Cyclo-cross bikes have gone through somewhat of an evolution over the last five years. Formerly the play things of specialists who spent their weekends riding and running around muddy fields, CX bikes became the preferred choice of commuters who, thanks to the cycle to work scheme, could afford a half-decent road bike that would also be able to handle the worst the British winter could throw at it.
This effect, paired with the simultaneous explosion of the gravel scene, saw brands move away from a CX-specific model towards something of an all-round off-road machine – which could be used for racing one weekend, followed by bikepacking the next. Things have since gone full circle though, and we are now in a space where all pursuits are catered for with brands offering specialist bikes for each discipline.
But what makes a ‘cross bike a ‘cross bike compared to, say, a road or gravel machine?
To the naked eye, a cyclo-cross bike looks a lot like a road bike. It has dropped handlebars, generally has an aggressive position (compared to a gravel bike where the focus is on comfort and the top tube angle is closer to that of a hardtail mountain bike) and most will now come with disc brakes. But look a little closer, and you’ll notice some marked differences. Both the bike’s rear axle and forks feature a much wider clearance than on a standard road bike – crucial for both the wider tyre necessary for grip and also for mud shredding abilities.
While it’s necessary to have a wide range of options when tackling road-based events such as races or sportives, in cyclo-cross that’s not such a problem – if something is too steep, you’ll generally hop off your bike and push yourself up the hill, while the technical, slower nature of the circuits that races are run on mean you won’t be in your biggest gear for long anyway. As a result, most CX bikes tend to run a 1X set-up (meaning there’s only one big chainring at the front), limiting the gear choices to what’s available on the rear cassette, but saving weight in the process…
For the out-and-out race-focused bikes, a lot of attention will have been paid to the overall weight. That’s because, as well as riding it up and down obstacles, you’re going to need to jump off it and shoulder it to clear some.
5 of the best cyclo-cross bikes for 2020
1. Genesis Vapour 20
If you’re just starting out on your ‘cross journey, the Vapour by British brand Genesis is a good entry point. At a fraction over £1,000 it certainly isn’t cheap, but you’ll be getting a bike that can tackle anything you throw at it – be it a tricky CX course, Sunday spin on the road, commute to work or a gravel adventure.
The aluminium frame ensures the build is light (just over 10kg) and strong, while keeping the price down, and has a number of features you’d want from your first cyclo-cross bike – disc brakes, SRAM Apex 1X chainset with a great 11-36T gear range, and more than enough room for the regulation 33C tyres.
2. Liv Brava SLR
Giant’s female-specific bike brand Liv has a number of brilliant models in its stable, and Brava is its CX-focused machine. Just to look at the frame’s lines, you can see it is built for ‘cross – the join between the top and seat tubes is a particular tell-tale sign with it shaped for shouldering comfort, while a chain guide should help prevent any unwanted mechanical issues mid-race.
Comfort across any terrain is boosted thanks to Giant’s D-Fuse seatpost, which uses a D-shaped tube to help absorb shocks and vibrations and make things feel smoother. Carbon forks, hydraulic disc brakes and a SRAM Apex 1X groupset finish off one of the fastest and versatile women’s bikes around.
3. Cannondale SuperX GRX
The American giant Cannondale has not one but two CX models in its stable. While its aluminium-based CAADX, like the Genesis Vapour above, is a great introduction to the world of cyclo-cross, its SuperX platform is ideal for those looking to take things up a notch. Starting at a penny under £2,500, the range all benefit from Cannondale’s high-strengh, high-stiffness Ballistec Carbon fibre frame and forks, 40mm clearance for great mud-shredding capabilities, and internal cable routing to keep everything looking clean and any gear and brakes cables out of the way.
While the GRX build is the cheapest of the three, it will be able to handle anything you throw at it. The chainset is a blend of Cannondale’s in-house System Integrated crankset and a 40T FSA chainring, finished with components from the Shimano Ultegra and 105 families, and you can expect responsiveness whatever the terrain. Comfort hasn’t been forgotten either. The frame includes Cannondale’s SAVE micro-suspension to help absorb shocks and vibrations, while even the bar tape includes gel to smooth out the bumps synonymous with CX courses.
4. Specialized CruX Expert
While the S-Works CruX favoured by the likes of Tom Pidcock might cost a bit much (£8,249) for even the most avid ‘cross fan to stomach, it’s possible to pick up something that features all of its best bits for a fraction of the price.
Yes the frame isn’t as light and the componentry isn’t as top spec as its S-Works cousin, but the Specialized iteration isn’t exactly a slouch (and, as the brand says, “frame weight becomes irrelevant when it’s covered in 10 pounds of mud”.) It’s biggest features are the eight millimetres of clearance on all sides of the tyre – providing plenty of shredding room, whatever the terrain – and a low bottom bracket to help navigate the tight and twisting features of your next race.
5. Canyon Inflite CF SLX 9.0
The German direct-to-consumer brand’s top-of-the-range Inflite model has some serious CX chops. Built with the sand dunes and all-road courses of Belgium in mind, the bike just screams high performance and is rapid both on the ground and when hoisted on your shoulder. In fact, it’s the favoured bike of a certain Mathieu Van Der Poel – the reigning World and European champion.
The bike really does have it all. At 7.4kg, it’s one of the lightest machines in the paddocks. It manages to stay this weight thanks to a combination of a premium-level carbon fibre frame, a ridiculously light yet rugged Reynolds Assault LE DB wheelset, and carbon componentry throughout. Throw in 12-speed electronic gearing from SRAM Force eTap, and prepare to leave rivals in your wake.