Question: I've been lusting for a cyclocross bike to cruise the neat dirt roads I pass on my Kestrel. How do I get into cyclocross? Do I have to buy a real 'cross bike? -- Perry D.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: Cyclocross is a fun way to build bike-handling skills and add variety to your fall cycling.
You don't need to compete in 'cross races to get the benefits. Just cruising dirt roads, park trails or mild singletrack will make you a better bike rider and keep you fresh. Talk some buddies into bashing around the dirt with you and you'll have a blast.
You can buy a dedicated 'cross bike, use a mountain bike with narrower tires or find an old touring frame and build it up with low-cost components. Some riders like a frame that's a couple of centimeters smaller than their road frame for extra stand-over height. But smaller frames usually mean a lower handlebar relative to the saddle, and that's not good for control on soft surfaces or on steep and rough descents.
My 'cross setup is typical of what many roadies use in the fall. I have a relatively inexpensive ($830 for frame/fork) Gunnar Crosshairs with an Ultegra triple crankset. With 700x38C tires it works fine on rough dirt roads and easy singletrack while still rolling okay on pavement. If I were racing, I'd simply install 700x30C 'cross tires.
Unless you're competing, there's no need to practice cyclocross-specific skills such as dismounting/remounting on the fly and carrying your bike over obstacles. But these moves are lots of fun and great for your balance and bike handling. I describe the techniques in the RBR ebook, Cyclo-Cross for Roadies.