This might be regarded as something of an eccentric bicycle review… The usual routine for reviewing a road racing bike is to set that review within the context of how the bike might perform in a race. Same for a mountain bike; you’d expect to read a review that discussed how the machine performs off-road. I have a quandary, though, underpinning my attempt to review the Pinarello Cross CX carbon cyclocross racing bike. Based as I am in Australia, we have no cyclocross racing scene to paint some kind of sensible context. There are hardly any cyclocross bikes in the country either. As far as I understand things, mine is the only Pinarello cyclocross bike ever imported to Australia. The distributor only brought the machine in as a curiosity to stick in the shop window. Until I got the urge to make it mine.
Where I live, I sit on the very place where the local tarred roads turn to dirt. In one direction, I can head off on my road bikes to hammer in the hills. In the other direction, is a never ending network of dirt roads connecting to seriously remote places usually visited only by sheep. While there is no greater thing than flying along the tar on lightweight carbon road bikes, the lure of remote car free places is too hard to resist. Which is why I previously invested in a lightweight cross country racing mountain bike (a Gary Fisher Procaliber). But dragging all that heavy fully suspended gear over relatively smooth dirt roads is serious overkill. And trying to ride a road bike on rough dirt roads never works for long. Narrow skinny high pressure tyres dodging stones and chipping expensive high mod carbon is no fun at all. I’m just not going to stick heavy hard case tyres on my Fulcrum Racing Light rims! Before my Fisher Procaliber I had a hard tail mountain bike. That was even worse. Riding one of those was like riding a pig with broken legs. The Fisher is OK as you can lock the suspension out. But still, the thing still weighs 11.5kg (while my Pinarello Prince is only 6.9).
So, you see, I’ve been in a long term search for the missing link; something between a cross country mountain bike and a road racing machine. And no, I am not about to try riding a hybrid tourer any time soon! My wish list was for a carbon frame, a total weight of no more than 8kg, proper drop bars, road bike gears and knobby tyres. In the wider world, there is just such a thing: the cyclocross racing bike. I’ve known about these machines for years, of course. No serious cyclist could be unaware of this fascinating European off-season winter roady mudrunning short circuit, hurdle jumping cross-over sport. The trouble is, cyclocross has never taken hold in Australia. Here, there’s no such thing. But when you think about it, with our rural roads and our endless bush tracks and trails, cyclocross is a natural fit if you can consider taking such a machine off the racing circuit and use it, like me, on dirt roads and tracks instead.
With absolutely no advice at hand, or experience to tap, I took the leap and ordered my Pinarello CX just in time for a week in the forest.
If you have never experienced a cyclocross bike before, you’re going to be in for something of a shock. They really are an equal distance of difference from either a road or mountain bike. Like both but unlike either. I can describe the sensations of my first ride from either the perspective of a road or a mountain biker. The picture will be different from each setting.
From the perspective of a road cyclist, the cyclocross bike is high off the ground! It’s like riding a giraffe. And the steering is a bit weird. This thing corners and handles differently from anything I have ever ridden before. It dives down hills off the rails that seem to guide the wheels of a slippery sleek road machine. It’s a bit frantic. And then there’s the brakes… The immediate sensation is that there are none. On top of that, the ride is something of a wallow. Gone is the ultra precision of a stiff, power driving road racing machine. Instead you get the feeling of riding on punctured tyres. There’s a huge gap between the feel of 22mm tyres pumped to 120psi and 35mm knobbies floating around at 65psi.
But those sensations of strangeness disappear after only a few km. The next round of sensations to a roadie would be a sense of amazing agility. The thing bounces off road ruts, stones and holes that would cause a road bike to crash. The steering that seemed so strange at first comes home in the ruts. This thing is so secure when things turn rough. But with all that, we roadies will still feel at home with our usual drop bars and capacity to power on the pedals up hills. You can’t do that on a mountain bike. All that suspension and way fatter tyres eat all your power.
