Today’s question is about buying the right type of bike for a mountain biker that’s getting hooked on road biking.

I am 29 years old and pretty new to cycling, have been riding MTB for about 3 years. I even got into a few mountain bike races this year and found them to be a ton of fun. I just started road cycling this summer and need some advice if you don’t mind…

I was given a 20 year old Raleigh road bike this summer. I put about 4-5 hundred miles on the old girl, and discovered I really like riding on the road. I am up to riding about 50 miles at a time, and would really like to work my way up to a century ride next season. I want to get a new bike. But I have a question…

I have been considering buying a cyclocross bike and putting skinny tires on it. Would this be a bad idea? I know that most come with a compact crankset, but I think I would be OK with that. Are there any reasons I’m missing why I should not do this? I am not overly concerned about weight because I could stand to lose a few pounds myself. Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.

Thank You,
Cyclo-confused

Hi Confused,

I think cyclocross (CX) bikes are great… if you’ll make use of its potential.

cyclo-cross race

For example, if you’ll be riding on dirt roads or through lots of mud as part of your normal schedule, it’s great. Racing cyclocross? Even better.

But for long road rides or road races, well, a CX bike is not so great. Here are my reasons you might NOT want a cyclo-cross bike:

  • If you’re on normal roads all the time, a CX bike is overkill. There’s no need for cx geometry since you won’t be hopping barriers or navigating technical sections. The bigger tires are unnecessary outside of mud and sand pits. And the mud clearance from the cantilever brakes won’t be utilized.
  • Cyclocross bikes are expensive. Even the base models are $1200-1500, because beginning riders aren’t really attracted to cx racing. Outside of CX racing, a typical road bike is better suited to most riders.
  • Compact cranks can be deceiving. The compact cranks are for CX; they’re not the typical compact cranks you’d see on a road bike. A normal road bike might be 53×39, a compact 50×34, and a cx compact 46/38. A cx crank will limit your top speed on smooth flats and downhills, and it really won’t help climbing since the small ring isn’t so small.
  • Thirsty? Since CX races are short and intense, some dedicated CX frames omit water bottle cage mounts. A water bottle would either fall out of the cage or get in the way when carrying the bike, so they’re typically not used.
  • A little heavy. A good CX bike won’t be too heavy, but why get a heavier bike unless you need its strength for CX racing?.

So if you want to ride dirt roads and minor trails or even jump into a CX race, yeah, a CX bike would be great. But I just don’t see much reason to get one otherwise – the deck is stacked against them.

I rode a CX bike for a while and thoroughly enjoyed being able to ride the dirt roads in comfort while still being fast on pavement (compared to my mountain bike.) It wasn’t race-winning fast on the road, but it was plenty fast for training rides.

But it’s not really applicable to racing unless you are doing CX races. The bike will be too fragile or illegal for cross-country mountain bike races, and not perfect for road races (especially with the gearing.) So the cyclocross bike always seems like a great idea for a well-rounded, fun bike, but it really isn’t as great as you’d think.

So unless you absolutely need a CX bike, you might as well stick with a regular road bike.

Photo credit: johnthescone

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20 Comments
  1. Good response!

  2. A bit off the mark in my opinion. I’ve owned many bikes, and if you had to own just one, a cross bike is by far the best option. Certainly can’t do technical mountain runs, but outside of racing, no one really does them, so front shock and all the weight is really too much. If you put road tires on a cross bike, you have a weight penalty of about 2 pounds. If 2 pounds keeps you from keeping up with your buddies, you have an engine problem, not a bike problem.

  3. @Brien

    As I said in the article, if you want to cruise around on pavement and ride dirt roads, CX bikes are “great.”

  4. CX bikes are a great option in two other cases.

    First, if you ride a mix of rail/trails and road.

    I do this, and while there are times I would love a road bike, the rail / trail portion of things dishes out enough abuse that I’m frequently thankful for the CX frame and sturdier rims.

    Second, if you lack the leg strength to push a road crank and keep up with your roadie friends.

    Chances are that if you’re new to road cycling that you’re gonna spend a major portion of your riding not only in the smaller gear set, but in the smallest gears of that gear set.

    The relatively small larger gear of the CX bike lets you go “big gear” in a small way, gives you a little more speed and lets you build up your leg strength until you’re ready for the move up to a true road crankset (which likely won’t be for at least a full season).

  5. Good thinking Tom!

    Personally I’m a big fan of doing recovery rides on a CX bike, on rail trails. It’s a nice and relaxing environment and conducive to recovery!

  6. I have a Giant Cross bike. It is truly great. It mostly depends on the legs and I keep up with the people going in their carbon fiber bikes. It is truly something that depends on your legs and fitness. I am 16 years old and pretty athletic, but my bike is indispensable because it gives me the two benefits of a racing and a mountain bike.

  7. @Joseph

    “It is truly something that depends on your legs and fitness.”

    That applies in some local group ride situations, but not in any sort of competitive race. If CX bikes could keep up with carbon fiber road racing bikes, you’d see them in the Tour de France.

