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The Difference Between Cyclocross And Road Bikes
A guide to telling the difference between a road bike and a cyclocross bicycle
From a distance it's hard to tell the difference between a road bike and a cyclocross bike. Personally I receive some pretty strange looks while riding road my local country parks on a cyclocross bicycle with dog walkers and runners often pointing out that I'm rather a distance from the main road for my skinny tires.
Cyclocross is an area of competitive cycling which is gaining great popularity across the globe due to it's ease of access and relatively simple format which allows almost anyone to complete a cx race. However cyclocross bicycles difer greatly from a traditional road bicycle so here's a guide to how to tell the difference between a road bike and a cyclocross bicycle.
Road or Cyclocross Bicycle?
Differences in functionality between cx and road bikes
Cyclcross originally began as a way for road cyclists to work on their fitness over the winter although it has evolved into a sport of it's own with specialist framesets and componentry to maximise performance over the the course of a race.
Cyclocross courses are generally a lot more rugged than road courses. They're an off-road circuit race with elements of whatever the organiser can throw in to the mix from grassy fields that sap the strength, to rugged sections of singletrack paths dotted with unforgiving tree roots, with a few obstacles added into the mix which will challenge a cyclists ability to dismount, carry the bike whilst running, before jumping back on the bike again and putting the hammer down! Therefore a cyclocross bike must be able to address all of the above.
Differences in frame geometry between cyclocross and road bikes
Cyclocross bikes differ in a number of ways geometry wise when compared to a road bicycle as improved mud clearance is required for cyclocross racing
A cyclocross bike has..
- Longer Seatstays
- Longer Chainstays
- Longer Fork Legs
All of the above differences mean that a cyclocross frame and tires are further apart than when compared to a road bike. In terms of the frame and forks this means that manufacturers may consider using a slightly steeper head tube angle on a cyclcross bike when compared to a road bike.
For Instance Ridley Bicycles tend to use a road bike frameset headtube angle of generally 73°- 74° whereas their cyclcross bicycle use generally a 72° head angle which may seem a very minute difference but provides tighter more responsive steering on a cyclocross bike at slower speeds.
Greater mud clearance through longer chainstays and fork legs on a cyclocross bike
Differences in frame materials between road and cyclcross
Despite the more physically demanding nature of cyclocross racing on a frameset when compared to road cycling there is actually very little difference in the frame materials used. High end cyclocross framesets for cyclocross are now made from advanced grades of carbon fibre just like their road racing cousins although many mid range cyclocross bikes for sale use aluminium as the main material used for the frame due to it's excellent price to strength ratio.
In respect of frame materials the main differences in materials between a cyclocross bike and road bike frameset are i) Amount of material- due to the torturous physical demands of cyclocross additional reinforcement and safeguards are required to beef up a 'cross frame as the worst thing a rider could experience would be failure during a race. This additional material can either be in the form of metal tube butting, additional plates welded to a frame or additional layers of carbon fibre used to add carbon density. This additional beefing up of the frame leads to ii) Additional weight. Generally a cyclcross frameset will be 1/2 lb to 1 l/b heavier than one of it's road cycling cousins as a result of any beefing up.
An all around cyclocross tire will tackle most race conditions
Tire differences between road and cyclcross
When you compare road and cx bikes the one thing you will instantly notice is the difference in tyre volume and tread. Road racing bikes generally have relatively narrow tires with a diameter of around 23mm.
