Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Blurred Lines

I got the idea for this post from my friend Stacey's facebook post about SSCXWCXPDX. Apparently a lot of people out in the Pac NW like to do the cycle-cross pedal contests with flat bars. It created quite a ruckus. It wasn't a real ruckus. Honestly none of these bike related "arguments" are real. 99% of the people are just ribbing each other about this or that. The mechanical purists feign outrage at zip ties and tensioners. The OG curmudgeons get agitated over disc brakes and tubeless. So let's do this for once and for all. What defines a cyclocross bike? Is it the bar of choice? brakes? Tires? I guess this whole conversation could spin out of control real fast into the realm of what is cyclocross. I spell it without a hyphen. You may like the hyphen. You might even like to call it cycle-cross. I once was at a race where they called us psycho-cross racers. Its all good. We are all one big family bound by mud and the confines of yellow tape in the octagon that is a two mile cx course. Unless you are in Oregon. Then the course is loosely defined by orange cones. Which we have video evidence of being very, very dangerous. Possibly more hazardous than any A line in NTF. 

So first, thank you to Stacey for inspiring this post. Second, thank you to everyone who had some fun with this and posted great pictures and made a otherwise boring day yesterday pretty entertaining. So let's do this. What is a cyclocross bike? I define a cyclocross bike as a bike you would use to RACE cyclocross. CX is a race after all. Even if like me you are old and slow once you pin that number on and the official blows that whistle ( or doesn't in New England as we love the secret start) it is on. Even if you are last you still are racing someone. Maybe it is even your inner demons to finish the race. It is ok to have fun in the confines of the yellow tape. It is encouraged obviously in CX. Ok so we have loosely defined CX as a race type of event. And in a race your goal is to get from point A to point B the fastest. And the secondary goal is to finish. These are often closely tied together. Going super fast and riding stupid ends lots of racers days early. Bikes break, tires flat, bodies hit the deck. Sometimes slow is fast. So we want to finish the contest in one piece and go as fast as we can.

The best bike for this in most cases is a CX bike. So what is a CX bike. The lines about what a CX bike is and isn't have been blurry from day one. Early on really they were touring bikes. Then it became less of a niche sport and builders started creating the demon step child of a crit bike and a nice handling touring machine. The current CX Race bike is in my mind the perfect bike. It is made to go fast but to also handle very well. The bike has certainly benefited from some mechanical advancements. Disc brakes while maybe not accepted or needed on an actual road bike can be a big advantage for CX. And to blur the lines a bit it makes a CX bike more woodsy. The line between 29er and CX bike begins to really get fuzzy. One of the great things about the adoption of 29er wheel size for MTB was and is that 29 and 700 c are interchangeable. You know can have a set of wheels that work on both your "MTB" and "CX" bike. Not to go full blurred lines but and I know this word will make you all nuts Gravel events have even made things weirder. My good friend Todd crushed us at VT Overland one year on a 29er with a carbon rigid fork and 40 mm tires on 29er tubeless wheels. Let that soak in for a bit. Yes, he ran flat bars.

So does the bar define the bike? The wheels? I think people are morphing toward flat bars in CX races like SSCXWCX because they are more comfortable. If you are riding (note I did not say racing) in a big group in mud with physio balls being hurled at you its a good thing to be in a comfortable upright position. Flat bars make it easier to ride while wearing an inflatable T-Rex costume. No argument there. Are flat bars fast? Mike Wissell is fast. I don't think the bars made him fast. For me I would not want to race on flat bars. I am not just saying this but I feel more comfortable dropping down some technical section in the drops than I would on the top of flat bars. I feel more in control. A CX race can be very technical but it has to have fast sections. To go fast on fast sections you need to get aero. Sitting upright is like strapping a parachute on your back. A CX race should have a run up or 2-3. Running up a hill with a flat bar is an easy way to get your teeth knocked out. In my opinion. Try shouldering a mountain bike? It doesn't work so great. Cause that flat bar keeps whacking you in the head. Drop bars just ask you to tuck that bike on your shoulder and run up that hill. Honestly for how much people worry about getting hurt by disc brake rotors I would be much more worried about crashing and taking a flat bar to my spleen. That has to hurt.

Tomac was always my hero. Frischi as well. Those two defined Mountain biking to me when I was getting into bikes. They always pushed the equipment envelope. I find it hugely ironic that Frishci once raced flat bars at a CX Worlds and Tomac raced drop bars for a season on the World Cup of MTB. It just shows that equipment choice is just that. A choice. What works for you may not work for me. We all love to define things and put labels on things. I still don't know what a gravel bike is. I think its a CX bike with fat tires. I like the term as it is elegant but I know it drives people nuts. Probably because the label doesn't fit the bike or the activity. I hate gravel. It sucks to ride on. I like dirt roads and loam. And a river. I love riding next to rivers. Ok and watermelon stops. And beer. Ok now I am getting off track. But you get it. Its fun to give each other crap now and again. You all rock.


  1. Ok, but then what is a Cannondale Slate?

  2. Against my better judgement I will engage you Chip! Every sport has rules on equipment. Some more than others, but for the most part it is required that athletes compete using similar equipment, with minimal allowances to fit the physical differences in athletes. The big four US sports are obvious examples, with wooden baseball bats, limits on hockey stick curvature, hell even the inflation pressure of a football. Bike racing is a little different, and sadly it is closer to motorsports where people can spend their way to an advantage, though not to the same degree. And there is a huge influence from the cycling industry, which exists to sell stuff, so any attempt to restrict equipment changes gets shouted down pretty decisively. Yet despite this the UCI did draw a line on CX bikes for elite racing, mandating max tire width and drop bars. Ideally, you could never win a race without these things, and if you did, the problem would be with the course. Flat bars and wide tires are still allowed by USAC in amateur racing, but I think it's time to end this. They were allowed because maybe owning a real CX bike would be a barrier to entry for some people. I don't think a strong cast can be made for this anymore. In the NE "elite" amateur/master ranks, you don't see a lot of mountain bikes anymore anyway, but when you do it is usually someone wreaking havoc on the backmarkers for the first lap, taking aggro lines and generally being a pain in the ass until pushing the fat tires at 'cross speeds blows them up. We've even had people on fat bikes stinking up the course. Again, not common around here, but I'd rather see the UCI rule become standard and be done with it. Compete on similar equipment and may the better athletes prevail.

  3. I love CX, and love how legit it has become. I also love that there's still a place for straight-up fun, inclusiveness, and occasional ridiculousness in the SS fields. Balancing the UCI races I did with hauling that goofy-ass 21lb hybrid around is something I'd recommend to anyone.

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