Cyclo Cross (also called Cyclo Cross, Cyclo-X, CX or just ‘cross) is a hybrid of road and mountain biking, with grown men and women in lycra outfits taking to muddy fields in the depths of winter to carry their bikes over their shoulders and jump over railway sleepers – or at least, that’s what it can look like to the outsider.
To the enthusiast however, Cyclo Cross is not only an ideal way to maintain race fitness and enjoy competing during the road off-season; it is also a true test of power, endurance and bike handling skills. Originating in Belgium, Cyclo Cross involves multi-lap races over a short off-road course that typically takes riders over grass sections, technical wooded terrain and even wooden obstacles.
The bikes designed for the sport reflect the mix of road and off-road skills required, but they are also popular as tough and versatile all-rounders.
If you don’t want to read our in-depth guide on Cyclo Cross bikes, you can go directly to the product page via the link below:
Read on to find out more about what makes a CX bike different from a ‘regular’ road bike, and why you might just need one for your next bike.
Or rather – do I need a Cyclo Cross bike? (Answer: Maybe. Why not?)
Unlike MTB and road riding (which involve multiple sub-disciplines), Cyclo Cross is a pretty specific discipline with a pretty specific set of standards, and a pretty specific type of bike has evolved to cope with it. As it happens, that bike is good at lots of other things too…
At the most basic level, a Cyclo Cross bike is similar to a standard road bike but with clearance for wide, knobbly tyres (that are usually clogged with mud) and cantilever or disc brakes as opposed to road calipers. Other little touches – brake levers on the bar tops, over top-tube cable routing etc also make the typical CX bike stand out in a crowd.
For entry-level racers as well as anyone looking for a versatile winter commuter/trainer/tourer, a standard alloy-framed CX bike is usually plenty of bang for your buck. You won’t get the same payoff from spending more as you will with a ‘normal’ road bike, as generally light weight is not such a big factor with CX-style riding. Nonetheless, competitive racers will look to gain start line advantage with a carbon-framed bike and top-end components.
From a distance the typical Cyclo Cross bike looks just like a standard road bike – 700c wheels, skinny, fast-rolling tyres and drop handlebars for speed.
Look a little closer however and the key differences become apparent. First, frame geometry is different, a shorter top tube than on standard road bikes offering a more upright riding position – akin to that of a mountain bike – for more precise handling in technical terrain. Bottom brackets are higher to provide clearance over roots, rocks and other obstacles. In fact, with railway sleepers being a feature on many CX courses the sport frequently involves the rider having to carry – or ‘shoulder’ – the bike. Some manufacturers flatten their top tubes to make this more comfortable, while most CX bikes will see rear brake and gear cables routed either on top of the top tube, or under the down tube. The ability to dismount and remount without losing speed or breaking rhythm is a key CX skill and a hallmark of the sport.
Frames can be made from the usual materials – aluminium, steel, carbon fibre and titanium – with the ride comfort of steel making it a particularly popular choice as light weight is not so much a factor. CX frames are built to take more abuse than road frames so they tend to be heavier, stiffer and less comfortable over long distances. Bosses for bottle cages are absent on many race-orientated frames as they would get in the way of the rider shouldering the bike.
Tyres and components
Take a closer look at those skinny tyres meanwhile, and instead of slick 23-25mm rubber we find knobbly tyres of 30mm or more, still thin enough to cut through muddy conditions but with a grippy tread for rough terrain traction.
In place of the caliper brakes found on standard road bikes we traditionally find cantilever brakes, which as well as being more powerful in wet and gritty conditions offer more clearance for mud-caked knobbly tyres to fit through. CX bikes will also typically feature an extra set of brake levers on the top of the bars.
NOTE: Cable-operated disc brakes are starting to become more and more common on Cyclo Cross bikes, as they have the advantage of keeping the braking surface out of the mud and grit, so prolonging the life of the wheelset. Remember if you think you might want to upgrade to discs later you will need to have wheels and forks with the right mounts for the brake and rotor, so check before you buy.
Forks are rigid and made from aluminium, steel or commonly carbon fibre. They differ from road forks in having more clearance for bigger tyres to fit through, as well as bosses for cantilever brakes (or mounts for discs).
A compact double chainset often matched with a 9- or 10-speed cassette offers 18 or 20 gears, with the ratio typically being easier than on standard road bikes to cope with the more extreme conditions. CX bikes will typically offer a gear ratio of 48-36 teeth on the chainset and 12-27 on the cassette, compared to the more standard 53-39/12-25 of a standard road bike.
With CX bikes in many ways combining the best elements of road and mountain bikes – the tough, all-conditions ability of an MTB married to the pedaling efficiency and longer-distance comfort of a road bike – many riders find them highly suitable as workhorse bikes beyond the confines of the CX racetrack.
CX bikes can be used as all-weather commuters, winter training bikes, leisure tourers and even for less technical off-road riding at speed.