Come winter, most riders will try and avoid the mud. Others will throw themselves in. Like, throw themselves into it in the same way revellers at Glastonbury throw themselves in. Taking place during the road racing off-season, a cyclocross race lasts around an hour. Consisting of multiple off-road laps, this gives the riders plenty of time to churn up the course and really work the mud into both their face and bicycles.
Generally, the worse the weather, the more torrid the conditions, and the more slow-motion crashes, the more successful the event is deemed to be. As a discipline, it’s either going to be one you love or that you find puzzling. We love it. In fact, we used to hold our very own ‘cross race in London’s Crystal Palace.
What is a cyclocross bike?
Practised most ardently in the Low Countries, cyclocross is one of cycling’s most esoteric and traditional formats. However, in recent years, the design of cyclocross bikes has been shaken up. Go back far enough, and cyclocross bikes were kind of weird. As you’d only be racing for an hour, they often did without bottle mounts (which was terrible if you were training or using them for any other purpose).
They also had high bottom brackets to stop you from grounding your pedals in the sand and mud, along with various other geometry-based quirks. There’s also the fact that to prevent anyone from enjoying excessive grip or comfort, tyres are limited to a UCI mandated maximum of 33mm.
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More recently, almost all cyclocross bikes have settled into a format that resembles a road bike that’s been hitting the gym. Designed for racing, they’re light, stiff, very strong, and generally quick to turn and accelerate. Making them more than usable on the road, if you’re only going to own a single bike, a cyclocross bike makes a great choice.
Plus, with Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock all racing, this winter racing format has been enjoying something of a moment in the sun.
What’s the difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel bike?
Then along came gravel. All glamorous, American, and not caked in filth, it quickly became very fashionable. With their tendency towards slacker and more stable handling, emphasis on long-duration comfort, and massive tyre clearance, Gravel bikes have their own specific traits—this left bike makers in a quandary; produce dedicated cyclocross bikes of limited general appeal, or make gravel bikes and get rich?
Of course, you can pretty much always ride a cyclocross bike at a gravel event and vice versa. Yet despite having more in common than what sets them apart, both genres existed somewhat antagonistically of the other. However, recently the racier end of the gravel segment has started to accommodate itself to the needs of cyclocross riders.
A host of bikes with massive clearance combined with nippy handling and low weight have hit the market this year. Typified by Specialized’s redesigned Crux, Santa Cruz’s recently re-jigged Stigmata, and Cannondale’s Super SixEvo, these bikes retain the sharpness needed for cyclocross racing yet have the clearance required for the broader tyres used by gravel racers.
Whether they’re cyclocross bikes that can also do a speedy impression of a gravel bike, or the other way round, you’ll find several cross-over models in our roundup below. Joined by a slew of more traditional cross-specific designs, they constitute our pick of the best cyclocross bikes currently available.
Canyon Inflite CF SLX
£4,699, Shop Canyon
The direct-to-consumer bike that’s carried Mathieu van der Poel to any number of high profile wins. Combining stardust with down to earth pricing, Canyon’s bikes are a staple fixture at both pro and amateur races across Europe. Unsurprising when you consider the top of the range bike has a claimed weight of 7.8kg yet costs just £4,199.
Beside their low cost, the Inflite has also won over cyclocross fans with a focus that’s 100% on going fast around a muddy field. With no concessions to gravel-based shenanigans, the Inflite’s geometry is quick, while its parts list and gearing are equally race-focused.
The geometry is also made for cyclocross, with the weird-looking kink towards the back of the Inflite’s top tube designed to create a larger inner triangle for easier shouldering of the bike. A neat feature for dedicated cross heads, especially those riding smaller frames, it does mean there’s slightly less standover.
Thanks to its massive sales, Canyon can also offer the Inflite in an enormous range of eight sizes. With the smaller of these getting 650b wheels, this ensures you don’t have to be as tall as Van der Poel to benefit from dialled-in handling.
Ridley X-Night SL
From €3,999, Shop Ridley
Designed in Belgium, made in Belgium, and ridden predominantly by Belgians, Ridley is the first brand many people associate with cyclocross. Flying the flag for doing things correctly, the firm’s X-Night sports the most traditional of cyclocross geometries.
This means a low front end because it’s made for racing, a higher than average bottom bracket because Belgians love a sandpit, and a really tall central triangle so you can sling it over your shoulder. There’s none of this extra tyre clearance, slack head angle, ‘maybe we spend the weekend camping instead of racing’ nonsense. It’s a bike that wants you to go head down, for one hour, at full gas.
For this reason, true cross nerds are unified in their appreciation for the way the X-Night looks. However, this traditional bent doesn’t mean it’s a bike for Luddites. Its F-Steerer technology means there are no exposed cables to catch the mud. The frame is also constructed with a selection of exotic Toray carbon fibre grades, which result in a seriously stiff, light, and responsive ride.
