Cyclo-cross is the answer to getting your winter bike fix. But which of our three bikes on test offers the best introduction to fast and furious off-road action over the darker months?

As the nights draw in and the weather turns, perhaps it’s natural that many riders begin to tone down their training, maybe allowing themselves some time to reflect on their summer riding and what they achieved, ready for a winter of cake indulgence and the odd beer.

But if you’re looking for a way to keep on top of your fitness over the autumn and winter, we’ve just the way to do it. Cyclo-cross is probably the most accessible form of bike sport; it’s suitable for all age groups, as safe

as it gets, and is the perfect way to indulge your craving for competition without investing in a road racing licence.

If you’ve never taken part in a mass-start, off-road race on a hybrid of road and mountain bike, you’re missing out. Whether hammering over frosty fields with cold air in your lungs, or slogging through muddy woods praying for the final lap, there’s no better way to stay on top of your game in the coming months. Think of it as a muddy, hour-long interval session where it’s OK to fall off.

We tested three cyclo-cross bikes that won’t break the bank to find which is the best suited to a season of muddy fun.

What to look for 

Endurance Life CTS13-14 Dorset - 7.12.13

Endurance Life CTS13-14 Dorset – 7.12.13

1 Brakes Cantilever brakes were once the norm on cyclo-cross bikes, but the fashion for disc brakes has now well and truly taken hold. There are sound performance reasons for this too.

2 Cable routing These bikes are designed to be slung over your shoulder for traversing impassable obstacles. Cables are routed either internally or more usually along the top of the top tube, to allow efficient “shouldering” of the bike.

3 Tyres Cyclo-cross bikes run knobbly tyres (for obvious reasons), in much wider diameters than a road bike. These are also designed to be run at much lower pressures, especially for deep mud and sloppy conditions.

4 Chainsets There’s no need for a 53-tooth big ring on a cyclo-cross bike. Much more normal is a 46/36 set-up, with a cassette wide enough to allow flat sprinting and little-ring ascents without the need to dismount.

Lapierre CX ALU, £1,250

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Overview: The Lapierre is in many ways the odd one out in this company, but none the worst for it. Like the other two bikes, it has an aluminium frame – you will crash, so what’s the point in buying impossible to repair carbon? When it comes to slowing a bike and rider in time for an off-camber, downhill hairpin on mud, the CX Alu relies on old-school cantilever brakes front and rear.

For shedding speed when your hands are on the tops of the handlebars, there are two additional bar-mounted levers that allow you to brake without moving your hands to the brake hoods. A Shimano 105 gear set-up is very good spec; the chainset is the de rigeur 46/36, and Schwalbe’s Racing Ralph tyres are proven performers.

How it rides:  The CX Alu is hands-down the most fun bike to ride of the three we tested. The quickness with which the rear wheel locks up under sharp braking begs you to turn the bike into a dusty corner, hit the rear anchor and slide it in. However, try this too often and the disadvantage in modulation experienced by cantilever brakes becomes obvious.

Yes, they’re great for skidding about on dry lanes like a kid, but in a race, once they’re clogged up with mud and trying to grip a slimy alloy rim, the instant response of the brake pads turns quickly to something requiring a written invitation before it grips (although it should of course be noted that racers relied on cantilever brakes for decades

before the advent of discs).

Although all three of our bikes are alloy-framed, the Lapierre’s frame is by far the best, in terms of stiffness and responsiveness – both prerequisites for racing success. The welded junction of the headtube and downtube is enormous, giving the front end a rock-solid feel and the wide oval downtube meets the bottom bracket in an expanse of aluminium, giving a rapid transfer of power to the rear wheel.

The 105/Tiagra groupset is as fuss-free as you could wish for when it comes to engaging gears rapidly, and the 46/36 chainrings are just as you’d hope for in a racing set-up – not too big a drop between rings, and a wide enough spread of ratios from the 12-30 cassette for all terrain but the most sloppy of inclines.

Where the Lapierre enforces its racing credentials is in the tyre department. We’ve long been fans of Schwalbe’s Racing Ralph tyres for their combination of high-speed capability and all-weather performance.

A uniform lowprofile tread pattern makes them a firm choice for beginner racers, whatever the conditions.

Forme Calver CXS £1,100

cyclo 3

Overview: The Calver’s spec list reads like the ideal compromise between modern cyclo-cross tech and affordability. The braking is taken care of by Avid’s mechanical BB5 discs (from the SRAM component stable), while the Tiagra gear shifters and derailleurs are a rung lower on the Shimano range compared to the 105 set on the Lapierre.

The chainset, however, is from FSA, with 48/34 chainrings. Kenda’s Kwicker tyres are good allrounders in most conditions, and aren’t super-expensive to replace. Should you want to use this bike all year round, even for an off road adventure, there are rack and mudguard eyelets on its aluminium frame and carbon forks.

