Last week, we talked about the types of things you can do in the late spring and early summer to both mentally and physically prepare for the cyclocross season ahead. One of the factors we considered was thinking about upgrades for the bike, and adapting to them now instead of a week before the season begins. In this spirit, we wanted to take a closer look at the value (or specifically the lack there of) with certain “upgrades.”
You may have heard of the cycling equation of a $1 per gram. It’s a hilarious amalgamation of American currency and the metric system, where an upgraded part needs to subtract a gram of weight per dollar spent to consider the purchase a “good investment.” For example, if you wanted to buy a $200 carbon stem to replace your stock $40 stem, it would need to shave off 160 grams (or over a third of a pound) from the original part for the purchase to “be worth it.” (Note: I incorporate the value of the original part into the equation, with $200-$40=160 grams. Others only look at the price of the new part, and would require the part to save 200 grams).
Today we’re not going to talk about the merits of the “$1 per gram” equation, overpriced or great value upgrades. Instead, we’re going to be focused on the more expensive products that will perform WORSE over the course of a cyclocross season compared to their less expensive counterparts.
Yes, you read that correctly. There are literally products out there that run opposite the phrase “you get what you pay for.”
In most of these cases, these are absolutely wonderful products for road cycling or mountain biking that get lost in the translation to cyclocross. In a few other cases, there are products designed for cyclocross that would work ideally in a vacuum, but just fail to meet the practical needs of most (unsponsored) racers.
Here’s our list of some of the biggest culprits, to be avoided for your next cyclocross season:
1) Hollow Plate Chains.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m a big fan of cheap chains for cyclocross, and not just because of my wallet. Sure, chains with solid pins and plates feel like they weigh three times as much when you hold it in your hand against a great road chain like the KMC X11SL DLC 11 (which retails at over $180), but all of those little openings in the latter chain are great places for dirt and sand to get lodged in.
Hollowpin chains are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid, and often come stock on cyclocross bikes with a 1x drivetrain, but these chains are not nearly as much as a concern to me. Dirt can sneak into those hollow pins, but when it comes to chain wear, grit in a hollow pin will wreck far less havoc than the grit that collects between the pins and the plates.
Sand and dirt that makes its way into a hollow faceplate, on the other hand, comes in direct contact with the teeth of a cassette and chainring.
I would guess that hollow plate defenders would call this technology “dirt shedding,” suggesting that the holes in the place are a great way for dirt to escape compared to solid plates. As someone who has spent years on each level of chain, and has serviced more cyclocross drivetrains than I could possibly count, I can attest that hollow plate chains don’t shed anything; they’re a magnet for anything on a cyclocross course and they’re harder to clean, suggesting to me that drivetrain wear and performance will take a hit over the course of a season much faster.
2) Carbon Fiber Handlebars.
I fully understand the appeal of carbon fiber parts on a cyclocross bike. Anything to make your bike lighter and take a bit out of the sting of a jarring course makes sense to me. Of all components, a carbon fiber fork is my favorite in this regard. By far and away, my least favorite would be the carbon fiber handlebar. In fact, I’m pretty sure my personal hell would be me acting as a lone mechanic for a big cyclocross team that exclusively used carbon fiber handlebars.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that carbon in this regard is great for road and mountain bikes if you can afford the big chunk of change, but for cyclocross, I consider it to be a horrible liability.
The problem comes with crashing. Every time you do it, you must inspect parts no matter what they are made out of. I know this is a generality, but in most cases, cracked metal and failed welds are far more glaring than micro-cracks in carbon fiber. With mountain bikes, you can see much of the carbon on a handlebar like any other component. Even though road bikes are covered in bar tape, crashing shouldn’t be very common on pavement.
