Gear Guy

Is a cyclocross bike a reliable, all-around compromise?

I've read that good husbands buy gifts for their wives after the birth of a child. So, being a good husband, I'm thinking of getting a cyclocross bike—for me. Hear me out. Because of the recent arrival of our beautiful little miracle, I'm not going to mountain bike (that's one bike) or commute (that's another) as much as I used to, and probably won't be doing a whole lot of road riding (a third bike I was hoping to get), either. Plus, the missus would like me to pare down my belongings to make room for strollers and such. So, can I get by with one cross bike (sub $1,000)? I'm sure my wife will thank you. Michael Minneapolis, Minnesota

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I was so touched by your magnanimity in light of the birth of your firstborn, by your generosity and self-sacrifice, by the utter decency of your noble proposal, that my eyes welled with tears. It took a good 15 minutes to regain my composure. Then, after I had finally stopped laughing, I was able to research your question.

The short answer to your question: Sure, that would work. A cyclocross bike is essentially a bike that looks sorta like a road bike, but that has a frame built like a mountain bike, and tires somewhere in between. Cyclocross racing, as most readers know, is a bike race run on a dirt course that isn’t as rugged as a pure mountain-bike course, but that still places considerable off-road demands on the bike and rider. So cross bikes have to finesse the line between speed and durability. In addition to their tougher-than-a-road-bike frame, they also have provision for cantilever brakes for better wet braking (or even, on newer models, disc brakes).

They’re very versatile—I use a Cannondale cross bike, with smooth tires, as a rain bike. Overall, a cross bike would work great for commuting and general road cycling, and very well on logging roads and good trails. On technical trails it’ll start to fail a little—the handling and low-speed gearing won’t match up to a good mountain bike, and few cyclocross bikes have provision for shock absorbers. Not so good on real hilly routes, especially off-road.

Cross bikes remain a fairly exotic creature, but several companies make them. Trek’s XO-1 ($950) is a good representative model, with an aluminum frame, triple chainring, and knobby-but-skinny tires. A step up is Cannondale’s Cyclocross Disc, which puts disc brakes on an aluminum frame. It’s more of a racer than the Trek, with a double-chainring, rather than a triple, and a nice mix of 105 and Ultegra components.

You’re a good man, Michael. I feel like a better person for just having had this brief contact with you. I’m sure your wife will find your gesture surprising, even shocking, and no doubt perfect grounds for divorce.