You’ve practiced your skills on your hybrid, mountain bike (but hopefully not a beach cruiser). You are ready to spend all the monies on your very first cyclocross bike. But what should you look for? The spec sheets sound like gibberish and you don’t know which options are the best band for the buck.
Bill Marshall is the team manager of the KCCX cyclocross team and a WD-40 team member who has also wrenched for Cal Giant/Specialized and the Mercy Elite Cycling Team. Bill will be giving us some tips for buying our first bike.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Tell me about your first cyclocross bike.
I purchased my first cross bike at an actual cross race, Boss Cross. I had purchased $20 worth of raffle tickets to win a Lemond Poprad that was being given away. I patiently waited for them to call numbers but I never won. Dean Parker was the lucky winner of the frame set. I ended up giving Dean $400 for the frame set. I had to piece it all together from there.
What makes a cyclocross bike different than other bikes?
In this day and age the changes that have been made to a cross bike are a lot better than they used to be. The general differences have been the same but they have been enhanced. Cyclocross bikes have more overall clearance on the frame/fork for the wheels, brakes and ground clearance. All of these features are a must for when the conditions become muddy. The more clearance you have the better the performance.
Cyclocross bikes either use Cantilever or Disc Brakes, both which are not generally found on road bikes. They are both found on mountain bikes. Cantilever Brakes allow for more clearance for when mud can start to build on the bike. Cantilever Brakes are the most standard brakes for the consumer however, the industry is shifting to disc brakes. Our team transitioned to disc brakes this year for the first time ever. This type of brake will give more stopping power over all, they will not get clogged as easily or ever based on the design. The key advantage of disc brakes is you can stop later approaching the turns, meaning you are scrubbing off less speed and momentum.
Tires! Probably the most noticeable difference from a cyclocross bike to a road bike. The tire diameter is the same as a road bike but the width and tread are completely different. Me being a tire guy I love having a wide variety of tire treads for every condition possible. In my opinion tires are the most important piece to the bike because it is what is going to keep you in touch with the ground. Having a proper tread for the conditions at hand will make a big difference in your race. You have to know how to handle your bike as well though!
Tell me about the different materials used for the bikes. I have seen steel, alloy, carbon… Obviously, certain materials make for a more expensive bike.
There are many materials to choose from in this day and age. Steel was the original for all bikes then technology changed the world. Now we can choose from Steel, Aluminum, Titanium, Scandium, Carbon Fiber and Bamboo. All are quality products, some are less expensive and others are very expensive. It comes down to cost, comfort and weight of the bike.
- Steel: Steel is real! Steel is a comfortable material that is very flexible compared to more “modern” materials. Some riders like this feel better over a stiffer material. Steel gives the bikes a more classic look over a modern look.
- Aluminum: Lightweight, a bit stiffer than steel and typically the tubing of an aluminum frame is larger in diameter or shaped differently. This material is a comfortable ride but not the best performing for cyclocross.
- Titanium/Scandium: Scandium is an aluminum alloy that is a bit stronger than aluminum and has it’s weight advantages just as aluminum. But!!! Titanium is way lighter, stronger and less prone to denting like aluminum or scandium. It is also a lot more expensive! I’ve never personally owned a bike made with either of those materials and not too well versed with them.
- Carbon Fiber: The cat’s meow! Our team has been on carbon fiber for 7 years now and it’s by far my personal favorite material to race on. It’s lightweight, very strong, very stiff , very responsive, absorbs the bumps along the way and it’s the most common material for the level of racing we are doing. It can be very expensive, depending on how the frame is made, where it is made etc.
I have heard it is good to upgrade the gears on stock cyclocross bikes. What gearing should I be looking to do on my first bike?
This depends on what type of bike you’re buying stock off the shelf. If you’re a beginner you many not need to do anything to your bike until you’ve been racing for a while. This is also a personal preference of what you want to get out of your bike and your performance. Most stock cyclcross bikes come with a 46 x 39 chain ring configuration with an 11-36 cassette, not all of them but most. This is a good all around gearing for everyone but there are better options. Some riders need more gearing to help them along the way on some of the more difficult terrain of various courses.
What can you do to upgrade? The simplest upgrade is replacing chain rings and the cassette. There is such a wide range of gear ratios that there are too many to list. It is really a trial and error process for most. The KCCX team is on SRAM CX1. This is only 1 chain ring in the front and 11 gears in the back. Most of the riders are riding a 40 tooth chain ring and 11-32 cassette. This gives us a very wide range of gearing for all conditions.
There are a lot of tire options as well. Can you tell me the differences between tubes and tubeless? And if there is a reason I might prefer one over the other? What tire pressure do you recommend?
Tires are probably the most talked about thing at cross races. What tires are you running, what pressure? Are you using the same tread on the front and rear? As I stated earlier this is probably the single most important part to racing cyclocross. Having the proper tread and pressure for the current conditions makes all of the difference in the world.
For the general consumer or newbie coming into the sport they are most likely going to be riding a standard set-up with a clincher tire and tube. This is common for most because it’s affordable. Not the best bet though because you run the chance of pinch flatting, you can’t run as low of pressure (which is preferred) and it’s a heavier set-up. This is also the simplest set-up because not everyone has multiple sets of wheels.
Tubeless is the next step up in the tire/wheel game. This is rim and tire that is designed to have a tire mounted to it that does not require a tube. It’s is a lighter weight set-up and it allows you to run lower pressures for better overall traction. This set-up is very common in mountain biking. Many riders/teams are going this route because it’s affordable, most wheels have the capability and it’s relatively easy to set-up.
Tubulars! This is what our team uses for all races. A more expensive option, you need to have multiple sets of wheels if you want to run different tread patterns, they are lighter weight, the best quality ride out there, you can run very low pressures and your chances of pinch flatting are slim to none. This type of tire has the tube actually sewn into the tire. The tire is then glued to the rim itself and it also requires a completely different style of wheel. Hence being more expensive of an option for most.
Once someone is ready to move beyond flat pedals and sneakers, there are a ton of choices for pedals. Can you tell me a bit about pedal options? Which brands / styles might be good for a beginner?
My personal preference is Crankbrothers. They make several different models, all which are very good for anyone. It really comes down to the cost and weight. Both can be a factor but it mainly comes down to what is best for each rider. If I were to recommend a pedal for a beginner it would be the Crankbrothers Candy. It has a bigger platform to the overall pedal which will help the rider get into the pedal initially. They are also very easy to get out of, which is important for someone new because you want them to have a feel of being able to get out easier versus being harder to get out! It can be a bit nerving for some getting in and out of clipless pedals.
Riders can look at various brands and models that are in the market. Shimano, Crankbrothers and Time to name a few.
Once I have found a bike within my budget at the bike shop, is there anything I need to do with my bike before jumping into my next race?
I would make sure that you take the time to do a proper fit with the shop or with someone who is qualified. This will ensure the most comfortable ride for you. It may take time to get used to the bike fit, how it feels and you may have to make a few minor adjustments over time. All-in- all the best thing to do is ride your bike often to get the fit dialed in. If it’s not comfortable to you, you are less likely to ride it!