An Introduction to Cyclo-cross Bikes
So you’ve been wondering, what is a cyclo-cross bike? what’s the difference between cyclo-cross and gravel bikes and what is the history of cyclo-cross?
You’ve come to the right place.
By the end of this detailed guide to cyclo-cross, you’ll understand everything there is to know about this adrenaline-fueled cycling discipline.
Along the way, I’ll also include a few helpful tips that can help improve your cyclo-cross riding skills!
Let’s get into it.
What Is a Cyclo-cross Bike?
Cyclo-cross bikes (otherwise known as CX bikes or CXB) are lightweight, drop bar bikes which are purpose-built for the competitive cycling discipline of cyclo-cross.
Originally deriving from road bikes, cyclo-cross bikes were the original off-road racers, designed to travel fast in both road and off-road riding environments.
Whilst they remain similar to traditional road bikes, cyclo-cross bikes have a number of unique design features that affect the way they feel and perform whilst riding.
Known for their chunkier and higher volume tyres, these bikes are able to withstand a multitude of unpredictable biking conditions.
Their relaxed frame geometry creates a more stable and upright positioning for riders to balance on the bike over bumpy trails, whilst their reliable disc brakes provide control, and can stop the bike in slippery conditions with ease.
What is a Cyclo-cross Bike Used For?
As the name implies, cyclo-cross bikes are used for cyclo-cross racing. Cyclo-cross racing is a competitive cycling discipline in which riders compete on challenging courses, full of awkward obstacles and a wide variety of tricky terrains.
Much like gravel bikes, cyclo-cross bikes take inspiration from both road and mountain bikes. Subsequently, they perform well and are wonderful companions on a plethora of cycling environments, including gravel, mountain, and natural trails, as well as muddy, sandy, and rocky pathways.
There are a number of different cyclo-cross competitions held around the world each year. I cover the biggest events later in this guide.
The History of Cyclo-cross Bikes
The origins of cyclo-cross bikes are preceded by the invention of cyclo-cross racing. This is because cyclo-cross bikes were created solely for the ability to race the most efficiently in the sport of cyclo-cross.
As covered above, these bikes took inspiration from both road bikes and mountain bikes but were created uniquely for the multifaceted cyclo-cross racing environment.
Cyclo-cross was created by the French cyclist Daniel Gousseau in 1902. The sport initially gained popularity as a means of staying fit in the winter months in order to perform well in summer road biking competitions, but it wasn’t long until the sport became well-known and stood on its own.
One of the most important moments that put cyclo-cross on the map was when the champion Octave Lapize endorsed cyclo-cross as one of the best off-season practices for contributing to his 1910 Tour De France win.
Originally cyclo-cross bikes used 25mm racing tyres and cantilever breaks. These components have now been made redundant for more suitable counterparts, I explain more just below!
How Have Cyclo-cross Bikes Progressed Over the Years?
Initially, cyclo-cross spread throughout European countries, with the first French National Cyclo-cross Championship in 1902 and the first World Championship associated with the UCI in 1950s Paris.
As the sport grew in popularity manufacturers recognised competitor’s requirement for a more specialized bike. Cyclo-cross racers needed a bicycle capable of coping with fast turns on loose surfaces, whilst providing a high average speed on a mixture of surfaces.
Ultimately, it was this need for speed that resulted in the birth of cyclo-cross bikes.
The sport has since made its mark on the world cycling scene, continuing to increase in popularity. Today, cyclo-cross bikes are used across the world for both off-season exercise and for competitive cyclo-cross events.
Cyclo-cross Bike Components
Whilst cyclo-cross bikes don’t provide as much wheel clearance as gravel bikes, they still provide a larger clearance than normal. This provides a way for mud to escape rather than clogging up and jamming the wheels whilst racing.
The bottom bracket shell of a cyclo-cross frame sits higher than normal, this provides increased clearance for pedals which is essential when turning tight corners at speed.
Whilst they might have a mount for a bottle holder, you won’t have many other mounting points at your disposal on a CX bike. The screws can easily snag when the bikes are being carried, so they tend to have a very limited number of mounting points if any.
Traditionally cyclo-cross frames were made from steel, as this is what the majority of road bikes were made from when the sport was created.
In more recent times, aluminium has become the most popular material used to build the frame of cyclo-cross bikes. Aluminium is a third of the weight of steel which makes it perfect for racing with.
Aluminium frames are cheaper to produce which keeps the price down for consumers and they’re also more resistant to damage than carbon fibre frames, which tend to be found with on high-end cyclocross bikes.
Carbon and titanium are two other popular choices, but as covered above these are only found on more expensive bikes, which reduces their popularity.
Who Should Use a Cyclo-cross Bike?
Cyclo-cross bikes can be used for more than just cyclo-cross training and events. Due to the versatility of cyclo-cross bikes, they are great for multiple types of riders.