From the perspective of a mountain biker, and of a rider used to a relatively light weight cross country world cup racing machine, the first sensations of riding a ‘cross bike are of rigidity and speed. Even my Fisher Procaliber with suspension locked out is a whale floundering in the shallows compared with this. The first thing a mountain biker will learn is that bigger bumps mean riding off the saddle. But then again, you can ride off the saddle on one of these machines. That’s the great thing about drop bars and a rigid frame. There is now a point to standing on the pedals; you get the power that fatter tyres loose. And from the perspective of a mountain biker, the cyclocross bike is ever so light! It’s like riding a feather. And as I said, it’s way way fast. Faster than any mountain bike could ever be, at least on dirt roads and well formed trails (riding on trackless ground is an entirely different story and for that I will keep my Procaliber).
With those immediate responses to hand, I’d like to close in on the actual machine.
The Pinarello CX Carbon is Pinarello’s top end cyclocross racing bike. Pinarello has been in this game for years; its aluminimum CX is something of a mainstay on the ‘cross tracks of Europe. The carbon CX was released in early 2008. I got mine in February. Appearance wise, the CX is an obvious relative of Pinarello’s Caisse d’Epargne decked road machines. The frame is built from high modulus 30HM12K carbon (able to resist 30tonnes/cm of force and 12 carbon surface wraps) which implies a carbon with lower strength than either the Pinarello Paris (46HM3K – able to resist 46tonnes/cm of force and 3 carbon surface wraps) or the Prince (50HM1K – able to resist 50tonnes/cm of force and 1 carbon surface wrap). The CX has lots of surface wraps to strengthen and adorn its tubes. But it’s still a high modulus carbon frame that’s light and strong. And very attractive too.
Standard equipment on mine (there are two basic configurations, one with Shimano and the other with mid range Campagnolo gear) is the new Shimano Ultegra SL (lovely deep blue) levers and rear derailleur. The front derailleur is the XT from Shimano’s mountain bike range (necessary to cover the wide spread of gears). The crank is a FSA Team Issue with 46/34 rings. Yes, that’s right. 46 for the big cog and 36 for the small. That’s kind of standard for cyclocross! The rear Ultregra cluster is an 11-27 ten speed block. Pinarello have also equipped my machine with a MOST branded (FSA) aluminium bar and stem combination that is decorated with carbon. Too heavy I think; I have some new carbon parts on order to lighten the weight. The seat post is also a MOST aluminium carbon decorated affair. Probably necessary given the strong potential for a carbon post to break with the pounding that rough roads provide. The standard wheels are a curiosity I think. They are MOST CHALL deep dish aluminium rims. I don’t like these at all. They are unnecessarily heavy, crude and, basically dumb. Dumb because they catch all side winds like sails and require inner tubes with extra long stems; which, as I have found, are completely unavailable in Australia. The inner tubes are a source of pain. They are heavy 35-50mm long stem anchors in a place where weight really should be shed. As I simply cannot find long stem tubes of this width, I have upgraded my CX to Dura Ace Rims and more readily available short valve stem tubes. These Dura Ace rims are much lighter too. The standard tyres are Maxis Raze 35mm knobbies. And very good tyres these are too! Lots of grip and just the right width.
Actually, the tyres on a cyclocross bike are probably its most obvious and interesting feature. They are the thing everyone notices first. Way too skinny for a mountain biker and way too fat for a roadie. These 35mm tyres are certainly unique. I have to admit that riders of those dreadful clunky fat wallowing hybrid bikes will be right at home with tyres like these (or at least with vastly cheaper, nastier versions of roughly the same size). But these Maxis tyres are for serious racing business, at least for the more ‘off road’ inclined circuits. 35mm is the maximum width that the UCI allows in pro racing meetings. 32mm is probably more common. But I like these 35mm tyres for the use I have at hand. They are terrific in sand, mud and on grass. They are fine on a smooth dirt road as well.
