cross course. Additionally, slightly lowering your saddle height (10mm or so) will also help with dis/remounts, as well as power generation.
The next big-ticket item is your wheelset. There are multiple options from aluminum rim tubeless to full carbon layups. Tubular or tubeless tires are, technically, the best choices for ‘cross racing. Why? Well, due to the uneven nature of the terrain, you’ll want to run lower tire pressures in order to increase your tires’ surface area on the ground. With clincher tires, low pressures run a high risk of pinch flats, or worse, peeling off of the rim. Tubulars, however, are designed to roll on lower pressures.
As for the touch points of the frame, there are a few things to consider. You’ll want slightly wider handlebars than on your road bike. These will provide better balance and leverage around the course. Your crank arm length is generally the same as with your road bike, but you’ll need compact gearing and ‘cross-specific rings, as the mud and muck of a course will add significant weight to your bike. In fact, it’s not unheard of for late season races to add over 1.5lbs of mud per lap. To combat this, and to play directly to the punchy accelerations of ‘cross, a typical ratio is a 46/36t up front and an 11-25t at the rear.
The trend toward disc brakes is cresting, and many manufacturers, like Ridley, Pivot, and Ibis, are starting to provide disc options. And while the Europeans still seem to prefer the lighter cantilevers, in the US, where tech seems to rule out logic, discs are vastly popular. However, we’ve even been seeing Nys pulling a disc setup from the pits this season. As he’s put it, he enjoys being able to stop for once, but doesn’t appreciate the added kilogram in comparison to cantilevers. It is worth noting, though, that being able to actually stop in adverse conditions is now being widely accepted as fact. So, if you’re planning on riding on wet, wintery roads in the winter, in addition to racing in mud, I find discs to be the most versatile option.
Granted, tips on setup and bike fit are highly personal, and are pretty much subjective at best. I suggest that you start here, and like with all disciplines of racing, modify to your needs as you actually develop specific needs. Good luck out there, and get muddy.
Photo Credit: Tommy Chandler