Across multiple markets, cyclocross is arguably the fastest growing competitive cycling discipline. However, outside of Europe and to a lesser extent the United States, awareness of the sport is still limited which can make choosing a bike and knowing what you should be looking for potentially difficult. To make things easier, and help cut through all the terminology, we've put together this buyer's guide to explain the different aspects of cyclocross bikes, the versatile type of riding you can do with them, and just how to choose the right one for you.
What is Cyclocross?
Cyclocross is a short, intense form of bike racing that was created to allow riders to continue racing over cold European winters. Cyclocross is commonly referred to as 'CX' and is raced in all weather conditions no matter how bad. It's common to see races conducted over snow, dirt and sand, as well as a myriad of obstacles including jumps, stairs, rocks and incredibly steep hills. Cyclocross circuits are short, typically no longer than 4km in length and races are conducted over a set number of laps (depending on the length of the circuit), usually lasting between 45min - an hour.
The courses require riders to possess a unique set of skills to overcome the obstacles and manage the technical layout. It also requires a unique bike to handle rough conditions, tight circuits and fast racing. A cyclocross bike looks similar to a road bike at a glance but has specific features that separate it from its tarmac orientated cousin and that make it a rather versatile bike choice. So versatile, many riders happily use their cyclocross bikes for racing, commuting and even riding in road groups. We'll run you through what makes a cyclocross bike different below.
To start with, two main design aspects of the geometry are different; the headtube angle and bottom bracket height.
The slacker headtube angle provides riders with greater control descending and at lower speeds than a steep angle would. Due to cyclocross circuits being short, full of obstacles and technical, it's rare that speed will be comparable to road racing so control at low speed is crucial as is lower gear ratios (which we'll go into detail later).
A second design change is a raised bottom bracket area to better manage obstacles. As well as clearing obstacles easier, the higher bottom bracket area allows riders to pedal through corners. This does, however, raise a rider's centre of gravity, potentially making handling the bike more difficult. For this reason, many riders will lower their seat height by 1cm or so to counter the change.
For more on geometry and how it affects a bike, check out our guide to geometry charts and what they mean.
The frame materials used for cyclocross bikes are the same as road and mountain bikes, commonly made from either carbon fiber, aluminium, titanium, steel or a combination of these materials.
Each material has different characteristics and will affect the cost, comfort, weight, stiffness, strength, durability and general 'feel' of the bike. It's worth noting that it's often how the chosen material is used by the engineers and manufacturers that matters most, and this is something that each brand will typically play with.
For a more in-depth look at differences of common frames materials read our Bike Materials Explained guide.
Aiming to keep weight down in cycling is universal regardless of the discipline and cyclocross is no different. The lighter the bike the easier it will be to clear obstacles, pick up and carry if you've had to dismount and negotiate and accelerate out of tight corners.
Frame material choice will play a large part, however, your budget will be the true deciding factor in how light the bike will be.
Flat tube shapes
Part of cyclocross is dismounting and carrying your bike to clear large obstacles. Standard tube shapes can make this awkward and uncomfortable so cyclocross bikes are often made with the underside of the top tube flatter than a road bike to sit better on your shoulder when carrying. This riding skill is known as shouldering and depending on the course could be required every lap. Having a flatter underside of the top tube will give you greater control over the bike as well as making it more comfortable.
Increased tire clearance
Cyclocross bikes use larger tires than standard road tires, normally 32-33mm knobbly tires but up to 40mm to improve traction, grip and provide a more stable platform. To accommodate these larger tires the clearance needs to be much greater than a standard road bike.
As well as accommodating the tires, extra clearance is required to prevent mud from building up and preventing the wheel from rotating smoothly. Even with this added clearance, professional cyclocross riders regularly swap bikes during races to get them hosed down and the mud removed. Riders will often have a second and even third bike available to them on race day that they can quickly change over in the case of a flat, or excess mud and dirt build up that is affecting performance.
This increased clearance also increases the height of the fork, and consequently the front end of the bike. Many riders prefer having a taller front end to provide greater control, even slightly tilting the hoods to allow for a better grip, while others will look for a frame with a short headtube so they can still achieve an aggressive position.
