Originating as a way for road racers to keep their competitive edge during the cold, wet months of the off-season, cyclocross has long established itself as a discipline all of its own. For many riders and fans alike these short, intense races – typically laps of a muddy, grassy course featuring tight turns, steep slopes, wooden obstacles and even sets of stairs – are the highlight of the year.
In the sport’s heartland of northern Europe (Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and even Poland), the big cyclocross races are riotous festivals of fun, with thousands of fans flocking to see the action.
Of course, this unique form of racing is going to need a unique type of bike, and the traditional cyclocross bike has differed from its road racing cousins in key ways, including frames with plenty of room for wider, knobbly tyres and higher bottom brackets to easily clear obstacles. In recent years there have been some key changes to the category, with the advent of disc brakes (and their ability for frame designers to build in plenty of mud clearance) all but consigning old-school cantilevers to the museum of cycling history.
Of mention too is the growth of the gravel bike – although not strictly designed for ‘cross racing these capable off-road machines (with disc brakes, grippy high-volume tyres and compact frames) can easily tackle your local club ‘cross course, if asked nicely. For that reason in our roundup of the best cyclocross bikes of 2020 we’ve include a few that are more strictly labelled as ‘gravel bikes’, no matter what the purists might think.
If you’re looking for a Swiss Army bike capable of off-grid adventure, cyclocross competition, winter training and even commuting duties (with a change of tyres), you’re sure to find something suitable in our selection.
Cyclo-curious? If you’re tempted by the idea of laps of a muddy field in the depths of winter – and let’s face it, it does look like fun – but not sure about splashing out big wads of your hard-earned, the Vitus Energie (Apex) 2020 should at the very top of your shortlist. This bike packs a heck of a lot into a great value package – for just £899 you’re getting a lightweight triple-butted 6061-T6 alloy frame and full carbon fork bedecked with SRAM’s Apex 1x groupset (on which, more later), a tough WTB/Novatec wheelset and quality Vitus finishing kit.
Let’s not neglect the fact that said Apex groupset comes complete with hydraulic disc brakes, not normally seen at this price point – quite frankly it’s a steal. We’re also quite taken with the stealth black colourway, featuring natty pops of orange (or as Vitus would have it, ‘Anthracite – Fire Chameleon’), which continues the company’s theme of making entry-level bikes look a lot more premium than their price tag.
A note on the Apex drivetrain – this is SRAM’s entry-level road groupset, originally intended for the sportive market with a low gear range and long cage rear mech, but perfectly suited to cyclocross an gravel riding too. In this iteration it’s 1x (one by) – featuring a single front chainring rather than the two normally found on road bikes.
This combination eliminates the need for a front derailleur, reducing weight and mechanical complexity, and in the case of cyclocross racing taking out one more place where mud can gather. The simplicity of 1x gearing has seen it become de rigeur for off-road bikes including ‘cross, MTB and gravel, with less of a requirement for the close gear spacings and wide spread than road racing, where 2x still reigns supreme.
Boutique bike builder Ragley is well known for ploughing its own furrow, building a reputation for idiosyncratic hardtail MTBs whose design quirks don’t eclipse dialled-in geometry and a ‘built for real life’ ethos. This character is found in spades with the Ragley Trig, a steel-framed gravel bike that is the very definition of versatility, and more than capable of taming a cyclocross course.
Carrying a little more weight than its race-bred cousins and featuring a road-friendly 2x groupset rather than the more streamlined 1x setup, the Trig is unashamedly a jack-of-all-trades rather than a specialist, but if you fancy some winter fun and budget/shed space precludes the acquisition of a dedicated race bike, this one is worth a look.
Carrying a Shimano 2×10 groupset and Tektro mechanical disc brakes there are no obvious spec weaknesses here – we are particularly impressed by the chameleon-like Trig being suited for use with pretty much every wheel size out there, including 700c (cyclocross), 650b (Gravel/Adventure) and even 27.5” MTB wheels with tyres up to 2.1” in width.
It’s even compatible with a dropper seatpost…
Another gravel bike, this time from Vitus’ sister brand Nukeproof, the Digger offers all of the versatility of Ragley’s Trig but with a lighter alloy frame and a more off-road optimised groupset.
Standing out from the spec sheet is the inclusion of Shimano’s GRX 1×11-Speed drivetrain featuring a super-wide 11-42t cassette and hydraulic disc brakes. GRX is Shimano’s dedicated gear offering for off-road drop bar bikes (cyclocross, gravel, bikepacking or whatever you’re having yourself) so performance in the field is typically faultless, and fast becoming the benchmark.
Elsewhere, the Digger comes stock with WTB Serra 27.5″ wheels, wrapped in huge-volume WTB Sendero 650x47C tyres. At first glance these are more suited to singletrack than a CX course, so anyone thinking of weekend racing might want to consider a second set of hoops. But that’s the beauty of the Digger – whatever it is, is whatever you want it to be.
If the Digger points more towards rough roots and loosepack trails, the Orro Terra Gravel leans firmly in the opposition direction, illustrating just how broad is the category of off-road drop bar riding. With a 73-degree head angle and 72.6-degree seat angle the Terra in silhouhette looks for all the world like a road bike, an impression not dispelled by the inclusion of 2×11 Shimano 105 gearing, Fulcrum R900 wheels and 28mm tyres, as found on many bikes marketed purely for sportive riding or even racing.
That said, the handsome 6061 aluminium frame at the heart of this bike provides plenty of clearance for wider tyres (in drier weather, perhaps) and the dependable Shimano 105 7020 hydraulic brakes ensure reliable stopping in any conditions. If your holy grail is one bike for any occasion – a summer sportive, unpaved adventure or a sprinkling of fair weather cyclocross outings – the Orra Terra Gravel will manage all with aplomb.