This includes, but is not limited to riders who want to spend their time exploring new, adventurous terrains and natural landscapes as well as commuters riding long distances, bikepackers, and adrenaline junkies who love high-speed, exhilarating cycling.
Whilst cyclo-cross bikes are suitable for non-competitive cycling, a gravel bike may be a better choice for you if you’re not considering cyclo-cross competitions.
Later in the guide, I compare the differences between cyclo-cross and gravel bikes, have a read if you’re struggling to make your mind up!
Who Shouldn't Use a Cyclo-cross Bike?
Overall, riders that want to ride solely on roads and paved surfaces should probably opt for a road bike.
Although cyclo-cross bikes perform well on paved surfaces, the hefty price tag that accompanies them isn’t worth it if riders don’t utilize them for all of their capabilities.
Individuals seeking leisurely and relaxed rides would not benefit from the more aggressive riding position a cyclo-cross bike offers.
A gravel bike will offer a more relaxed riding position as well as increased control thanks to their thicker tyres, they’re can normally also be found available at a cheaper price.
Similarly, riders who want to ride solely off-road or downhill would probably get more out of a mountain bike designed for the specific type of riding they wish to persue.
Cyclo-cross Bikes VS Gravel Bikes - What's the Difference?
The relatively recent introduction of gravel bikes into our cycling world has caused confusion amongst many cyclists.
These two styles of bicycle remain very similar and it’s often hard to tell them apart. However, there are a number of fairly substantial differences that set cyclo-cross and gravel bikes apart, below I’ve listed them.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between cyclo-cross and gravel bikes is the reduced tyre clearance you have on a cyclo-cross bike. This is due to UCI regulations which restrict cyclo-cross tyres to a maximum of 33mm, reducing the amount of clearance required, but also the versatility of the bike.
- Higher Bottom Bracket for increased clearance
- Designed specifically for competitive racing
- Nimble & super responsive
- 33mm max tyre width
- Less tyre clearance
- Smaller range of gears
- Built for speed
- Increased tyre tread
- More capable of handling intense off-road trails
- Slower acceleration with more control
- Longer wheelbase
- More suitable for bikepacking with multiple frame bags
- Slightly more comfortable and suitable for long distance races
What Competitions/Events are Cyclo-cross Bikes Used In?
As we’ve established, cyclo-cross bikes are purpose-built bicycles for the challenging short-distance race of cyclo-cross, or CX. Cyclo-cross bike races normally take place in fall (autumn) or during winter months.
Unfortunately, we are yet to see cyclo-cross make an appearance at the Olympic level.
Although cyclo-cross races are completed in the winter season, they are technically not qualified as an Olympic winter sport. This is because the Olympics describe winter sports as those that are solely completed on ice and snow.
The UCI has long been lobbying to get cyclo-cross into the Olympics and continue to do so. 
The UCI currently host the cyclo-cross world championships and world cup. With other competitions being hosted such as the Cyclo-cross Super-Prestige, this is an eight-round competition hosted throughout the CX season.
The Super-Prestige has been dominated by Belgian riders, who benefit as the part of competition take place in their home country. In the last 20 years, first place has gone to a Belgian rider 15 times!
UCI Rules for Cyclo-cross & CX Bikes
After adopting the sport, the UCI has put rules in place that set out certain requirements for cyclo-cross bikes used in their competitions. These are the current rules UCI rules, other competitions and governing bodies have different rules.
The rules for UCI Cyclo-cross are as follows (non-exhaustive):
- Handlebars will measure no more than 50 cm (20 in) in width
- Tire width must remain below 33mm (1.3 in) and are not allowed to use spikes or studs
- All wheels must have at least 12 spokes
- Competing bicycles must weigh no less than 6.8kg (14.99 lb)
- Disc brakes are allowed as of 2010 for UCI races
Other non-bike related rules for UCI races include:
- Hand-ups (food for energy) are allowed, but only when temperatures exceed 20 degrees Celcius
- Organisers can remove riders who are over 80% behind the leader’s lap time
- Barriers can have a maximum height of 40cm and must be separated by a distance of at least 4m
- A maximum of 6 man-made obstacles are allowed per course
- Man-made sandpits are allowed
Benefits of Cyclo-cross Bikes
Cyclo-cross bikes bring a lot of excitement to the cycling world.
Some of the benefits associated with cyclo-cross bikes include their resilience on a wide variety of terrains due to their wider treaded tyres and powerful disc brakes.
Cyclo-cross bikes also offer an advanced cardiovascular workout, and for people who enjoy the sport and competition. These bikes are exciting to ride and work well for both training and in competitive events.
Risks Associated with Cyclo-cross Bikes
Whilst cyclo-cross bikes are undoubtedly exciting to ride, they don’t come without some risks.
As we’ve covered cyclo-cross races feature difficult obstacles that can increase your risk of getting into a biking accident. Although severe injuries aren’t common in this sport since most of the ground is softer mud, snow, and sand, there are still a large number of minor injuries sustained in most races.