Crashing in cyclocross typically results in less/milder injuries. You’re racing at slower speeds, and when you do fall, there is a very good chance you are landing in dirt, mud, grass, snow, or sand instead of asphalt or rocks. However, crashing in this sport is a little more common, if not somewhat expected. Between finding the limits during pre-riding, and racing a course, I would have to guess that the Jalapeno Cycling Team of Kate and I must crash on average somewhere between 4-7 times per weekend. (Don’t let that number discourage you if you are thinking about racing for the first time; more cautious, lower category, riders can avoid crashing altogether by taking far less risks than we do.)
Alloy handlebars are not bulletproof, but unless they directly hit the ground hard, I generally don’t obsess over one of these 4-7 small crashes during a given weekend. As I said before, if that alloy is about to fail, usually it’s pretty obvious, even if it’s wrapped up. Cracks in carbon, on the other hand, can sneak up on you, and those 4-7 small falls would dictate that I unwrap those bars 4-7 times per weekend and inspect the surface for microcracks.
So why do I call this an expensive downgrade? Because I know human nature. Even the most patient mechanic or rider isn’t going to unwrap and re-wrap bars that often, and it will bite them.
You might think I’m being dramatic, but I’ve seen enough handlebar failures in the Elite and Masters fields. In the case that sticks out most in my mind, a Pro rider who constantly podiumed in American UCI races admitted to me that his handlebars breaking on Sunday during the KMC Cyclo-Cross Festival were almost certainly the result from a crash he bounced back from on that Saturday.
3. “Team Edition” Cyclocross Tires
Racers obsess over tire choice. Twitter is filled with lobs of insults between Elite and Master Cyclocrossers who use cotton casing tubulars (Dugast, FMB, and Challenge) and those who use pre-coated sidewall tires (Tufo and Clement). Emotions can run high during debates over the best tread out there. So it would be easy to mistake a very expensive tire as your best choice because it boasts features like being the most supple, having the best grip, or weighing the lightest.
When it comes to pulling out your wallet for tires, though, the most expensive tires, sometimes labeled “Team Edition” tires, are more likely to offer performance losses during the course of your season.
Okay, so I’ll admit I’m being a little weasely calling these tires an expensive downgrade, because a fresh pair of Team Edition tires will outperform a fresh pair of standard tires. But the advantage doesn’t last for long.
Several years ago, I was invited to sit down with the designers and engineers behind one of the bigger tubular tire brands, who gave me a sneak peek of the high end prototypes that their European teams were racing on. They admitted that they had been reluctant to release this lighter, more supple compound to the wider American market because we often demand plenty of mileage out of our tires (some of us will go through a few seasons on the same tire, others will expect it to last through both cyclocross and gravel conditions).
When I asked one of their sponsored racers (who was ranked in the top five in the world at the time), how long he thought he would use the same set of tires, he guessed that he only used them for several weekends before his mechanics ripped them off, threw them out, and re-glued fresh ones to his wheels.
Less than two weeks. Four days of racing. Let that sink in for a while.
I know that’s an extreme case. With a near unlimited supply of sponsored tires and full time mechanics at their disposal, the highest level Belgian and Dutch athletes have every incentive to swap their tires over at the first sign of tread wear. Except I’m not making a nitpicky case.
Unlike those athletes, amateur racers and privateer elite racers will likely put more mileage out of a single set of tires during those weeks. Warm ups, pre-rides, pre-race day openers, Wednesday Night World practices, cool-downs… the average North American racer is FAR more likely not to swap their race wheels for a set of training tires, and all of that tire time is likely to translate into wear.
The grippier, lighter compound of those higher end tires might sound attractive at the onset, but if your chevrons or file treads are looking more like a beat up 33mm road tubular come October, you won’t exactly be overtaking anyone in a corner.
(One important note on the “Team Edition” designator is that it is not a universal one across all tire brands. FMB has standard tires and Pro tires; the latter models, as of this writing in the 2017 offseason, can be recognized by their green or pink sidewalls. These Pro tires actually have a more durable casing and are designed with an increased longevity in mind.)
4. Shimano XTR Pedals
This one is often mentioned online on many cyclocross-focused websites, but considering that this one is easily the biggest complaint I still get from newer cyclocross racers, it bears repeating here. XTR pedals are a dream for dry conditions and mountain biking. They are far from ideal for mud.