And then there are the brakes… Cyclocross bikes all use cantilevers. Those strange wide jawed contraptions that hang way out from the frame. This is all necessary to accommodate the fat tyres and all the mud a ‘cross bike will inevitably attract. But they don’t stop like real road bike brakes, and certainly not like the stunning disc brake stoppers on my Fisher cross country machine. Cantilevers are a nasty el cheapo blight on any bike, and they certainly are here. The pads grab on the rims so much that you nearly loose control. And when they are not grabbing, their stopping power is only slightly better than putting your feet on the ground. But, sad to say, you do get used to them, in time. You come to know what to expect and I guess you could say that they train you to give braking more respect than we might derive when we are too used to the luxuries of Campagnolo Record or Dura Ace road calipers. The problem, I understand, is that the UCI forbids disc brakes on cyclocross bikes so that’s why we are stuck with these dismal affairs. Pinarello does not provide mounting points for disc brakes, I am sad to say; or I’d have upgraded to discs long before now.
I’ve had five months to firm up my impressions of the Pinarello CX carbon. Let me sum up this way. In those months, my CX has become my main bike… I use it more than my Pinarello Prince or my Pinarello Paris; and my Gary Fisher Procaliber cross country bike is collecting dust. I love my CX with a passion; it’s filled the gap I’ve always suffered here in my home ground of endless rural dirt roads. Now I can head off and explore places once only accessible to nasty noisy motorised trail bikes; or through suffering the weight of a fat flabby mountain bike. I am riding roads and tracks I haven’t visited for years. Places where cars are seen at the rate of one per day. Or less. Wonderful endless rides through forests, rural landscapes and into national parks. This is the bike to satisfy my urges to explore. I’ve put 5,000 km on its clock. And it is holding up well. This is one robust, long term, reliable bicycle to own. I’ve had it on the tar and across untracked places that I once thought were reserved only for mountain bikes. It takes all these places in its stride. Slightly less comfortable in the rough than a mountain bike, but way faster and more capable. Slightly less fast and precise on the tar, but capable there too. There’s no place this thing can’t go; and if there is, and here’s the thing, you simply dismount and shoulder your mount and take the really seriously rough stuff on foot. Just like they do in cyclocross races. I’d hate to have to shoulder a mountain bike. Way too heavy and cumbersome to carry.
I guess if the dismal circumstance of choice forced me to choose just one bike to own; I’d choose my Pinarello CX Carbon. It’s the bike I can take absolutely everywhere. Versatility re-defined. And, I’ve left the really really good bit to last. The Pinarello CX carbon sells for only AUD$5,000. Kind of less than the $17,000 you will need for the Pinarello Prince or $7,000 for the Fisher Procaliber. Now that seals the deal as far as I am concerned. This is the bike for a lifecycling crank like me. A bike for life and a life of a bike. A total unmitigated winner of a machine. Get yours now!
Two weeks after completing this review, I have had the chance to reflect on my Pinarello CX wheel upgrade from the standard MOST Chall’s to Dura Ace scandium tubless rims. I am amazed by the transformation! The Dura Ace wheelset is around 400g lighter but the biggest difference is the ride quality upgrade. I had no idea that the Chall’s gave such a rough ride until I tried these Dura Ace wheels. The shift has been like adding suspension. And by way of what might play as a major bonus, when, eventually, someone finally starts to make tubeless cyclocross tyres, these Dura Ace wheels are ready. This is one application of the new tubeless technology that I am sure will work well.
My other upgrade was from the standard MOST bar and stem combination to FSA’s amazing integrated Plasma set. The Plasma is FSA’s top-end integrated bar (the stem and bars are one unit). It’s around 350g and has lovely flats for riding comfortably on the tops and a nice ergonomic curve for riding in the drops. These bars suite me perfectly; plus they look amazing on the CX sharing, as they do, exactly the same paint scheme! So, in short, this $2000 total upgrade is worth every penny. The true potential of this remarkable bike is now all the more apparent.
Finally, following feedback from the original review on my issues with the CX’s cantilever brakes, I did some tweaking of toe-in, toe-out on some new multi compound brake pads. The result is no more brake grab and smoother breaking. I would observe, though, that cantilever brakes are very sensitive to fine adjustments and there are lots of bits to adjust. Very finicky!