If you’re not already racing cyclocross by this point in the year, you’ve probably seen some friends doing it. Perhaps you’ve been out there and rang a cowbell or two. If so, chances are good you’ve caught the bug. So, where to begin?
You can always race your mountain bike with skinny tires on it to get started, but once you’ve committed to the sport, it’s time to commit to the right gear. We asked pro racers Ryan Trebon and Georgia Gould for their opinion on what you need to do it right.
Just for fun, we thought we’d get the manufacturer’s side of this, too. Brian Fornes is the marketing guy for Raleigh USA, which happens to make quite a few killer ‘cross bikes, and he chimed in. Jump the barrier for all the answers and get ready to eat some mud…
BIKERUMOR: First things first, what should someone look for when buying their first cyclocross bike?
GOULD: The most important thing is getting a bike that fits you properly. Bike shop employees can usually help you get close, but consider getting a professional fit if you can afford it- it will increase your comfort and decrease your risk of injury.
TREBON: Fit, I think fit is the most import thing by far.
RALEIGH: If you’re buying it for CX look for plenty of tire clearance between the tire and frame. When the courses turn to mud, you don’t want it building up and slowing you down. Grab the top tube and feel if the underside of it has a “flat” shape to it. A flatter tube actually rests easier on your shoulder than a round one. While you’re checking out the top tube, make sure most of the cable routing is here. Cables that are run on the down tube are prone to getting grit and mud in em…meaning more maintenance.
Don’t forget that a CX bike doesn’t have to be used exclusively for CX. CX bikes make for great commuters as they have enough room for fenders and a better geometry for everyday use over a road bike. If you’re looking for it to be multi use…make sure it has rack and fender mounts.
BIKERUMOR: would you recommend buying used and just upgrading a few parts or starting new?
GOULD: This depends on your budget, but I think if you can afford it, buy new. There are plenty of companies that offer very affordable ‘cross bikes.
TREBON: I think buy new is best if affordable, CX bikes take pretty good abuse, but a nice used bike with a good set of tubulars would also be a safe bet
RALEIGH: Cross is dirty and everyone crashes…everyone. Crashing and mud make cross fun but also make buying a used cross bike a leap of faith. It’s hard to tell how well a used bike has been maintained and what kind of carnage it’s seen. While you might be able to find a screaming deal on Craigslist for a used CX bike there are plenty of new CX bikes out that won’t break the bank off the bat.
BIKERUMOR: What are some of the key cyclocross specific parts that need to be on the bike?
GOULD: Pedals make a big difference. Make sure you have pedals that you are comfortable getting in and out of, as you will be doing this often in a ‘cross race. Tires also make a big difference- if you have to choose one set, go for mud tires. Brakes are also important- low-profile ‘cross brakes will function well in all conditions, especially muddy ones
TREBON: Tubular tires and appropriate gear.
RALEIGH: Cantilever brakes (currently) and a tire with some tread on it and a chain guide (helps keep that chain on the chainrings when things get bumpy or mucky) Aand while it isn’t CX specific, it’s a good idea to make sure it has a replaceable der hanger (and order one as soon as you get your new bike) Those things can get bent in a spill or potentially break if things get too muddy. Remember…don’t be mad if/when they break. That’s what they’re supposed to do and save you the expense of buying a new derailleur
BIKERUMOR: Drivetrain: compact or regular? What about cassette range?
GOULD: It depends. A stonger rider will be fine with a regular setup (39×46 seems like a good place to start), but some beginners might feel more comfortable with a compact setup. A 12-27 cassette should be good for most folks.
TREBON: I run regular 46-39 130bcd and a 12-25. Courses are usually flat and a 39-25 is generally small enough for the slowest of courses. I would stay away from single ring set ups though.
RALEIGH: Most new CX bikes will come with a CX specific drivetrain (36/46 is pretty standard) and getting up to a 28t cassette will give you the range needed to cover most cross terrain. Pros will run a larger gear combination….but they’re Pros and being paid to do this. SS (Single Speed) requires a lot of dedication (maybe some dead brain cells) and an ability to suffer more than everyone else. However, if you have the leg and lung strength and don’t like maintaining your bike…SS is the category for you.
BIKERUMOR: Tires: regular, tubeless or tubular? I you can only swing one set, what sort of tread pattern should you look for…err on the side of speed or mud-fighting knobs?
GOULD: I’ve never tried a tubeless set-up for ‘cross, but if I only had 1 or 2 sets of wheels, I would definitely run clinchers. They are easy to set-up, easy to change (even day of race), and there are plenty of options for dry and wet conditions. I’ve raced on clinchers with tubes and I think that can work just fine. If you have an unlimited budget though, go for 6 sets of tubulars. As far as tire tread, if you only have a few sets of tires I would run mud tires. Especially as a new rider, you will benefit from the extra traction and confidence (I end up running mud tires in most races wet or dry for those very reasons).
TREBON: I think that a set of tubular tires in a more aggressive tread pattern is your best bet. They dont roll any slower on hard, and will provide the confidence you need when it is muddy.
RALEIGH: Again…if you’re just getting started using a regular clincher/tube combination is fine. You can still run them at a low pressure and are simpler to maintain. Tubleless set ups require some trial and error to get them right. Tubulars are expensive. They require new wheels, new tubulars and some time to glue them up properly. Tubulars can be one of the best upgrades you do to your cross bike…but it’s an investment and only one that should be considered once you’re officially committed yourself.
When looking at tread patterns for a “do everything” set go the middle ground. File treads are sure fast on dry days…but you’ll be running an awful lot once the weather turns “fun”. Deep mud treads will get you through the muck, but when the course is hard packed you’ll be dragging. Every CX tire maker out there makes a good medium treat that’ll great for most conditions that’ll be present….just play with your tire pressure on days like these to either gain more traction (less air for muddy) or speed (more pressure when dry)
BIKERUMOR: How should you adapt your riding or training to get ready for ‘cross? Any specific training you recommend?
GOULD: During ‘cross season I am usually not putting in as many hours of training, but I add a little more intensity. Be careful though, it’s easy to overdo it. If you are racing 2x a weekend, I recommend only one day of intensity during the week. I run a few days a week during ‘cross season- usually just short jogs- but sometimes I do hill sprints or longer runs. I think it’s important to incorporate some skills training into some of your workouts too- a local weeknight ‘cross practice or race can be a good way to keep your skills sharp. The biggest thing I recommend is to keep your training fresh and fun. So mix it up and include workouts you enjoy. It sounds silly, but if your training is making you miserable, you won’t be racing your fastest: a happy rider is a fast rider!
TREBON: A good coach with back ground in cyclocross is the way to go. CX is all about accelerations.
RALEIGH: Visit your local brewer on a more regular basis. Or…take up some light running and mix in some stairs if the opportunity presents it. CX isn’t just about the bike…when a course designer throws in a sand pit or a massive run up…you’ll want to be ready for it.
BIKERUMOR: Anything else you’d like to add for beginners and first timers?
GOULD: You will have good races and bad races. Try to find some positive about each race. Even if it’s “I finished, but I REALLY wanted to quit!” or “I rode that one corner really well on the third lap.” This will help you learn from each race and make you better racer. Take the time to try different tire pressures (NOT on race day), you will be amazed at how much it can make a difference.
TREBON: Have fun relax and focus on the basics. Slow down and get the right technique dialed first before you try and ride things at full gas.
RALEIGH: Remember, all those people that are yelling, heckling and cheering for you…they’re probably racing as well. Stick around and have some fun and enjoy yelling back. And smile while you’re out there. Cross is fun and mud looks awesome in your teeth.