Judging by the fact that these XTR pedals have won readers’ choice awards from Cyclocross Magazine in the past, I’m guessing that this one might be a little more subjective than the other components on this list. Still, objectively, the distance between the axle and the engagement of the pedal is much smaller than the less expensive Shimano models, allowing far less room for mud to go.
Unlike the last item on our list, looking at what the pros use is a good indication. Unless they are using prototypes of XTR pedals with taller engagement claws, the vast majority of Europeans use the XT pedals instead, which are not nearly as pricy as Shimano’s top shelf pedal. There are also plenty of low weight, better priced SPD pedals that offer cyclocrossers a great retention without sacrificing the ability to clear mud. Some of the favorites we’ve tried this offseason belong to Ritchey and iSSi.
5. Power meters for your race day wheels
(Note: This is one product on the list that Kate and I disagree on. She says that there are enough lessons from race day power numbers to avoid calling this one a “downgrade.” As I explain in the following section, I disagree.)
If you have the time and passion to sift through your training files, or you have a coach who does all of the analytical reading for you, a power meter is literally one of the best training component upgrades you can get. For racing on the road, especially at events like time trails, or during triathlons, power meters are a wonderful guide to measuring your effort.
If the main reason for buying a power meter is to read your watt output from cyclocross races, you are not only better off spending your money elsewhere, but you are putting your performance at a slight disadvantage.
Cyclocross is a sport of far too many variables compared to racing on the road or the track when it comes to cleanly reading power for a purpose. Did you dismount earlier on one lap, did you get caught behind someone with no handling skills in the narrow back section of the course, did you take the lower line that allows you to pedal harder but puts you in a terrible position for the next corner, did you choose a completely different gear when you went through the sand on lap three, did your back wheel lose two psi during the last half of the race?
These questions all effect the readings, and none of them even takes into consideration that you might have a pit bike that you use, which might have a different tire tread, tire pressure, calibrated power meter (in the extremely rare case where you decided to splurge on a power meter for both bikes anyhow).
Don’t mistake my meaning. I think that power files from cyclocross races are extremely interesting, especially when you can actually keep track of how you rode differently on a particular lap, or (more importantly) when you look at the much bigger picture and analyze your lap averages. However, the data from your training days will comparatively be much more readable (and beneficial to decisions you make about adjusting your future training and scheduling an off-week to avoid overtraining).
I know this doesn’t have to be a choice between using a power meter either during training or racing, and that you can have both. In light of this, race day wheelsets with a power-measuring hub might be a bad investment if you are unwilling to ride the “Team Edition” tubular tires glued to them during your mid-week training rides.
Secondly, those power meters also have a weight penalty attached to them, not for added performance, but just for the benefit of measuring power. In my experience with the vast majority of current power meters out there, the more consistently accurate the power meter, the heavier the weight penalty. I personally have a power meter on my road bike, and I feel like the weight is an acceptable penalty for the feedback I get mid-race. For cyclocross, those mid-race power numbers will provide useless information during 99% of the race unless you’re on a flat grass oval, and as I’ve already stated, your post-race viewing of those numbers are not nearly as beneficial as training day numbers.
When I used to race cyclocross with a power meter years ago, I had a crankarm-based Stages. Even then, if I knew the course was going to be muddy, I usually just swapped it out with the crankarm that the bike came with on race day because 1) the original crankarm was carbon and much lighter, and 2) I decided that I didn’t want to risk destroying a $700 power meter if a mechanic was a little overzealous with the power washer.
A factor of this list is admittedly risk vs. reward, and the upside of the data you are getting on race day just isn’t enough to make power meters avoid the downgrade designation.
6. Cooling Brake Rotors and Carbon Rim-Specific Tubular Glue
I bet you’re scratching your head at this pair, but yes, they’re both what I consider more expensive downgrades, and for a similar reason. But before I dive into why these are on my list, please note that this list pertains to cyclocross racing, and not gravel and I’ll explain why.
