Marc Abbott puts three cyclocross bikes to test and explains how to choose the right one for your first CX race or off-road duathlon
You’ve worked hard through late winter and spring to build your fitness and endurance, and had a whole summer of competition and events to build upon this base – wouldn’t it be a shame if you let it slip away just because the weather got naff and the nights drew in? Cyclocross is the ideal way to stay race-fit over the autumn and winter, and it might also be the best training you can do to emerge in 2017 fighting fit and as strong as an ox.
Cyclocross (CX) bikes look like road bikes, but there are key differences – the biggest of which is their wheels. Although road wheel-sized, their rims accommodate whopping knobbly tyres in order to cut through mud, find traction on woodland tracks or stop your rear wheel spinning up on frosty fields.
The experience of racing these bikes is hard to top. Cross races are mass-start affairs with a sprint to the first corner for positioning; what follows is effectively a series of off-road intervals as you constantly vie for position in a multi-lap race, commonly around an hour in length.
You’ll need to hop off the bike and put it on your shoulder to overcome bigger obstacles, and find the ideal gear to use all your bike-handling skills to surmount grass banks, tree roots and out-and-out quagmires. Want in on this? We’ve tested three cyclocross bikes at the more affordable end of the spectrum to guide you toward which one should be your first.
What to look for
Disc brakes have taken hold fully in the world of road bikes, but they were always a good choice for off-road riding. They offer easy and confident modulation of braking force with little sacrifice to outright stopping power.
Because cyclocross bikes are designed to be picked up and occasionally carried on your shoulders, cables are commonly routed across the top of the toptube, so they’re less likely to get snagged.
A range of deeply treaded tyre options are available for CX bikes, ranging from those suited to bone dry tracks to sloppy mud-fests. The three bikes we’ve tested are wearing decent, suit-all rubber, but new tyres may be required for deep winter riding.
The common set-up for CX bikes is a 46 big chainring and 36 little ring, making it easier to maintain speed off-road. A 53/39 chainset would see you snapping chains or having your rear wheel spinning up on even moderate mud.
Any of these three bikes would perform well in your first race season, and all three would also be suitable as an everyday winter bike (handy to know if you need to convince your other half that you really do need another bike!). However, commuting practicality aside, their suitability as race bikes differs.
Eastway’s Balun C1 looks a million dollars, has the best brakes and is more than willing to get up and go. The only reason it didn’t score more highly is because it feels slightly compromised, not offering the quickness of turn-in that the other two bikes deliver, nor the speed required to stay on the pace for an hour of multi-terrain laps.
Giant’s TCX SLR2 is a cracking bike at a very good price, and excelled in not-too-wet conditions on our test loops. Its tyres inspire confidence and it’s the easiest to sling on to your shoulder, but it’s just pipped to the top of the podium by the Raleigh.
The RX Comp delivers agility and aggression in abundance, and does so while cosseting the rider – ideal for newcomers to the sport. Good grip from the tyres inspires confidence, while the compact overall dimensions make it the punchiest of the three when you need to sprint out of a corner.
Snap one of these up and surprise some carbon bike-riding old hands at your local cyclocross league this autumn.