UCI sanctioned events stipulate that tires can be no larger than 33c, however many cyclocross bikes will have tires up to 40c wide if the clearance will allow. The benefit of larger tires are more traction and stability, greater resistance to punctures, and they can be run at a lower pressure to provide greater shock absorption and comfort. The psi of the tires will vary depending upon size, rider preference and course details but the range will typically be somewhere between 15 and 30psi.
Cyclocross tires will have a much more textured and graded surface than road tires, featuring knobbly tread, similar to mountain bike tires, to add traction and grip. Similar to the road, cyclocross tires come in a choice of tubular, clincher and tubeless.
The attributes of a cyclocross bike make it well suited to a variety of other cycling disciplines with a quick change of tire. Add thinner, slicker road specific tires and you will feel just as comfortable on the tarmac as it does on trails or tight cyclocross circuits. Put on wider knobbly tires and moderate trails can be explored.
Lower geared drivetrain
As mentioned, cyclocross racing doesn't hit the high, sustained speeds of road racing, therefore, smaller gear ratios are used. Instead of a 53/39 or 50/34 crankset that would typically be seen on the road, cranksets for cyclocross bikes are generally either 42/32, 44/34, or 46/36. The rear cassette remains similar to road ratios, either an 11-25 or 11-28 most frequently used. Despite the challenging conditions, the components themselves are nearly always shared with what road bikes use.
An emerging trend is the usage of a 1x drivetrain that eliminates the front derailleur meaning there is less chance of mechanical issues when changing from the small to large chainring (and vice versa) and less chance of decreased performance if the front derailleur and crankset get covered in mud, sand, dirt or grit. It also saves a small amount of weight. For this, riders use wide-range mountain bike cassettes, such as an 11-36T to make up for the lost front gear choice.
Read through our Road Bike Groupsets guide to get a more in-depth understanding of the manufacturers, ratios, components, materials and much more.
The greater tire size of cyclocross bikes necessitates a change in frame geometry and also a different braking system. Bikes will feature either cantilever or disc brakes to accommodate the larger tires. Cable operated cantilever brakes were universally used in the early days of cyclocross before disc brakes started to take over in recent years. Disc brakes can either be cable and hydraulic, having many advantages over the cantilever system.
Cantilever brakes will most commonly be found on entry-level cyclocross bikes, although they still feature on some top-tier models. First proven on mountain bikes, disc brakes have become the new industry standard for cyclocross thanks to their consistent performance in all weather conditions, reliability and low maintenance. They do however add weight to the bike and are more expensive than cantilever options (generally).
Fenders and mounts: True cyclocross racing bikes won't have mounts for fenders and racks but many general use cyclocross bikes will. The characteristics of cyclocross bikes make them perfect for adventure riding and commuting, both of which benefit greatly from being able to carry large items. Mounts will most likely be found on the front fork, or rear seat stays and will specify maximum load capacity.
Bottle Cages: Under UCI rule, drinking during the event is typically not allowed. For this, some race-specific bikes won't have provisions for water cages and instead try to create as smooth a frame surface as possible to ease carrying. However, most consumer-bikes do offer provisions for bottle cages these days.
Cyclocross versus Gravel Bike
The versatility of cyclocross bikes has spawned a new breed of bikes referred to as 'gravel' or 'all-road' bikes. These bikes share some similar characteristics with cyclocross bikes; versatility, adaptability and durability, but gravel bikes promote greater comfort and adventure.
Gravel bikes will differ from cyclocross bikes by having a longer wheelbase, more relaxed geometry, lower bottom bracket height and larger gear ratios. Larger tires and disc brakes (most often) remain the same as they serve the same purpose for both bikes, although some gravel bikes offer even more tire clearance.
For more information on gravel bikes, check out our 'What is a Gravel Bike' article.
The budget rules governing cyclocross bikes are the same for road and mountain bikes. Spending more money on a bike will typically (but not always) result in a reduction of weight, improved shift quality, increased durability and greater comfort.