As always, you should make sure to wear a helmet and have a first aid kit at hand on your bike!
When you’re out cycling on the roads or commuting, cyclo-cross bikes are relatively safe to ride, they offer increased traction compared to your average road bike and will do a good job of getting you from A to B!
One downside of cyclo-cross bikes is that they aren’t quite as versatile as gravel bikes, which offer more room for customisation and are probably the better option unless you plan to compete in UCI Cyclo-cross events!
Environmental Impact of Using a Cyclo-cross Bike
Riding a cyclo-cross bike is a great way to reduce one’s usage of fossil fuels and creation of harmful emissions associated with driving a vehicle.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that because these bikes can handle rough terrain and go off-road, they can do damage to foliage and wildlife. It may be tempting to forge new paths with these rugged bikes, but staying on designated trails will prevent harm to the environment.
If you’re a keen road and cross country cyclist, a cyclo-cross bike can be a great way to ride these two disciplines, essentially hitting two birds with one stone.
This is beneficial for most cyclist, as it will free up space in your bike shed and reduce the total emission output compared to buying two separate bicycles!
Does a Cyclo-cross Bike Require Anything to Keep Functioning?
Cyclo-cross bikes are rugged, very sturdy bikes that do not require much beyond regular maintenance.
If you’re routinely going offroad, regular maintenance is essential. Keeping the brakes and chain clean and maintained after every ride helps extend the lifespan of these components and keeps you out on the trail for longer.
If your bike gets muddy or if you’re riding on roads that have been salted in winter, it’s essential that you thoroughly clean your ride. Not doing so will greatly reduce the lifespan of your bike and its components.
Does a Cyclo-cross Bike Require a Special Area to be Ridden?
Thanks to their versatility, there is no one special area allocated for cyclo-cross bikes.
However, they are of course optimally crafted for the rugged terrains of cyclo-cross courses.
If you enjoy intense training and wish to hit the road and trails in the same ride, a cyclo-cross bike may be a great option, even if you don’t want to participate in gruelling cyclo-cross competitions.
What To Wear When Riding a Cyclo-cross Bike
Riding in the freezing cold is tough. If you’re competing in cyclo-cross races, you’re going to get caked in mud. Whilst this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there are several items of clothing you can use to make this easier for yourself!
Whilst competing you’ll almost always be in some sort of skin-suit. One-piece jerseys are a popular choice amongst CX riders as they don’t tend to feature pockets, which can easily get tangled up when dismounting and carrying your bike.
Many cyclo-cross riders also choose to use wind or waterproof gloves, which help to keep their hands warm whilst racing. Additionally, long-sleeved jerseys are a good idea as they’ll help keep the arms warm whilst cycling.
Mud-resistant shoes that have grippy soles on them are also a great investment for decreasing your chances of slipping when dismounting your bike to cross obstacles.
As always, helmets are a must have for protection in any form of a competitive race.
What Accessories are Recommended When Using a Cyclo-cross Bike?
One of the best cyclo-cross accessories that will provide great levels of assistance is good quality bar tape. This will allow you to maintain a firm grip, even when you’re completely caked in mud.
A cleaning kit is slightly less essential, but and equally necessary accessory to get. Let’s face it: your cyclo-cross bike is bound to get very dirty while training and racing. All of the mud, sand, dirt, and dust that accompanies the courses will make its way onto your bike. A cleaning kit is a helpful accessory to get the job done.
Alongside a cleaning kit, a pressure washer will assist in the removal of residual dirt and grime.
Helmets, clothing, and shoes are also investments that you should consider when you are getting into cyclo-cross racing.
Whilst you can get away with using road bike pedals (SPD-SL) on a cyclo-cross bike, they don’t respond well to mud or stones and will make them a challenge to clip into. The majority of pro-cyclo-cross cyclists use SPD pedals which are often found on mountain bikes.
SPD pedals are more reliable in off-road environments and the shoes that accompany them tend to be much more suitable for off-roading, with wide grippy soles.
Conclusion - What Is a Cyclo-cross Bike?
So there you have it, the complete guide to cyclo-cross. If you’re still thinking “what is a cyclo-cross bike?” then scroll back up towards the top of the page to find your answer!
Otherwise, I hope I’ve answered all of your CX related questions, but if not, leave a comment down below and I’ll get back to you.
In my opinion, unless you’re thinking of riding cyclo-cross competitively, you’d be better off going for a gravel bike. There’s not a huge difference between these two styles of bike, but you’re slightly more restricted with tyre size options with a cyclo-cross bike.
Finally, cyclo-cross bikes tend to be fairly expensive, so it’s important that you remember to secure your bike whilst you’re away from it. I’ve reviewed the 8 best bike locks on the market, so if you’re looking to protect your ride, have a read!
As always, lock it or lose it.
Ciao for now!
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