You’ve heard about cross, learned about cross, been to some cross races and have decided you want to join in the madness! But… where to start? It’s all so overwhelming! How do you know what kind of bike to get? How do you learn the skills needed? What are even the skills you need to learn?? Not to mention, how do you even find races in your area to sign up for?? Never fear, Anna is here! There is a lot to learn, but I’ve broken it down to make it easy to digest. The first step is The Bike. In subsequent articles, I’ll address cyclocross skills are needed (and how/where to practice them!), how to sign up for races, and what you should do on race day.
Do I *need* to buy a new bike?
A cyclocross bike is designed to perform best in cyclocross races, but if you’re just starting out and you want to jump into some practices and into some races to try cyclocross, the answer is: No! There are lots of advantages to cyclocross bikes, but there is no need to buy one when you’re just testing the waters. Mountain bikes fit the bill, and some hybrids. BUT knobby tires are essential, because you’ll never get the traction you need off road to ride well/safely without them.
Mountain bikes: Mountain bikes are often HEAVY, which is their main drawback in a race where you may need to get off your bike and run, or pick up your bike over barriers or other obstacles on course. That said, they are made to go off road! The only potential modification you may need to make before jumping into a race or practice is to remove the bar-ends from your handlebars.
Hybrids: Hybrid bikes can be used on a cyclocross course. Most can accommodate cyclocross tires, and the brakes have enough clearance for wider, potentially mud-caked rims. Just head down to your local bike shop and ask them to set you up with some all/mixed condition ‘cross tires! The disadvantage of a hybrid bike is that it isn’t made to go off-road, and you might feel a bit less steady in some corners because the bike is meant to be stable on the road, not turn quickly off-road!
Road bikes: Road bikes do not have fork clearance necessary for cyclocross tires, which are wider than road bike tires (32-35 mm versus 23-28 mm) and often get packed with mud. The brake set-up on road bikes also do not have sufficient clearance for the wider rims that would support cyclocross tires. I found, however, that you can practice some basic ‘cross skills on a road bike. This is what I did initially, and I was able to practice the basic ‘cross skills (dismounting/remounting and barriers) enough to realize I wanted to invest in a proper ‘cross bike! If you do practice on your road bike, you should make sure that you have appropriate pedals on your bike (SPD or Crank Brothers clipless pedals or flat pedals) and the right shoes on your feet before attempting dismounts or remounts. Road pedals and cleats are likely to get ruined quickly if you’re hopping on and off your bike! Your LBS can help you with this as well!
If you decide to invest in a new bike, the nice thing about a ‘cross bike is that it isn’t a “one trick pony.” Cyclocross bikes are excellent for all kinds of riding beyond just racing! They make excellent bikes for gravel adventures, and because they are setup to withstand the weather typically encountered in a cyclocross season, they make for excellent all weather commuting bikes (with proper maintenance). From being able to accept wider tires, to being equipped with disc brakes, to sealed bottom brackets, and more – they can make excellent commuter bikes!
How do I choose a new ‘cross bike?
Through lots of legwork and research! You must be willing to spend some time researching what you might want in a bike, so you can make an informed decision. If you want to buy a brand new bike, be prepared to spend around $1,200 for a entry level ‘cross bike or between $1,500 and $1,600 for mid-level ‘cross bike (at least at the time of writing!). You can find used ‘cross bike for less, depending on the year/model. Try Craigslist, eBay, or any local used bike Facebook groups.
I personally find bike buying to be overwhelming and intimidating! There are SO many great bikes out there, plus shops can be intimidating if you feel like a newbie. If this describes you, below are my suggestions for overcoming choice paralysis.
- Make a list of what YOU want: be complete, be honest, and understand that there are trade-offs.
What do you want your bike to do? Does your ideal bike live in your house until race day, or do you need or want to use it for commuting? Bikes are like people: they can’t do everything equally well, and a bike that’s ideal for commuting is going to have rivets to accommodate brackets and may have a “less aggressive” geometry than a bike specifically designed for racing. Trade-offs between a race bike and a more all-around bike may include geometry, weight, and components. There’s no right answer, just know before you go what you want your bike to be for you.