Both vented rotors (such as Shimano’s IceTech or Jagwire’s Elite CR1) and carbon rim-specific tubular glue are designed to mitigate the effects of heat buildup during long, consistent braking. None of these should seriously come into play for cyclocross, and not because cyclocross takes place in cold weather.
On the road bike (or an all-mountain/downhill/trial bike), putting constant pressure on disc brakes during a long descent is often a fact of life. The heat buildup from this constant braking is magnitudes higher than grabbing a fistful of brakes all at once, even if that latter braking is far more aggressive in the moment. The aluminum plates in “cooling” or vented rotors, don’t exactly keep the brakes cool, but rather draw the heat away from the braking surface and towards the center of the rotor, which prevents any heat problems with your brake pads or hydraulic fluid on those long descents.
Same with carbon rim-specific tubular glue. The goal of this product, which is close to twice the price of your standard rim cement on average, is to resist the heat buildup from a carbon rim paired with a rim braking system. Contrary to rumor, this product is not “kinder” on carbon fiber rims. (Obviously, if your cyclocross bike has disc brakes, there will be no heat buildup at the rim).
While some cyclocross courses have a few longer descents (the pre-2016 Rochester Full Moon Vista course, Dallas Resolution Cup, Charm City CX), even these 6-10 seconds worth of braking won’t come close to creating the same heat that road and mountain bikes will be able to create, and I am mentioning the extreme examples. The vast majority of cyclocross courses only require seconds of braking at a time.
What are the disadvantages of these products? Well, for vented rotors, the biggest drawback is the weight penalty that comes with the added aluminum inserts. That’s obviously not an extreme loss in grams, but why pay more for a product that is slightly heavier than the non-cooling rotor counterpart. For the carbon glue, the disadvantage is far worse, probably one of the worst on this list.
While carbon rim-specific tubular glue is acceptable at holding a tire on that is often held at 90-140 psi, I have never been impressed with how weak it is resisting the lateral forces of a tubular cyclocross tire at low pressure compared to standard rim cement. What does that mean? Well, your 20-25psi tubular tire has a great deal of unique forces on it, between tight, fast corners, or off-camber descents. In situations where your tire wants to rip off sideways from your rim, the standard rim cement holds a tire far better, in my experience, than carbon rim-specific tubular glue.
Again, this is when applied to cyclocross. If you use your cyclocross bike in the spring for gravel racing, you will likely see plenty of long, winding descents coupled with loose gravel that would encourage checking your speeds.
The Jury is Still Out on a Few
Certainly, there are likely other products that we have overlooked, and we’d be thrilled to hear about them from you in the comments. These are products that hamper your season-long performance but cost more than another common product. So while large jockey wheels with ceramic bearings might not be the best dollar per watt benefit, I think it would be hard to call it a downgrade from the standard derailleur cage and jockey wheels.
There are plenty more components that we didn’t add because we believe they are far more of a subjective downgrade, or we just haven’t tested them out long enough in cyclocross.
I actually really enjoy dropper posts in cyclocross, but detest suspension seatposts and stems, which I feel hamper my handling and create bad habits. Again, I know that these are more of person by person cases.
The real purpose we wanted to share though is to break from the habit of thinking that a higher price automatically equates to a higher performing component. Electronic shifting has already taken road cycling by storm, but, with the exception of Shimano’s XTR Di2, I would never swap out my Force1 for a SRAM, Campagnolo, or Shimano electronic shifting group set; I just love how little my rear clutch derailleur has a mechanical mid-race. (Having said that as a side note, I’m guessing this claim will be outdated by cyclocross season. SRAM must have a clutch eTap system in the works for Fall 2017, just in time for no one to train on it before the season begins. You heard it here first.)
We’ve already received a half dozen emails about the new Fox AX fork for cyclocross, and while we have some pretty poignant opinions about it, we just haven’t given it a solid test to see if it would give serious value to a cyclocross season, or its added weight might just put it on this list next.
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