How it rides: What the Calver lacks in fleet-footedness, it makes up for in the braking zone. You can barrel into a corner carrying more speed than feels sensible, or safe, and scrub it off with peerless feel and delicacy, thanks to the mechanical Avid disc brake set-up.

We tried trailing the brakes into a 90-degree corner at the foot of a descent – admittedly when it was dry – that was scattered with stones and loose dirt. No drama – even when carefully metering input with the front brake. Once through the corner and sprinting towards the next incline, the alloy frame didn’t feel as responsive as the Lapierre’s.

However, this being the only bike here to use a 48-tooth big chainring, the Forme does offer the opportunity to properly motor along on flat singletrack and shallow descents. A 34-tooth little chainring also offers easy gears for climbing.

However, the combination of a 48 and 34 offered too much of a gulf between rings for seamless progress without a flurry of shifts to move up the cassette to compensate.

The Kenda Kwicker tyres were a bit of a let down, adequate for most surfaces in the dry, but their performance, after a summer thunderstorm had watered our test route, was dicey on occasions.

This is where we suppose the accurately modulated brakes make up for the tyres relative lack of grip.

The cables are routed above the top tube, in traditional cyclo-cross style, meaning we were able to hoik the bike on to our shoulder for a short sprint up a grassy bank.

The overall weight of the Calver does mean you won’t want to be putting it on your back too often, though, if you can help it.

Norco Threshold A1 £950

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Overview: Sporting the mostunified groupset of all three of these bikes, the Norco manages to cram a fully 105-equipped package into a sub-£1,000 bike, which is impressive. The chainset, is a 46/36, and even the 11-32 cassette is from Shimano’s mid-range component kit. The Norco also features an 11-speed set-up. Its front wheel is secured by way of a mountain bike-style thru-axle, rather than a quickrelease.

The Norco sports the narrowest of all three sets of tyres – its Vittoria Cross XM Pro rubber is designed more for loose and muddy terrain than hardpacked frosty fields.

How it rides: None of these bikes are super-light, which is one of the trade-offs you have to accept at this budget, but the Norco does its best to put on a sprightly performance in spite of its relative bulk. After just five minutes of riding, the most obvious aid to its rapid progress is the way in which its Shimano 105 groupset gels so brilliantly. On the road, it’s arguable that in terms of gear actuation and overall performance, you don’t need anything more expensive than 105 groupset.

And off-road, in this package, it really shines as a smoothly-shifting set-up. Does having 11 speeds rather than 10 make a difference? Well, you can certainly stay in the big chainring for longer, for those moments when you’d otherwise have to swap down to the little ring. Also, the smallest 36-32 gear means you’ll be jumping off less regularly on climbs.

The frame feels stiff but not judderingly rigid on the hard ground and downhill sections of our off-road test route – thanks to its relatively compliant carbon forks it’s responsive.

The Hayes CX Comp mechanical disc brakes help to modulate stopping power, especially when careering down steep banks, and are good performers in the wet too. The use of a thru-axle adds greater rigidity under load, and we encountered no drag from the disc.

That said, it would be nice to see both ends of the bike dressed this way (the rear wheel uses a traditional quick release skewer). The tyres helped enormously – Vittoria are a known quantity in cyclo-cross racing, and the rubber on this bike helped us find traction uphill in the wet, and gave confidence in the front end when cornering.

Internal cable routing, although not necessarily the norm in cyclo-cross racing circles, meant there was no chance of coming into contact with the cables when practicing dismounts and shouldering the Norco up steep riverside banks.

And the winner is…

Three bikes that, on the face of it, take a very similar approach to entry-level racing. However, the differences that do set them apart make or break each of them. Forme’s Calver CXS, while easily the most proficient at coming to a stop (or more accurately, scrubbing off excess speed) is also heavy and would benefit from a more closely-matched 46/36 chainring arrangement, not to mention better tyres.

Lapierre’s CX Alu could so easily have been the winner of this test, if we were basing our conclusion solely on autumn race conditions. It’s the most stiff and responsive bike here for the wannabe racer on a budget, and its brakes – although old-school – don’t let it down at all in the dry or on frosty tracks.

But cross races go ahead whatever the conditions, and while there’s plenty of clearance between the tyres and frame, cantilever brakes just aren’t as effective or precise as discs in poor weather.

Norco’s Threshold A1 tops the test by virtue of its truly excellent groupset, solid enough set-up, very decent brakes, and its wallet friendly price. It’s the best compromise between affordability and performance. While the other two bikes do some things brilliantly, they don’t match up quite as well as the Norco as an overall package.