‘Cross Musings Vol. 2: Equipment

A few people have expressed interest in trying cyclocross this fall, but don’t yet have a bike, so I thought I’d devote this month’s newsletter to equipment. First, though, a quick reminder of the training objectives for July.

According to the schedule I mailed out last time, we’re currently ending Week 1 of the Base 2 phase. Your main focus should still be on aerobic development, with at least three zone 2 rides per week. Your second objective is to start easing yourself into harder efforts. Start with one tempo workout per week, riding at 85-95% of your time trial heart rate for extended periods without interruption. Start with 20 or 30 minutes and add 5 or 10 minutes per week. The third objective for Base 2 is to start to get your legs accustomed to working at different cadences. You may not realize it, but on the road you generally pedal within a very narrow range of your preferred cadence, unless going up or down a steep incline. A cyclocross course, on the other hand, changes terrain quite rapidly, often faster than you can shift, so it’s important to be able to deliver power over a wide range of cadences. Spinning at high cadence requires pedaling efficiency whereas a low cadence requires strength. To develop the former, try to incorporate some spinning intervals into one or two of your aerobic rides. Shift into a low gear that will enable you to spin 10 or 20 RPM above your preferred cadence, and hold it for five minutes. Recover for five minutes at your normal cadence, and repeat. To develop leg strength, your fifth workout of the week should incorporate hill-climbing that requires you to drop your cadence 10 to 20 RPM below your preferred cadence. Some good local climbs include Eastern Ave in Arlington, Prospect Hill in Waltham, or Great Blue Hill in Milton. Start with three 3-minute intervals and build from there. Exercise caution when doing strength workouts as it is possible to overdo it and injure yourself. If you’re in your first or second year of cycling, skip the strength workouts and do a fourth day of aerobic riding instead.

Option 1 – Sponsorship
If you’re a team member, the best option is to take advantage of the deals offered by our bike and shop sponsors. I believe we’ll be placing a bike order in the fall, to arrive in time for ‘cross season, or you can order through the shop anytime, though at a lower discount. Talk to Zach Labry or Nate Dixon for details.

Option 2 – Buy a New or Pre-Owned Cyclocross Bike
See advice below

Option 3 – Use a Mountain Bike
As long as you remove the bar ends, mountain bikes are allowed in B and C races. They can also be quite competitive, as Issao demonstrated last fall!

Option 4 – Borrow a Bike from a Teammate

Option 5 – Convert an Old Road Bike
As a last resort, you might be able to squeeze some narrow 27mm cyclocross tires into an older road bike, particularly if it has long chain stays and long-reach caliper brakes. Reclaim an old Raleigh from a hipster, put some gears back on it, and you’re in business. It won’t be great if it’s muddy, but it’ll get you started.

Sizing: opinions vary, but as a rule of thumb you’ll want your handlebars to be ~1 cm closer to you and 1-2 cm higher than on your road bike. Some people buy a size smaller than their road bike, but I prefer to get the same size frame with a shorter, higher stem. That way I can set it up for either ‘cross or road just by swapping the stem and tires.

Geometry: look for a bike with a horizontal or gently sloping top tube – you want the main triangle to be large so that you can easily get the bike on your shoulder when you need to run. Steeply sloping top tubes make this more difficult. Beware also of touring bikes, which look a lot like cyclocross bikes but have longer wheelbases and very shallow head angles, and will handle poorly on twisty courses.

Gearing: you can certainly race on road gearing, but you’ll be better off with something lower. Look for a 34-39 tooth small chainring, a 46-48 tooth big chainring, and a 25-27 tooth rear cog.

Tire clearance: generally the narrowest clearance is between the chainstays. Check to see that you can fit a 35 mm tire, or more if you plan to use the bike for trail riding.

Water bottle mounts: pure race machines sometimes don’t have water bottle mounts, but they sure come in handy for road rides. Be sure to check. A Camelbak is another option.

Fender mounts: a nice option, not for racing but for training. Throw some fenders on and you’ve got the perfect winter training bike.

Cable routing: top tube and down tube routing are both common. Go with top if you’re planning to be in the muck or woods often, but down tube may be preferable if you’ll be using the bike more as a road bike.

Pedals: you’ll want to use mountain shoes and pedals so that you can run easily. Shimano, Crank Brothers, and Time ATAC pedals are all popular.

Tires: most pros and many serious riders swear by tubular tires, but if you’re just getting started clinchers will be cheaper and a lot more versatile. Michelin and Continental are great.

Wheels: no need to get too beefy – normal road wheels (32 spoke, 3-cross lacing) should be fine. Exotic road wheels, one-spoked composite aero wheels, etc, may be a bit too fragile . . .

Brakes: cantilevers are most common, followed by V-brakes and discs. One challenge with V-brakes is that typical road brake levers don’t pull enough cable, so you need an adapter pulley thingy. Discs work well but are not allowed in UCI races. Note that only category A races are subject to UCI rules. As I mentioned earlier, you may be able to use long-reach calipers on a dry course, but they’ll tend to get packed with mud if it’s wet out. Some folks like to use top-mount (mt. bike style) levers in addition to the road levers. Your mileage may vary.

Seatpost: get something strong. Thomson’s are great.

Stem/bars/shifters/front derailleur: normal road parts are fine. Some people like their bars a little wider than on their road bikes, but this isn’t necessary.

Cranks and rear derailleur: as low-hanging objects, both of these are subject to some abuse, flying gravel, mud, etc. You might go a little cheaper than on your road bike to spare your wallet in case something gets damaged.

Frame material: most mid-range bikes these days are aluminum, as it’s light, cheap, and relatively corrosion resistant. Big squishy tires will help to soften the ride. Steel and titanium are also common, while carbon fiber is still proving itself.

Brand: a lot of companies make great ‘cross bikes. If you’re looking to go high-end, check out Independent Fabrication, Rock Lobster, Steelman, Ridley, Serotta, Moots, or Waterford. At the mid-range, Fuji, Felt, Redline, Salsa, Bianchi, Kona, Fort, Gunnar, Trek, Cannondale, Lemond, Santa Cruz, Van Dessel, and Jamis all make great bikes. At the value-end of the spectrum, Motobecane and Ibex have inexpensive aluminum frames, while Surly and Soma make cheap steel frames.

Excelsports.com has 52, 54, and 56cm Redline Conquest Pro framesets for $399
Bikeman.com has 49, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, and 62cm Kona Jake the Snake frame and fork for $399
Bikesdirect.com has Motobecane Fantom Cross and Fantom Cross Pro complete bikes for $1050 and $798
Ibexbikes.com has Ibex X-Ray frame and fork for $299

Lastly, if you’re looking for a great selection of cyclocross-specific equipment that you’re local bike shop might not carry, check out cyclocrossworld.com. They’re located in Massachusetts, so shipping is quite quick.

As always, feel free to email me with questions. Next month we’ll talk about cyclocross-specific technique.