Suppliers to the Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal team, this is a bike for people that love sauce on their chips, complex accumulator bets, and believe gravel is best kept for the driveway outside their exceptionally well-appointed yet aesthetically redundant house.
Vitus Energie Evo CR Etap AXS Rival
£3,799, Shop Vitus
There are two things we really like about this bike. First, it’s ridiculously cheap. Second, it’s properly racey. An out and out cyclocross bike, at its heart, is a frame with aggressive angles and a minimalist weight. Recently revised, its now slightly longer top tube and shorter stem are a nod towards more technical terrain. Yet with a 71.5° headtube and steep seat tube, the latest Energie Evo is still very much cyclocross rather than gravel focused.
Taking Vitus at its word, the frame itself weighs a minimalist 880g for a medium. Each model in the range is then adorned with a ton of components so lovely you’d question the bike’s origin if it were for sale on Craigslist rather than via internet behemoth Wiggle/Chain Reaction.
On this top-end model, these include an electronic Sram Rival groupset, plus a set of tubeless-ready 38mm deep carbon wheels. Resulting in a race-ready 7.7kg build, there’s no reason you couldn’t also use the Energie for road duties with a second set of tyres.
There are even hidden mudguard mounts, which are a great addition given that training in the winter is miserable without them. Genuinely so cheap you could buy two and still have money to bribe someone to pit for you; it’s not like paying more is going to make you faster.
Cannondale SuperSix Evo CX
£3,800, Shop Cannondale
If the SuperSix EVO was formerly associated with going fast on-road, Cannondale is now hoping people will make the same association when it comes to off-road disciplines. To this end, it has launched cyclocross and gravel-specific models bearing the famous SuperSix EVO name.
Representing an update of its cyclocross bike and a radically faster alternative to its more adventure-focused Topstone, the SuperSix EVO SE and SuperSix EVO CX bikes bring aggressive geometry and aerodynamics to bear on the American firm’s off-road offering. Unlike some other brand’s, the inclusion of a single dedicated cyclocross build means you won’t need to fiddle about swapping tyres or cassettes before taking to the start line.
Out of respect for its mud-spattered calling and the need to minimise maintenance, the EVO CX sticks to a budget-friendly Sram Force 11-speed mechanical groupset. With a single chainring giving simplified gearing and removing another component for mud to accumulate atop, it arrives with UCI compliant 33mm Terreno Mix TNT tubeless tyres.
Already used in elite-level cyclocross competition, its dual-function design means it’s an equally competent gravel racer. However, throw on a pair of slick tyres, and it will also manage a pretty complete impression of the road going SuperSix. All in, a hugely versatile bicycle that won’t ask you to compromise despite its ability to flit between genres.
Specialized Crux Comp
£3,750, Shop Specialized
Formerly the Crux was Specialized’s dedicated muddy field race bike. However, following its recent redesign, it’s inherited many elements from the firm’s Aethos road bike and is marketed as equally capable at either gravel or cyclocross. Exceptionally light, there’s no doubting it’s a speedy and reactive bike.
Now also benefiting from massively increased clearance, the fact that it serves a twin role hasn’t stopped it from improving over the former version when applied to the mud. In fact, its single-ring drivetrain and greater leeway between tyres and frame should see you pitting less regularly, as the entire bike is less susceptible to becoming clogged with mud.
Realising that cyclocross is hard enough without having to pull your bike apart after every race, all models in the range also benefit from semi-external cabling, non-integrated cockpits, and use standard BSA bottom brackets. With racing geometry essentially unchanged from its former version, plus frame technology from the very forefront of Specialized’s design capabilities, the Crux remains a very desirable cyclocross racer.
However, racers will still need to sweet talk their local bike shop into swapping the tyres and cassette over for something narrower before the Crux is truly ready to grid up.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
£4,089, Shop Santa Cruz
If you can swallow the fact you’ll need to buy a set of 33mm tyres and possibly a longer stem, the Santa Cruz Stigmata is an excellent cyclocross bike. Having won the famous Three Peaks race in its previous format, it’s since been made over to offer a slightly more forgiving ride, along with massively increased tyre clearance. A bit taller and shorter than more racey cyclocross bikes, the Stigmata also has a more relaxed head angle and a lower bottom bracket.
Making it great on faster, drier courses, these mark it out as somewhat of a mongrel. So if you tend to race in a skinsuit and bring a pit crew, you might find the Stigmata a little too upright and maybe a little too planted. At the same time, it’s still relatively quick to turn and comparatively light.
Essentially it hits the more sedate end of the cyclocross market and the more flighty end of the gravel segment. Meaning non-purists will likely enjoy its added versatility; this even extends to secret mudguard mounts. It’s also an easy bike to keep rolling with convenient cable routing and a threaded bottom bracket.