The materials of the bike's frame and fork will change as the price increases, typically moving from aluminium to carbon fiber. Groupsets will have a similar progression starting with low-grade alloys, then progressing to higher grade allows, then a mix of the highest grade alloys, carbon fiber and titanium. Wheelsets follow a similar path from aluminium to carbon fiber and tires will become more supple, able to run at lower pressures and have better tread. The brakes also go through a transformation, starting with cantilevers, then mechanical disc and finally the fully sealed hydraulic disc systems.
Below is a summary of what you can expect within a set budget.
Due to the complexity of Cyclocross bikes the entry level price point is $2,000 and under. For this amount of money, you can expect an aluminium frame with carbon forks, either cantilever or cable disc brakes, basic wheels that are heavy but should be durable, and either Shimano Tiagra or 105 drivetrains.
Between $2,000 and $4,000
Moving up to the next price bracket will save considerable weight and become more race-ready. Frames are still likely to be made of aluminium with carbon forks although you may be able to grab a carbon frame if you search hard enough. Brakes are almost exclusively disc although primarily still cable operated, with some bikes at the top of this range hydraulic. Wheelsets become lighter, more durable and race specific with more supple tires featuring better tread. Drivetrains are likely to be double cranksets, either SRAM Rival or Shimano Ultegra, however the occasional 1x drivetrain of SRAM Rival 1 will appear.
The final price bracket will get you the best of the best, a cyclocross super-bike. Frames will be made from carbon fiber, becoming lighter, stiffer and more responsive. Wheelsets too become lighter, making maneuvering through tight circuits easier, they will also roll better and be more durable. Brakes will exclusively be hydraulic disc. Drivetrains move to top tier double crankset Shimano Dura Ace, SRAM Red or 1x drivetrain SRAM Force 1.
Bikes in this price range were built with every advantage for racing so if you are considering a Cyclocross bike as a versatile, all-around bike that you can do everything on, a lower price bracket will still get you a great bike, with a potentially greater scope.
When it comes to accessories, cyclocross typically borrows from a combination of road and cross country mountain biking. The following items aren't exclusive to cyclocross but will certainly make things easier and are currently being used by professional racers.
Mountain bike pedals: Like mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes require mud shedding pedals as courses are very muddy. If you were to opt for standard road cleats it would prove difficult to clip in after running through obstacles. Mountain bike pedals also feature a smaller cleat that is recessed into the shoe, allowing for surrounding tread. These pedals are also double or four-sided making it easier to clip into in a hurry. Popular pedal options include Shimano SPD, crankbrothers egg beater or Time Atac pedals.
Mountain Bike shoes: As a result of having to run, shoes with tread, lowered outer sole to provide contact with the ground and a raised cleat position are best. A traditional road shoe will have you running like you're on ice, unable to gain traction because the cleat is so pronounced, the shoe's contact with the ground is minimal. Cross country mountain bike shoes often make the best cyclocross shoes as they're stiff under power, but offer tread designed to bite into soft ground.
Skinsuit: This one is definitely saved for the racers, but wearing a skinsuit when competing is a common sight. There's no need for jersey pockets due to the short time frame of races, and the suit is easier to move and run in, which will come in handy when dismounting and remounting. A tight-fitting skinsuit is also less likely to get snagged onto something when remounting your bike or navigating an obstacle.
Tips and tricks
We've touched on the unique skills required to race cyclocross, so if you are thinking of giving it a go check out this basic guide to tips and tricks of Cyclocross including bunny hopping, mounting and dismounting, and shouldering.
The best way to know if a bike is for you is to ask lots of questions and take it for a test ride. Only by taking a bike for a ride will you get a feel for its characteristics, size, geometry and intricacies.
When taking a bike for a test ride, don't just go around the block and make a decision. If possible try to get it for the weekend, or at least try to simulate the type of riding you plan to do. Some brands offer demo shows, where they'll bring an entire fleet of bikes to a trail for you to test (ask your shop). Other shops may have their own demo fleets of popular models to test. Not all shops or brands allow this though, especially in cyclocross bikes, and so you may need to buy a bike based on the advice from trusted resources.
Now that you are across the different frame materials, check out other BikeExchange guides to provide all the info you need to know;