Wednesday, July 27, 2011

So, A Couple Questions About Cyclo-Cross Bikes

Cyclo-cross season is soon to be upon us, and many folks will be hitting up the shops, websites, and forums looking to find a new rig, or just to geek out on some hardware to get stoked on the season.

With that in mind, there are a couple of questions I have in my mind concerning cyclo-cross. I need to put out a bit of a disclaimer here first though. Right up front, I will admit that I don't race cyclo-cross, nor do I care to. Hey, it looks fun and all, don't get me wrong. However, paying to do an hour ride on a course I'll not get to check out again for another year, (maybe), doesn't appeal to me all that much. Just sayin'. I don't hold anything against ya'all that want to compete. Have at 'er folks! I am just curious about the bikes and the marketing of them.

My Black Mountain Cycles "Monster Cross"
Clearance Clarence: I see all kinds of marketing done to show the cross guys how much "clearance that frames have for mud", and I have noticed that yes; the forks have a ton of clearance but the frame? Usually not so much.

Why? It would seem to my mind that (a) having more mud clearance would be a good thing and that (b) this would open up the user group for any given frame. Bigger tires? No problem. Fenders? Yup! Don't say it can't be done with a road drive train. (Just peek at that Orange Crush rig over there. Gotta road drive train and big tires on it. I could put "legal" sized crosser tires on and have loads of mud clearance.) Maybe I am missing something here, but making cyclo-cross bikes more like skinny tired roadie rigs seems like the wrong way to go.

Then again, maybe that's a marketing decision, but I think the commuter, adventure, "ride one bike anywhere" groups are getting the short end of the stick. Especially when you hear the old saw about "how versatile cross bikes are". Not anymore they aren't! Now they are more road, less something else, it would seem. 

Cross bikes with disc brakes like this Ti Vaya has?
Disc Brakes: Now Or Later? A lot is being made of this disc brake thing for cyclo-cross of late. Really? I ask you- Why would any cyclo-crosser put heavier brakes on a bike that may not work much better than a good, well set up cantilever brake? Yeah, yeah...mechanical disc brakes work great. I agree, but I have also seen what wet, nasty, muddy weather- (ie: The kind that seems to be the norm for cyclo-cross races.), does to these brakes, and it ain't pretty.

I wonder then: Do racers wait for "real hydraulic levers" to come out first? (Not the cable actuated, under the stem master cyclinder kludges that I've seen so far) It seems to me that disc brakes and cross are just waiting for SRAM, (most likely), to do the deed and get a drop bar hydraulic "brifter" out there before it takes root. Maybe I am wrong, but I think not.

Oh sure, there will be early adopters on the disc brake thing, but this wholesale swap over to disc ain't happening without a true-blue hydro lever/shifter unint. I don't think Shimano will lead the way here, and Campy? Ha! Not likely. SRAM, we're lookin' at you.

Well, that's my thoughts, but again, I'm just a casual observer.


Steve Fuller said...

Hydro's w brifters seem to be what everyone is waiting for. As far as bikes, I think you're right on the clearance thing. I see plenty of big wide carbon forks with very little mud clearance around the brake bridge and bottom bracket areas. Seems like a wider bottom bracket would allow for a little more mud clearance? Maybe once the disk brake models ship, the mfgs will be able to do something about this.

Doug Mayer said...

i ride a surly cross check year round and race it in the fall. loads of clearance! only drawbacks for cross is that the frame is quite heavy, horizontal dropouts lead to occasional wheel alignment issues, and there's no rear cable stop to stiffen up the brakes. the soma double cross (and pake c'mute) addresses two of these issues at the cost of a little clearance.

in any case, be it road, trail, or race, i dig my 'check!

Cale said...

As a dude who is pretty serious about cross, mud clearance really only needs to be good enough to get you through one lap or even a half lap on some courses since you will take a bike change every chance you get in conditions like that. That said some of the frames out there really leave you wondering if the designers have ever seen a muddy course, big shelves for mud next to the BB etc. etc. As for hydraulics I've heard a few rumors that Shimano is working on a Di2 Hydraulic setup since the buttons take up essentially no room in the lever bodies, but I doubt we will see anything in that vein for at least another year.

MMcG said...

I think you need to differentiate between a race oriented CX bike/frame (which needs to be light) vs. a more adventure oriented CX style bike/frame GT.

A lot of the CX racers it seems just use the bike for racing - single purpose if you will - vs. the "Joe common rider guy" who will want it to do a lot of different things.

rideonpurpose said...

I guess I'm lost as to what I'm supposed to do with that clearance? Heck my road bike handled the Royal 162 with regular road brakes (not even long reach) and slick 700x30s.

So far as my cx bike goes- assuming I'm going to run 32s, which seems a fair assumption for a cx bike, I've got as much mud clearance as I would ever need (this is with a modern aluminum cx frame that is more or less the norm).

I guess the issue here is that the "commuter, adventure, ride one bike anywhere groups" is not who cyclocross bikes are for. Saying that they should work for that type of riding, that's like complaining that 29ers are no good becuase they are too slow on the road. Besides that, the type of riders who actually race cyclocross probably can and do ride modern cyclocross bikes everywhere including singletrack, commuting, in mud and for adventure.

Some people are willing to sacrifice comfort to go fast in varied conditions. The cyclocross bike is the logical result (although I know I'm not alone in riding real road bikes for adventure type gravel races- which is sort of one step further).

Guitar Ted said...