Standing proud from the crowd in the stunning Fire Chameleon shade, this next rung on the Vitus Energie ladder can’t hide its true character as an out-and-out cyclocross racing machine and for that matter, why should it?
Featuring a high-modulus T700 carbon frame, the Vitus Energie CR (Rival) is built for maximum speed and optimum handling on the most testing of ‘cross courses, with nice touches such as full internal cable routing to keep mud out of your gearing innards (and keep the underside of the top tube comfy for when you need to hop off and carry the bike).
SRAM’s Rival groupset is quite cheekily pitched as a toe-to-to co
mpetitor to Shimano’s 105 tier (Rival, get it?) and in 1x guise is a sleek, minimalist and ultra-reliable shifting partner. The 11-36t rear cassette offers a lower range than the more gravel-orientated 11-42t Shimano GRX on a bike like the Nukeproof Digger, but therein lies the difference between the two – the Energie being firmly pitched at the semi-serious cyclocross racer, the Digger being well capable of racing if needed but really made for broader scope.
If you’ve been bitten by the CX bug and want a bike that will stretch your racing limits, the Vitus Energie CR is a tempting proposition.
Polish brand NS bikes has made its name in the MTB arena, particularly with forward-thinking dirt jump and trail hardtails, so they are ideally placed to instil that off-road expertise into their RAG+ series of drop bar bags, the RAG part of the name standing for ‘Road and Gravel’.
This version, the RAG+ 1, sits at the pinnacle of their model hierarchy and is specified as being suitable for road/gravel/CX/commuting – these guys know their bikes, so who are we to argue? Like other bikes we have looked at in this category, the defining feature of the RAG+ 1 is its reluctance to be defined, with a refined aluminium frame, SRAM Apex 1x gearing and the ability to take a variety of wheel/tyre size combinations (from 700c wheels and CX tyres to 650b wheels and tyres up to 45c, or even 27.5” MTB wheels and 2.2” tyres).
We say this makes it an appealing proposition for anyone looking for a bike that will turn its hand to CX racing, gravel riding, bikepacking and singletrack trails, especially anyone with an MTB background looking to replicate the fun factor they are used to.
Another version of the inimitable Vitus Energie, this time in electrifying Blue Chameleon livery and with an upgrade to a SRAM Force 1 HRD groupset. The Vitus Energie CRX brings to the start line the same singularity of purpose as the Vitus CR – and the same high-modulus T700 carbon frame – so we are talking about incremental improvements in componentry, namely that higher-tier SRAM drivetrain, Prime Pro tubeless-ready wheelset and Zipp Service Course finishing kit.
This is a weapon for the serious racer, with an 11-32t cassette implying a rider with the engine necessary to power up steep slopes mercilessly, rather than sit down and spin it out. That impression is reinforced by the inclusion of Vee XCX 33c tubeless ready tyres – pro-level kit for the ambitious racer.
If your sights are set on a podium place, the Vitus Energie CRX is your partner in competition – but that’s not to say it won’t be a blast on your local gravel trails too.
Forgive us for labouring the point, but if you are looking for the best cyclocross bike of 2020, the Vitus Energie should be firmly in your sights – which model being largely dependent on the limits of your ambition, and the depths of your wallet.
If money is no object, let’s not leave without taking a long look at the Vitus Energie CRX eTap, which even with a £3k price tag represents astounding value for money. Here you’re getting not only the comfortable, sharp handling and beautifully responsive high-modulus T7000 carbon of its Vitus CR and CRX stablemates, but also the cutting-edge, cable-free technology of SRAM’s eTap wireless drivetrain.
As you might imagine, this eschews all cables and wires for shifters and derailleurs that communicate with each other via wireless protocols, ensuring the slickest of shifting in all conditions. A few short years ago this level of technology sounded like something out of Star Trek, so it’s remarkable how quickly people have been converted – and even more remarkable that it’s available as part of full bike build at this price point.
While wireless shifting may grab the headlines on the Vitus Energie CRX eTap, let’s not ignore the stunning Prime Black Edition carbon disc wheels, with deep-section 38mm rims. Aero gains in the context of CX racing might be negligible, but the level of stiffness and performance afforded by these hoops is amazing, and at this highest level a gain is a gain, however marginal.
And it’s red, so of course it goes faster.
We’ve been struck many times by the creativity and imagination of Polish bike brand Rondo and there is plenty of both on display with their Ruut CF1, ostensibly a gravel bike (note the wide-range 10x42t cassette supplied as part of the SRAM Force 1×11 groupset) but easily versatile enough for casual cyclocross competition.
Of particular note is the EPS carbon frame with what Rondo calls Flex Design – compliance built into the frame via flex points on the seat stays, top tube and seat tube. This design is what gives the frame it’s noticeable ‘kink’ at the intersection of top tube and seat tube, a feature not only useful for smoothing out the bumps of a rough CX course but by happenstance extremely comfortable when the bike needs to be shouldered.
Also to be mentioned is Rondo’s innovative TwinTip adjustable geometry fork design, which allows you to adjust between two settings – the Hi position optimised for fast, sporty riding (e.g. CX racing) with steeper angles and a more aggressive ride, the Lo position being more upright and relaxed, and thus suitable for all-day adventure or gravel riding. We like the Ruut a lot – both in terms of thinking and execution.
It’s another great example of how many bike makers are prioritising versatility, recognising that many riders want to explore different avenues of the sport without needing a different bike every time.