How much maintenance are you willing to do? In general, higher-end components are really nice but they also require a higher level of maintenance in order to continue to perform as designed. If you’re going to to take your bike out in wet or muddy conditions on the ‘cross course or on your commute, be honest in your assessment of the time and energy you can devote to taking care of your equipment, as it may impact your decision and also what your LBS recommends.
- Make a list of all the local bike shops in your area
Each bike shop will carry their own specific mix of brands – no bike shop carries all brands!
Visit or call each shop on your list, say you’re looking into getting a ‘cross bike, give them a quick synopsis of what you’re looking for your bike to do, and ask what they have offer.
Note models they have in your price range, their price and sizing. Shops will usually write down what you looked and the price, if you ask. Don’t be discouraged if a shop doesn’t seem to carry any bikes that fit what you’re looking for. Keep calling. And don’t be afraid to call a shop back, if what you are looking for changes.
It is important to know what you want, but as you are looking, it is also important to have honest conversations with folks at bike shops to make sure that your “ideal bike” is out there, or if you may need to reconsider some of features on your list to find a bike in your price range that does what you need it to do.
- Once home, make a chart where you can compare the different bikes, based on criteria important to you
It could be price, size, geometry, looks…! I was looking for an upgrade from my entry level road bike, so components (derailleurs and shifters) were important to me. If that is also important to you, this article by BikeRadar was invaluable in helping me learn about the different components and groupsets!
- Test ride the bikes that you are most interested in purchasing if possible.
An LBS may not have a bike in your size in the store, but they can sometimes transfer bikes from other locations. Be sure to ask about this option if you are seriously considering a bike purchase.
- Because ‘cross bikes are a bit of a niche bike, and they may not have your size available a test ride. You can work with your LBS to either find a comparable bike to test ride for the purpose of determining your size, or they can work with you off the bike to determine the size you should order.
Once you’ve decided on The Bike for you, schedule with your LBS to pick up the bike and ride on! If the bike you want is not in stock in the store, and the shop needs to order the bike, your LBS might require a deposit before placing the order, and this deposit may or may not be refundable. That said, it’s part of the benefit of working with an LBS, that if the bike doesn’t fit or you don’t like it, you can likely transfer the deposit to a new bike from that shop, which was my experience.
Do I need any special accessories?
Accessories are anything you might want to purchase in addition to your bike, just to get started. What you have on-hand is likely to change as you develop, change, learn as a rider. For the purpose of getting into cyclocross the accessories I would suggest purchasing (if you don’t have them already) are:
- Chain Lube
This may be something you have on hand, but be sure to talk to your LBS about a good chain lube that you can use, particularly in wet or muddy conditions. You’re going to want to make a habit of wiping down your bike and re-lubing the chain. Talk to your LBS about this also – it’s a good habit, and it will keep your drive train happy.
- Tire Levers
You’re going to want a set of your own so that you can change out tires in case you puncture a tube or because you love cyclocross so much you want to change tires depending on conditions! One brand I have personal experience with are Pedro’s tire levers, which are very heavy duty.
- Extra appropriately sized tubes (28-32 or larger, depending on the size of your tire)
There are a whole lot of different types of tubes out there, but standard tubes are just fine. Make sure that if you have any questions about valve stem length or sizing of the tubes you talk to your LBS folks to ensure your tubes are compatible with your cyclocross tires.
- A good floor pump
You may have one, but these are always important to bring to a race, so you can adjust tire pressure any time.
- Mountain bike cycling shoes and pedals
You’ll be doing a lot of hopping on and off your bike, as well as running through a variety of conditions, so you’ll need shoes and pedals that make it easy to run off bike, plus they need to be able to withstand the mud/dust/dirt! That being said, clipless SPD pedals/shoes are not required to race cyclocross. While I strongly recommend racing while clipped in, as it gives you more control over the bike, you can start on flat pedals and sneakers.
And that’s it! Once you’ve figured out what bike you’re going to use/buy, the next step is The Skillz, which I will cover in a subsequent post.
If you’re a female-identifying person in the DC area, join the Women and Bikelocross Facebook page!