Cyclocross racing pits riders on bikes with drop bars and knobby tires against each other on multi-lap courses over a mix of grass, dirt, pavement, sand, mud and sections that force riders to carry their bikes over barriers and up stairs and hills. Racers attack from the line, and the intensity doesn’t diminish for the duration of the 30- to 60-minute events — it’s a redline-all-the-time, full-contact affair. With participation doubling over the past five years, it’s also the fastest growing segment of competitive cycling in America. Some attribute this growth to the more laid-back, beer-primed environment at cyclocross races, but cool bikes certainly don’t hurt. We’ve got three rigs that make the grade from the starter’s gun well past the finish line.

MORE CYCLING: USA Pro Challenge | Best Training Technologies for Cycling | The Cycling Issue

Felt Breed Singlespeed

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Best Starter Cyclocross Bike: A single-speed cyclocross bike substantially lowers the barrier to entry into the sport on the gear side: there’s little to tune or break. Training and racing on a single speed will help you develop tremendous fitness, accelerate your bike handling and teach you to carry your momentum through turns and up hills. The Felt Breed stands out in this niche category because it’s affordable, light and race-ready out of the box, a balanced ride that feels great in all conditions. It’s also one of the few complete single-speed cyclocross bikes you can buy off the shelf that has both an oversized, tapered steerer tube for precise tracking through corners and a BB-30 oversized bottom bracket shell for enhanced lateral rigidity. The rear-facing dropouts enable headache-free chain tensioning and open the door to easy wheel upgrades, while the Breed’s geometry absolutely sings on the trail or race course. If you get serious about single-speed racing, the Breed’s frame is worth upgrading, and if not, the simple components still have what it takes to race. If you’re curious about cyclocross, start with the Breed and you’ll become a better cyclist who smiles more.

Focus Mares CX 4.0

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Best Mid-range Cyclocross Bike: Cantilever-equipped cyclocross bikes and wheelsets weigh and cost less than equivalent disc-equipped bikes, making them a smart choice for a racer or enthusiast on a budget; the lack of disc brakes on the Focus Mares CX 4.0 allows the company to spec one of the best mechanical groupsets on the market and a pro-level frame on a bike that costs $3,000 — an exceptional value.

The full-carbon CRF frame and fork are crafted from the highest-grade material Focus uses, and it’s the same rig Jeremy Powers raced to his national championship victory in 2012. Out on the course, the Mares’s low-slung bottom bracket and short head tube keep the center of gravity low for deft handling. The Shimano Ultegra 11-speed shifters and drivetrain with Shimano’s new long-arm front derailleur design deliver a supreme shifting experience, even over pounding terrain and under huge torque. The clincher Fulcrum wheelset works for training, but you’ll want a tubular set if you get serious about racing. The full top-tube cable routing makes servicing the Mares easy, and a fork-mounted brake cable stop reduces fork shudder. As a bonus, in the off-season the 4.0’s lateral rigidity and geometry make it well suited to gravel racing.

Specialized S-Works Crux Red Disc

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Dream Cyclocross Bike: If your budget has no limits and you need a bike that can tackle a UCI World Cup out of the box, the Specialized S-Works Crux Red Disc must be on your short list. The pro-level specs include both a tubeless-ready training wheelset and a light, 40mm carbon tubular Roval race wheelset with ceramic bearings with Specialized tubulars. You also get a full SRAM Red 11-speed group with hydraulic disc brakes, an OS BB standard bottom bracket with ceramic bottom bracket bearings, a FACT r1 carbon frame and fork, FACT carbon crankset and a Specialized FACT carbon seatpost with an integrated damping system.

There’s nothing to upgrade. The ride is nothing short of phenomenal in every regard. The Roval wheels are beautiful on the course and the SRAM hydros provide precise, modulated braking heretofore unknown in cyclocross. The frame has the magic blend of steering precision, lateral rigidity and vertical compliance, while every piece of componentry performs at a truly best-in-class level. If you’re serious about cyclocross and have the coin, this bike will take your riding to another level and help you find your personal best.

Note: SRAM issued a recall for all of their hydraulic disc brakes, though we experienced no issues during testing. Until the issue is resolved, the Crux may come equipped with different brakes than those tested.

Andrew Vontz is a journalist, content innovator, cycling coach and adventurer based in San Francisco. He writes about people, places and things at the limits of human experience. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Outside, Bicycling, Men’s Health, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, UFC magazine and many other publications. Find him @vontz on Twitter and instagram. Find more of his stories at andrewvontz.com.
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