Cyclocross Bikes: Decent Commuters, But Not For Everyone

Published Categorized as Bicycles, Bike questions & beginner guides

Wherever there’s a large contingent of bike commuters, you’re bound to see some cyclocross (CX) bikes in the mix.

They’re rugged, readily available, (usually) accessibly priced, and often versatile enough to bely their racing roots. In fact, many cyclists and shops specifically recommend them to new commuters.

But that begs the question: are cyclocross bikes actually good for commuting? And, more importantly, are they good for you?

Cyclocross bikes are quick and sturdy commuters. They’re about as fast as a road bike, but offer a smoother ride and generally beefier construction. However, cyclocross bikes still use drop bars, which creating a forward-leaning posture that makes average commuters less comfortable than on a city or hybrid bike.

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What makes cyclocross bikes good for commuting?

There’s a lot to unpack in that brief answer, so let’s start by looking at the benefits of a CX bike from a commuter’s perspective.

They’re quick and light rides

Bike weight doesn’t matter much for commuting. However, light bikes are a bit quicker to accelerate, and are easier to haul up/down stairs or onto racks on city buses.

High-end budget CX bikes weigh less than 20 lbs, and most budget models come in well under 25. Commuting accessories will add a few pounds, but a fully-equipped CX commuter shouldn’t exceed 30 lbs.

That’s light enough for most of us to carry and manipulate without much trouble.

They’re easy to accessorize

Most cyclocross bikes—though not all—accommodate all the key accessories for bike commuting:

  • Fenders
  • Racks and/or panniers
  • Lights

This wasn’t always the case. Cyclocross bikes were racers first and foremost, which meant no fender or rack mounts at all. Only in the early 2010s (if memory serves) did manufacturers notice their popularity among commuters and start adding those mounts.

Even so, it’s still important to check for rack and fender mounts before buying. There are still plenty of race-oriented CX bikes on the market, especially at higher price points.

Now, all this applies to road bikes, too. But cyclocross bikes have more generous tire clearance on average, which translate to clearance for wider tires under those fenders. This is an important point in its own right, so I’ll revisit it in the next section.

(I’ve discussed why you probably need fenders and how to choose between a backpack/basket/pannier in separate articles, so check those out if you find the options confusing.)

Ample tire clearance for rough urban streets

All else being equal, wider tires provide a smoother ride. As long as you run the right tire pressure, you’ll enjoy better traction and vibration absorption without your commute taking any longer.

Tire width norms are around 26-30 mm for road bikes versus 37+ mm on most cyclocross bikes. These vary by model, but as a rule of thumb, even “racier” CX run about a centimeter wider than their road counterparts. To ensure a good fit, check the manufacturer’s specs or manual before buying fenders or tires.

Although 37+ mm is unnecessary for decent asphalt, you’ll still appreciate the extra fender room as mentioned above. On most frames and forks, inserting a fender reduces tire space by 5-7 mm (or even more). That would restrict a road bike to tires around 20 mm, which even racers find unnecessarily harsh these days. The extra clearance on CX bikes is key for commuters who want some semblance of comfort.

They have more stable geometry than road bikes

There’s a lot of variation, but cyclocross bikes feel steadier than road bikes on rough terrain. That’s generally due to longer chainstays and slacker head tube angles than traditional road bikes. Wider tires have a similar effect, as mentioned above.

At least that’s traditionally the case.

These days, gravel bikes are extremely popular, and “endurance” or “all-road” bikes abound. Both are closer to the stable geometry and wider tires of a CX bike, so it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate cyclocross from road bikes—let alone to declare a winner.

(As a new cyclist, I was overwhelmed by bike geometry, but found that it’s actually quite helpful to understand. I put together this newbie-friendly practical guide to bicycle geometry that explains why these things matter.)

Why I still don’t commute on a CX bike

Cyclocross bikes have road-style drop handlebars, which sacrifice comfort for efficiency. I believe that’s a bad trade-off for commuting and for most other practical uses.

Granted, CX bikes have lots of commute-friendly attributes. We’re talking about a nimble but sturdy design with (usually) ample accessory mounts and a reasonable price point.

So why isn’t that enough to constitute the perfect commuter?

Feeling at ease is the key to a sustainable bike commute. If you do feel truly at ease on a CX bike, then that’s great! The last thing I want to do is talk you out of one.

But most regular folks are more comfortable sitting more upright.

That’s the same reason I don’t often recommend road bikes for commuting, either.

The issue with commuting on CX drop bars

Drop bars do create an aerodynamic and powerful riding position. That’s exactly why road and CX racers use them. Speed wins, end of story.

By the same token, they’re helpful on a very long bike commute.

But forward-leaning riding posture is less comfortable than upright, swept-back bars, period.

Most of us can force ourselves into that forward lean, but it’s a far cry from being enjoyable. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a slightly slower yet far more comfortable commute any day!

Check this video to learn more about posture and riding comfort.

3 great alternatives to CX bikes for commuting

If you want the speed of a cyclocross bike without the drop-bar discomfort, then here are three options

Touring bikes are a more comfortable drop-bar option

Consider a touring bike if you like the hand positions of drop handlebars, but want to sit more upright than a cyclocross bike allows.

All else being equal, touring bikes are a bit slower than CX bikes. The difference on real-world commutes with stoplights and intersections galore, but it’s only fair to point out.

However, touring bikes are designed for long days in saddle rather than 30- or 60-minute races. Consequently, they encourage a somewhat more upright posture that relaxes your neck and increases your field of vision.

They still use drop bars to provide more varied hand positions, but without the strains or aches of more aggressive posture.

Hybrids & flat-bar gravel bikes are extremely versatile

Hybrid bikes (and their flat-bar gravel cousins) are a terrific choice for mixing weekday commutes in reasonable comfort with speedier, mixed-terrain rides on the weekend.

They run the gamut from almost-mountain bikes to almost-road bikes. Components, weight, and riding position vary dramatically, so the selection can be overwhelming, but the upside is there’s something for everyone!

I’ve rounded up some of the best budget hybrids as well as today’s lightest carbon-fiber hybrids to help you get started. Some even have belt drives for minimal maintenance, especially in muddy environments.

City bikes are smoother & more relaxing

More traditional city bikes are my personal choice for commuting. Their comfort is unbeatable, and most are not the heavy, lumbering behemoths you might expect.

Yes, they’re slower than CX bikes on wide-open straights, but the difference diminishes in stop-and-go urban riding.

So, where to begin?

It’s always worth checking out your local bike shop. Unfortunately, in North America, it’s hard to find ones that offer a serious selection—that is, more than a couple hard-to-ride cruisers and low-end “comfort bikes.”

But filling that practical cycling information gap is a huge part of why this site exists!

My Brooklyn Franklin review highlights my personal pick for the best value, but I’ve also highlighted some other all-around excellent city bikes at a huge range of prices.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg, but by understanding what makes them great, it’ll be far easier to find more terrific choices.