We decided a while ago that this month’s theme will be cyclo-cross – if you haven’t read our introduction to cyclo-cross, you can do it now here. Specialized was kind enough to lend us a ‘cross bike for review, thus ended up this Specialized Crux Elite at our offices a couple of weeks ago.

Call me shallow but when I first looked at the bike, my first thought was how beautiful the bike looked. The frame has a wonderful paintjob and it definitely looks like a rather expensive ride and not an entry-level ‘cross bike. Maybe it’s just me, but it appears to me that the more money you are willing to spend on a bike, the better it will look. Well, this is not the case with the Crux Elite: the overall visual impression implies a decent ‘cross racer. Taking a closer look at the list of components might paint a different picture, but more on that later. I find it quite puzzling, that more expensive Specialized ‘cross bikes got much blander colour schemes, but then again, there are people who think gray is the most exciting colour for a car, so I’m sure they just wanted to cater to the grey-afficinado niche.

Being 6’4″, finding a bike that fits me is never an easy task but the 61cm Crux Elite fits me like a glove. The seating position is a bit different from a road bike, as the fork is a bit longer, but very agile when cornering and offers good overall riding comfort. Comfort might be an unusual word when one talks about a cross bike, but if you are not using this bike on the fields, racing on a muddy winter Sunday, this is the best urban bike. Why is that? It minimizes the tyre-dichotomy. If you wanted to roll fast, you use a road bike or a narrow tyre hybrid, 23-28 wheels, very low rolling resistance, but you keep dodging potholes and that can be a tedious task in Central London. Your other option could be a mountain bike – you won’t need 2.5″ downhill tyres to be able to blast through even the nastiest potholes, but there is a trade-off: you’ll be slow like a sloth on sedatives. I think I have found the perfect solution in the cross bike: the 34mm wide, knobby tyres are wide enough to allow me to be oblivious to potholes but they are fast-rolling enough so cycling on tarmac doesn’t feel like riding a badly setup turbo trainer. Cycling in Central London (or any other, pothole-ridden city) is fun, fast AND comfortable again!

But I digress, let’s get back to the frame. Another great feature is the hidden cable routing. This is a truly ‘cross-friendly solution, the most bits of the cables aren’t affected even in the worst weather and  they are not in the way when you dismount the bike and throw it on your shoulders. The fork is made of carbon, has nice, wide blades and it offers ample mud clearance. Again, this is something that is paramount only in ‘cross and the fork does allow awful lot of gunk through. The same can be said about the rear of the bike, the seatstays offer enough clearance, however, near chainstay, there was less room, which is a shame, since otherwise it does very well, when it comes to mud clearance.

And now we’ve arrived to the drivetrain, which offers a well thought-out mixture of components. The FSA crankset features 46-36 chainrings, a typical choice for ‘cross and the casette offers a versatile range, from 11 to 32. It is evenly spaced, however, the transition in the middle is not as smooth as it is for the rest of the casette. Specialized has thrown in a Shimano Deore LX mountain bike rear derailleur for good measure, which makes perfect sense, as it is designed to withstand adverse weather conditions and it is exactly what usually happens to ‘cross bikes – whether it is used for ‘cross racing or all-year commuting.

Then you look further and start to see the signs of savings – though the Mavic CXP22 rims are surprisingly good, the hubs aren’t even branded ones, they are definitely from the cheaper end of the scale. The same can be said about the brakes and they are not only non-branded ones, they are also quite hard to setup and adjust. Before you judge me and call me an incompetent fool, let me assure you that it wasn’t just me but our head of servicing, who arrived at the same conclusion. That being said, once they are set up properly, they are doing a decent job.

When it comes to ‘cross racing, you are just a sad looser if you use clinchers, but the famous Dugast tyres cost fortunes, so I decided to remain a sad looser (for this season, at least) and left the original Specialized Houffalize tyres on. And they were a very nice surprise! I have elaborated on how it behaves while commuting but it was very convincing in the horrible mud of the recent London CX League race at Hillingdon. I was expecting a lot of skidding and other unpleasant problems but the tyre provided me with great traction, both uphill and cornering and it worked very well at the tricky and slippery off-camber section. It got rid of the accumulated mud reasonably fast, so all in all, it was a big surprise and in a good way.

Speaking of which, that Hillingdon race was a good occasion to test the bike as a ‘cross bike: it was probably as muddy as it gets. It had rained a lot before the race but it wasn’t raining during the race, therefore the mud just got thicker and thicker, making it harder to pedal by the minute. And how was the bike behaving? My first surprise came when I realized that I could actually stop the bike – it was so muddy, that if it hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t have held that against it, but it did an amazing job and allowed me to slow down where it was necessary.

The next surprise came roughly half-way through the race, when I looked down at the drivetrain. I didn’t see the chain or the crankset or the casette. Instead, there was a massive blob of mud. Yet it still worked, almost impeccably. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was giving horrible creaking noises and I felt all sorts of weird things while pedalling (I was worried a bit that something might have been damaged already), but it was just the gunk – after giving the bike a thorough clean, it worked again perfectly. Thank god for those hidden cables.

My only problem with the bike during the race was the clearance of near the bottom bracket: it accumulated a lot of muddy grass and at one point I had to stop to remove some of it, but then again, the circumstances were harsher than usually.

My only other grief would be the saddle. It is excellent for racing, but if you want to use the bike for commuting, thus without padded bibs, I’d recommend you to buy a more comfortable saddle as the one it comes equipped with feels everything but comfortable.

After riding the bike for almost a month now, I still couldn’t really find any other flaws on the bike. Quite the contrary, I keep finding something that makes me like it more and more. It’s the perfect bike for the beginner ‘cross racer and/or for commuting, it’s reasonably light and has decent componentry. At this price point, I think it’s one of the best choices, though, for a commuter bike, the bike’s appearance might be a wee bit too flashy. On the other hand, for £999 you get a great bike and the frame definitely one where upgrading to better components and/or wheels is a sensible option and not false economy.

And now I’m off the pretend I’m Sven Nys.

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