Cyclocross tires are effectively the suspension for the bicycle and therefore use a relatively larger volume. A typical tire diameter for a cyclocross tire is around 32mm. Cyclocross tires also feature a tread pattern designed to provide grip related to the racing conditions and can be a specialist cyclocross mud tires, or potentially something that is designed for all around cyclocross performance no matter what the conditions which offers a compromise to tackle all potential conditions like the Challenge Grifo Pro tire (pictured right)
A road bike tire is designed to roll quickly and responsively over a road surface with high air pressure levels inside however a cyclocross tire needs to be able to adapt to the surface you're riding on and will therefore use significantly lower pressures demanding on whether you're using clincher (hooked rims) wheels where the tire is held in place through air pressure by hooking onto the rim or at lower pressures when using tubular wheels where a one piece tubular tire (with integrated inner tube) is glued to a bicycle rim which means the tire can be run at significantly lower pressures
Typical tire pressure comparison between Road and Cyclocross Tires
Road Racing Tires 100-120 psi
Clincher Cyclocross Tires 40-60 psi
Tubular Cyclocross Tires 25-40 psi
Road and cyclocross have different braking systems
One of the key differences between a road and cyclocross bike is the brakeset they use.
Road bike brakesets are generally a caliper design
Traditionally a road bike will use a single piece caliper brake system which fits around the bicycle wheel almost in a horseshoe shape. Caliper brakesets will fit to the bicycle generally at a single central point located about two inches above the rear tire on either the fork bridge or between the seatstays on a road bike.
Road bikes feature caliper brakes like these Campagnolo Veloce Calipers
Caliper brakes would simply block up with mud on a cyclocross bike
If you used a set of road bike calipers on a cyclocross bike there is a likelihood that the brakes would clog up with mud due to the tight clearances between a caliper brake and the tire which can hold back a cyclocross racer as they would be forced to stop and clear all the gunk from their brakes. Instead of attaching above the tires, cantilever style brakes fit to either side of the bicycle rim on special brake bosses which protrude outwards from the frame. The protruding brake bosses are a key difference between a cyclocross and road bike frame and forks and the are seen almost horizontally in line with the fork legs and seat stays.
As a result of the potential for clogging up with mud, Cyclocross bikes for many years have used cantilever style brakes which offer lots of mud clearance to reduce the risk of getting blocked up with mud like the Frogglegs brakes featured below.
Initially the UCI (Union Cicliste Internationale- cycling's worldwide governing body) have been reluctant to allow mountain bike style disc brakes to be used on cyclocross bikes however in 2011 they decided to allow disc brakes for cyclocross bicycles and they are now slowly making their way into the sport. Disc brakes offer more reliable braking than traditionally used cantilever brakes as they use a separate braking surface away from the bicycle rim which provides additional reliability and stopping power.
Cyclocross bikes traditionally feature cantilever brakes for mud clearance like these Empella Frogglegs
Gearing differences between a cyclocross and road bike
Road bicycle gearing systems are designed for riding on smooth roads where you're able to pedal steadily to generate speed and will traditionally use a chainset with a 53/39 tooth ratio or very similar.
Cyclocross bicycle gearing needs to be more adapted to the relatively slower speeds a rider experiences during a cyclocross race. A typical cyclocross race will involve average speed of around 10-15 mph whereas a road race will likely average around 25 mph.
A cyclocross bicycle will therefore need a smaller gearing and chainsets often have chainrings with 34-39 teeth on the inner chainring and 42-48 teeth on the outside depending on the conditions experienced. Many cyclocross riders plump for something around a 36-44 combination which allows either a traditional 12-23 cassette ratio or similar to be used.
Cyclocross bike chainsets usually have smaller chainrings than road chainsets
Pedal differences between CX and road bikes
A distinct difference between cyclocross and road bikes are the pedals used. For racing both types of bikes use a clipless pedal system however their functionality differs.
Traditionally, cyclo cross riders have used a mountain bike style pedal which is double sided (or multiple access points) and of a relatively small profile to help avoid obstacles which could potential cause damage out on the trails. The double sided element allows easy options to clip in an out for obstacles or in cases that balance requires.
Road cycling pedals feature a much larger profile platform for more effective power transfer. The majority of road cycling pedals also feature a single-sided access system as you rarely need to clip out and back in again in a hurry.
Is there anything we missed?
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Liam Hallam (CyclingFitness on Hubpages)