@MMcG, @rideonpurpose: Hey, you are forgetting something here: That being, I'm not the one making the marketing claims, nor am I saying what a cyclo-cross bike should be. I'm merely making observations based upon what I read about cyclo-cross bikes. Okay?

The marketing machines talk about "mud clearances" and how cyclo-cross bikes are "great for commuters", etc. I didn't make that stuff up, did I? No- I don't think so.

So, while it is true that I like gravel grinders and adventure bikes, this isn't about what I like.

@Cale: I respect your opinion, but is changing out bikes every lap common for most CX racers? (Which would point to support people cleaning them while you are making laps, no?) If so, that would be another reason that I wouldn't care for that style of racing. Just my opinion, but I gravitate towards self-supported, fix yer own problems type of racing. It's just what I like better.

Cale said...

@GTed yeah at the elite level most guys are going to be switching bikes and having a support person power-wash their other bike. even in lower cats its certainly not uncommon. Especially at races that are always muddy like jinglecross. Luckily that's why we have all sorts of types of racing, obviously I enjoy both but Cross is where its at for me. besides who doesn't want more bikes?
My CX rides

Tom said...

I have been trying to love my NOS Salsa Fargo XT for a few months now. The first challenge was to change over the Brakes to BB7 Roads so the Tiagra brifters I put on would work.

The bike is great, but I am just not feeling it. My old Mandaric Cross feels as capable in most rough stuff. I can put 700x32's on it and still stick a finger in between the brake bridge and tire.To me that is beau coup mud clearance. Plus it is a ton lighter.
I think the main adventure/cross bike considerations should be clearance, BB drop and durability. But none of those should be achieved by accepting a liability in another way.

Hook said...

I understand the light weight argument for cantis vs discs, but I'm having a hard time imagining a wet, muddy, nasty scenario that is so bad that it causes problems for a mech. disc bike, (presumably cable-related, since you advocate for hydraulics), but that doesn't cause any issues (greasy/muddy/bent rims, etc) for a canti-equipped one. Do cantis really outperform cable-actuated discs in the muck?

Guitar Ted said...

Hook: I don't think disc brakes are the "slam dunk" a lot of folks do in certain conditions. I've witnessed disc pads worn to the backing plates on gravel grinders before where there was rain and mud present.

Of course, disc brakes have more potential for powerful stopping, light weight, and ease of use, but they are not yet there with drop bars like they are for mtb's.

Doug said...

I agree with Ted. Why not dial in a little more rear wheel clearance so those of us who want a "do it all" bike can mount fatties? There are 29er tires now available which can transform a marginal off-road 'crosser into a decent trail or gravel road machine. (29ers are 700C, just for the record.)
As to the brake question, my answer is TRP mini-Vs. They work for me better than cantis ever did. I use barend shifters and Cane Creek drop-V brake levers. My Ultegra brifters work, (on my second 'crosser) but with not so much clearance. Tektro has mini-Vs for cheap, and levers to go with as well.

Hook said...

@GT: I agree that disc brakes aren't the only way to go, and that they don't solve all of one's problems, but I'm still unclear about your reasoning. You've mentioned the rapid-pad-wear-in-the-gravel observation before, and I don't doubt that it's true. But are you suggesting that the brake pads (and, more disconcertingly, the rims) of the canti-equipped bikes on that same ride weren't similarly effected? And, if rapid pad wear is, in your view, the major reason to not use discs on a 'cross /adventure /gravel bike, how would the introduction of hydro brake levers for drop bars solve this?
I'm not trying to be argumentative; I just really value your opinions on these things and I want to make sure I am understanding you.

rideonpurpose said...

@Doug and in general-

Heck, even my Orbea Alma 29er doesn't have enough rear clearance for the sort of "all terrain/adventure" use that I think this post is really all about.

@gt- I think there is a huge difference in the companies marketing cx bikes as do it all bikes and the companies marketing them for cx. I don't think you can take the claims of one and apply them to the other. The Surly's and bikes direct bikes DO have more clearance, no? My Viner Vigor Cross has plenty too (It will fit 40s with some clearance) but I'll rarely reach for anything wider than a 32c Vittoria tubular.

There really are two segments of bikes using the CX moniker. I'm ok with it, the last thing we need is more nomenclature for bikes- just see the blending of xc race, trail, all-mountain, etc. etc. with mountain bikes.

Guitar Ted said...

@Hook: Disc brakes, by their very nature, need to generate more clamping force to stop a bicycle and rider than a cantilever brake, or other rim brakes. The pad material can be degraded rather quickly by introducing grit or sand mixed with water as the rider applies the brakes. Since there typically isn't a plethora of pad material, it doesn't take long when conditions are right to wear down the pads to the backing plates.

Cantilever brakes, while often not being as powerful, don't seem to suffer the same fate as quickly. Certainly, the pads wear will be accelerated, but in my observations in events where disc pads failed, cantilever pads seemed to come through.

Now- During the time the disc brakes were working, they did have better performance than the cantis. Marginally so. I'm talking about pretty heinous conditions here, mind you.

But my main point is that disc brakes for drop bar levers just haven't evolved to a point where it is a no-brainer to go that way for a cyclo-cross bike.

Plus, this doesn't even take into account the compromises made in wheel design, and the wholesale change in wheel set ups riders would have to accept to go disc.

Hook said...

Thanks for taking the time to clarify things, GT - I really appreciate it.
Have fun on the Death RIde - wish I could join you! Maybe next year...