  8. I bought a Felt F15x cyclocross bike this summer. I’ve owned every type of bike there is. I read a bunch of forums about cx bikes before a made the purchase and talked to a bunch of different sales people. I wanted to post because the majority of that information was totally wrong. A cyclocross is not a road bike. It is not a mountain bike. It is a cyclocross bike. My bike is 17lbs. Competitive for a road bike and excellent for a cx bike. It is not geared correctly for the road. When you put slicks on the gearing is too close together and if I ride in very hilly areas I can max out my highest gear. I was also told by many many people that it can be fun to ride on single track. Whoever says this has either never attempted to do this or is mentally challenged. The bike is not burly enough to handle the rigors of single track nor is the geometry correct nor is the gearing. Im a strong enough rider I can take a beach cruiser out to most single track in PA and make it through it. Its not the best choice and the bike will probably be destroyed by the end of it. Bikes have designed purposes and this is not one for a cx bike. Where cx shows its benefits is for someone who will ride rails to trails, fireroads, recreationally ride road, and yes race cyclocross! It is a great bike to own for this reason, but if your looking for something to perform in situations its not intended you will be sadly dissapointed.

  9. @Sam

    Right on, thanks for the comment! Sorry you had to deal with all that misinformation out there.

  10. I don’t ever plan to competitively race road or mountain. But I want to be able comfortably climb with a fairly light bike AND not worry about taking it off the road when I see something of interest on my ride.

    And you can get an entry-level CX bike for $500 now.

  11. A little late to the party, but here goes …

    I like to think of a road bike as a sports car, a ‘cross bike as an SUV, and a mountain bike as an ATV.

    You obviously wouldn’t take a sports car off-road, nor would you drive an ATV to the grocery store. The SUV is arguably the most versatile of the three.

    That doesn’t mean “if you own only one vehicle, it should be an SUV”. I own only one vehicle, and I choose a car over an SUV. I get better gas mileage and better handling. I don’t need the additional seating or additional storage.

    Now equate that thinking to bikes. The argument “if you own only one bike, make it a ‘cross” falls apart. Someone who chooses a ‘cross bike must understand that it’s a poor (imho) substitute for a road bike with its ‘cross tires, nor does it magically turn into a road bike by simply installing skinny tires. There are penalties to be paid when riding a ‘cross bike on the road. If the rider is aware of those penalties and is willing to pay them, then they can truly say they’ve made an informed choice.

  12. @John

    The SUV analogy is excellent!

  13. The majority of my biking is to and from work (13km each way). I currently have slicks on my mountain bike, but an thinking of a new bike. Would a CX be a good option? the ride is faily flat. My concern is that I haul my clothes and stuff to work in panier (sp?) bags and wonder if that weight would be an issue on the rear axle/wheel (I have broke a few spokes over the past few years.)

  14. @Joel

    I’d just look for a road bike or a hybrid where the frame has the built-in tabs to mount panniers. I would say a “touring” bike would be ideal.

    I guess a CX bike would work if you really want one, but I don’t know of any reasons to choose one for commuting.

  15. With cross bikes now weighing similar weights when compared to a similarly equiped road bike weight shouldn’t really be an issue. I personally have a Planet X Bikes – Uncle John Cyclocross Frameset which would also make a great winter bike and commuter bike. It also has braze on’s for mudguards, panniers and disk brakes too!

    You can get a cx frameset for less than 300 gbp/ 500 usd

    I’ve riden chain gangs with riders on cross bikes and they’ve had no issues with gearing riding 46-39 chainrings and a 27-12 cassette. The only difference to a full on cx bike is slick road tyres.

  16. I have both a road bike and a cross bike, the CX bike was actually an impulse purchase, and both bikes have similar frames and components. So while I do my heavy duty training for centuries on the road bike, I do like to mix it up with the CX bike on some mt trials and fire roads to make my rides harder and more technical while still maintaining a similar position as my road bike.

    The CX bike is also a great commuter bike. I’d also had my MT bike friend try the CX bike on one of our road rides, and hence they’ve purchased their own road bikes.

  17. I too am at this decision. Four years ago I started with an old Huffy MTB to ’09 Trek 4500 MTB to ’12 Trek DualSport 8.2 Hybrid bike. I usually ride a straight stretch of 30 miles to the lake and back. I want something with more speed and comfort, and the ability to get low and into the “drops.” I was comparing the ’13 Madone 3.1 or 2.1 road bikes with the Ion CX. My ride takes me on rough side walk along a highway (4-5 miles) to a nice paved bike path where I see many other roadies… I’d like speed, but I don’t want to break a $2000 bike… help.

  18. @Kris

    It’s unlikely you’d break any of these bikes on a rough sidewalk. If the sidewalk is so rough that it worries you, I’d pick the bike with the toughest wheels… except all three of these bikes come with the same wheels!

    You’d probably be best off with a road bike, but would appreciate the wider cyclocross tires on the rough sidewalk.

  19. I think the cyclocross bikes seem to have evolved since the last time that you wrote this article. Much of the information that you’ve included here runs against what most others (almost everyone) are saying on the internet. Please update.

    • @Arnice

      All bikes are evolving. So yeah, cyclocross bikes may be lighter and faster now, but so are the road bikes I’m comparing them to. As long as the general idea behind a cyclocross bike is still the same, it’s not going to be a great road bike (and vice versa).

      If someone is telling you different, I would take their advice with a grain of salt.

      There are a lot more options for this genre now though, with gravel riding getting to be so popular. But that’s even more reason that you don’t need to buy a true cyclocross bike unless you’re racing cyclocross.

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