Is a cross bike the ultimate fast do it all bike?

Is a cross bike the ultimate fast do it all bike?

You’ve probably heard of N+1 when applied to bikes, yes? It’s a tongue-in-cheek formula for working how many bikes do you need, with N being the current number of bikes you own. But what if you could only have one bike?

I remember my old dad telling me how “back in the day” riders only had one bike to cover all their riding and racing needs. A steel frame and a selection of wheels meant he could train, race and commute on the same bike. He might strip it right down, put on his “good” wheels and add a huge 56 tooth chainring -which I still have – for a flat TT. But he could also add mudguards and rack for commuting and touring. The perfect do-it-all bike.

Can you say “old school”?

Lightweight race kit wasn’t as easy to get hold of as it is today. While there were guys riding around on race specific bikes, the majority made do with what they could afford. So I thought “what would I do if I could only have one bike?” Well my first thought is “it’s not possible!” Looking in my garage at the moment there are fourteen bikes, ten that are mine. There’s the “good” road bike, two ‘cross bikes, hard-tail MTB, a track bike, the steel hack bike, another steel hack, an old MTB, the town bike and the rusty old turbo bike. How do I distil all that into one bike?

What kind of bike?

If I’m going to have just one bike there are going to have to be some compromises. I like my road riding, I do the occasional road race and Fondos, but I also like to head off-road. Where I live down here in Sussex there is plenty of fairly mellow off-road riding, so there’s no need for full suspension monster bikes. One of my favourite rides is the annual CX Century which can be tackled on a ‘cross/gravel bike. Plus I race in the local cyclo-cross league. Looking at my current “stable” of bikes, my Handsling CXC ticks all the boxes. The CXC has now evolved into the CEXevo – which I have written about previously – a bike that is already high on my next bike list!

cross bike or road bike?
A cross bike makes a lot of sense for a do it all bike. Simply swap the tyres depending where you’re riding

So it’s looking like I’m heading towards something fast, that can handle a bit of rough stuff; a ‘cross bike? I’ve ridden crit’ races with a guy that used to use his ‘cross bike, didn’t seem to slow him down. Or maybe I should be looking at a gravel bike? The only problem is that a lot of gravel bikes seem to be pitched at the multi-day, carry everything and sleep in a hedge side of things; I still want to ride fast. The UCI have started a gravel Fondo series and I’m keen to give them a go – I’m doing my first in Belgium soon. So, yes, something fast on any terrain.

Ok, so we’re looking at a fast road bike that can handle any terrain, which to me means a cyclo-cross bike. But it has to have bottle mounts and if I need mudguards I can use use something like the Crud Roadracer. While a rack is useful for commuting or a multi-day ride, I’ll do without, if I really need one then I could add the beautiful looking Tailfin.

Let’s talk frame material

But what is this N+1 buster going to be made from? All my race bikes are carbon, for me it’s the perfect material, light, fast and strong, it ticks all my boxes. But what about longevity? How long am I going to be restricted to N+1? Received wisdom tells us that if we want a bike for life then we should be looking at titanium or the higher grades of steel. And don’t forget our old friend aluminium, once the pinnacle of frame materials for racing bikes.

It helps if you can choose exactly the colour you want!

Titanium and steel frames tend to inhabit the higher price brackets and often come with a custom build option. The latter is very tempting, a bike tuned to your particular body – with all its quirks – does sound tempting. Both titanium and steel come with mythical ride qualities, while aluminium is thought to be a bit harsh. Another benefit of buying a custom frame, is that the companies are often smaller, allowing you to talk directly to the manufacturer. And you’ll often find that they aren’t that far away from you, so you can support a local business and keep the carbon footprint down.

Let’s look at some bikes

I’m starting to firm up my decision, I’m leaning towards something racy and carbon. I’m not totally against something ferrous though, so I’ll have a look at those. Also I like the idea of a UK brand, often you get to make some some tweaks with a smaller manufacturer and that appeals. Of course I’m still going to look at what the big brands offer, but something unique does appeal.

two cross bike choices
Specialized Crux and Trek Boone 6

Let’s start getting some names on the list then. First up I’ll go with some of the big boys; the Canyon Grail, Trek Boone 6, Wilier Rave and Specialized Crux. All carbon frames, all racy, which is where I’m happiest.

Wilier Rave and Canyon Grail

But will an all out race bike be comfortable on long rides like the CX Century? Well my experience with the Handsling CXC is that it isn’t an issue for me. For extra long rides I used to run the stem a little higher and shorter, but recently I haven’t and didn’t have any problems. Of course this may be different for you, but it’s another bonus if I don’t have to make too many changes when switching between roles.

For something a little more forgiving and ticking the small brand, non-carbon and local boxes, there’s the Enigma Esker. A titanium specialist, Enigma’s bike are local to me and have a very good reputation. Plus there’s titanium’s famous longevity, handy for a bike that has to last.

The Enigma Esker

Keeping to the metal theme and with some old school looks, there’s the Ritchey Swiss Cross. This is a beautiful steel bike from one of cycling’s famous names, Tom Ritchey. As a youngster I always lusted after his bikes and they still look good. Owning one of these would be like owning an old master, but one that you could thrash around on!

The Swiss Cross from Tom Ritchey

Conclusion? A cross bike of course!

Well, looking at all these possibilities I feel a little overwhelmed. Each bike has it’s own qualities and quirks that swing me one way or another. And of course one of the big deciders is price. I tend not to talk about price, as what is crazily expensive to me may be reasonable to another; I’ll leave that decision up to you. You could have a complete carbon framed Planet X XLS EVO for £1500 or a Specialized S-Works crux for £11,700; both will be great bikes.

All the way through this process I keep coming back to my Handsling CXC. It has handled everything I’ve thrown at it over the years; ‘cross racing, gravel races, on and off road sportives, plus training and commuting duties during the summer. The CXC has evolved into the CEXevo and I’m finding it hard to look elsewhere. I know the qualities of Handsling bikes – I also have one of their RR1 road bikes – and being able to trust the build quality of a bike when hurtling down a flinty, rutted descent is very important to me!

cross bike
A ‘cross bike at a gravel race? It’s a do it all bike, so do it all!

Also with Handsling you can customise components and paint job, which is always good. How often have you bought a bike and within a few months are swapping parts out? They are also fairly local to me, cutting down on some of the carbon footprint. And I can help support a UK based business.

The Handsling CEXevo. My choice for a do it all bike

So I think the decision has been made, my do-it-all bike will be a Handsling CEXevo. Although I could have probably told you that right at the beginning of this article!

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