Cyclocross: a beginner’s quick guide to equipment (part 1)

The Gin & Trombones, in special edition Belgian colors, by Van Dessel.

A high-performance cyclocross bike: the 2010 Gin & Trombones, in special-edition Belgian colors, by Van Dessel (vandesselsports.com). Frameset: $1,100; complete bike from $2,500 (with SRAM Rival).

In the first article in this series, I talked a bit about getting into cross. So since you’re reading this second article, I’ll assume you’ve decided that you’re going to give this cross thing a go. Brilliant!

The first thing you’ll need to race cross is, well, a bike.

Now let’s be clear: Your road-racing bike ain’t gonna fly in cross. For starters, modern road-bike geometries will not allow you to fit thick knobby tires into your frame—even if you are able to open your brakes wide enough to fit the tires in without rubbing the brake pads.

And without knobby tires, you won’t be able to ride offroad.

If you only own a road bike, you’re going to need a different machine for your cross adventures.

So when it comes down to it, you have three options for bikes: a proper cross bike, a mountain bike, or a Frankenbike-hybrid-job.

Yet before we examine those options, let me just say that if you’re just trying out cross for the hell of it and you’re not sure if you’re going to keep it up down the road, try to borrow a friend’s cross or mountain rig. No sense in spending hard-earned money on something you’re not going to use.

But let’s get real: Once you try cross, you’re gonna be hooked. Trust me!

So, on to the other options.

Let’s start with the mountain bike. They’re allowed in all non-UCI category races—sans bar ends—and if you check out pretty much any Category C cross race, you’ll see a goodly number of riders on MTBs, some of them kicking ass even.

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You can convert an old road bike to a cross bike for cheap, but don't expect it to race all that well.

Yes, the mountain bike will be heavier and thus harder to lug over barriers and on run-ups. And the gearing will be a bit wacky compared to the racers on pure cross bikes. But to get a taste of cross, it’ll do the trick.

Your next option is the so-called Frankenbike.

It’s totally possible to retrofit, say, an old steel road bike into a serviceable cross rig for not a lot of money. Older frames will likely have more tire clearance than a modern road bike—possibly even enough to run some narrow knobbies.

By going the Frankenbike route, however, you’ll definitely be hampered by the gearing you can run on an old frame. And if the bike doesn’t fit cantilever brakes, stopping performance will be an issue, too.

Nonetheless, for the price of some good tires you could hack your way through a cross race on an F-bike. Just don’t expect it to ride or race very well, and assume you’ll have to bear a choice comment or two. All in good cross fun, of course.

This LeMond Poprad was bought on Craigslist for $700.

Now, if you’re committed to cross, do yourself a (huge) favor and get a proper cyclocross machine.

If you’re not sure whether you can afford to own both a cross bike and a road bike, you’ll have to sell the road bike now, won’t you?

The advantages of a cross bike are obvious: It’s designed for racing cyclocross! If you can’t/don’t want to splurge for a new one, search Craigslist or eBay. You should be able to pick up a totally fine complete used bike for between roughly $400 and $700.

If you’re willing to drop some more dough, hit your local bike shop. Companies such as Kona, Redline, and Surly make excellent inexpensive cross bikes. Performance Bicycle sells a Mongoose cross bike for $500.

Pedals and shoes
In addition to your hands and butt, your feet are all that touch the bike—and are basically all that power you along. So you’ll want to be selective about your pedals and shoes.

You’ll need MTB pedals and footwear. Your road shoes have zero traction, and you’ll look like a clown as you fall on your face repeatedly trying to run up a muddy slope in road shoes.

Popular pedals for cross include the Eggbeaters and Candys, both by CrankBrothers. After those, Shimano MTB pedals and Time’s ATACS are widely used. I’d go with one of these three brands. Each company offers something a little different, so visit their Web sites and check them out at shops. Ask your cross friends what they prefer and why.

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The Eggbeater SL pedal from CrankBrothers, with stainless-steal body and wings, a popular choice among cross racers. $110; crankbrothers.com.

Caution: I wouldn’t skimp too much on pedals. Having a quality pair that you can clip into and out of reliably, quickly, and hassle-free is key when hurtling toward a set of barriers at 18 mph (!!). The mechanism on cheaper pedals just doesn’t seem to cut it for cross.

As with road shoes, it’s best to try on MTB shoes in the store, whether you buy online or not, to get a perfect fit, because the same size can fit differently from brand to brand. Popular shoes include the road shoe companies you’re familiar with already—Sidi, Specialized, Lake. There are a ton of choices.

Cleats often come with the pedals, and dialing them in perfectly to your needs is key to racing cross, as you have to clip in and out of your pedals many times each lap of a race. So spend time getting them just right.

These, then, are the core things that make up a cross racer’s equipment.

Next time I’ll go into gearing, tire choice, and clothing.

Read the third article in the series, “Cyclocross: a beginner’s quick guide to equipment (part 2).” cycling-reporter-logo

Ian Landau is a contributing editor to CyclingReporter.com. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a familiar face at road and cyclocross races up and down the East Coast.

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