Judging the bicycle type categories of cyclocross, track, etc., comes with a subjectivity with which I’m not entirely at peace. Of course, one alternative is to adopt a points system that gives merit to 200 little details. I find such a system, as ice skating uses, to be vaguely detestable. To me, it counts the trees without recognizing the forest.
So what is it we’re looking for when we judge a category like best cyclocross or best gravel? The number one thing we want to see is originality. However, that comes with a caveat. We don’t want some nutball creation with a 700C front wheel and a 24-inch rear wheel. That would be original, but not terribly useful. So, user friendliness is important. It needs to make sense to someone doing that kind of riding or racing. And while having a cool finish is terrific, and we want to see a great finish, winning isn’t a matter of a cool paint job—that’s the realm of the People’s Choice Award, which invariably goes to a bike that looks like a million bucks.
It helps if in the builder info sheet the builder bothers to tells us something about the bike’s intended use and how the builder made special accommodations to that rider’s needs—a third set of bottle bosses because he rides dirt roads that are four hours from home with no water available, or clearance for 45mm tires because of all the sharp rock where the rider rides, or maybe, as Aaron Stinner did a couple of years ago, an STI-operated dropper post on a monster cross bike because of all the singletrack the owner rides. That speaks to the intent of a custom bike: just what the owner wants and needs. Unique, and yet practical. That’s the path straight to our hearts.
Our finalists for best ‘cross bike all shared one detail that sometimes gets overlooked: tire clearance. We’ve been surprised over the years at how many entries have mere millimeters of tire clearance, resulting in a rear triangle destined to gather mud like so many acorns in a chipmunk’s cheeks. The Appleman entry was notable because it not only had plenty of clearance for the UCI-legal tires, the bike wasn’t German-magazine stiff. One thing I don’t want to see is a bike with the flex of a cinderblock. ‘Cross courses can be brutally bumpy.
We loved the integrated bar and stem and the fact that it was a disc-brake bike, builder Matt Appleman left the brake bridge out which does two things: First, it makes the rear triangle just a bit more forgiving and second, it eliminates one more spot on the bike to collect mud. It’s thinking like that that we like to see.
The workmanship was impeccable. I do hope the Appleman name becomes better known coming out of this year’s show. I’ve been watching this guy and his drive to make a quality bike is evident.
The T•Red bike was made from titanium and that appealed to me because I think ti is the ideal material for cyclocross. ‘Cross bikes take a beating and having a pretty finish on a bike that might get kicked or scuffed makes me wince. Also, titanium is virtually indestructible. Virtually. And unless you go with really oversize tubes, the ti tends to possess more flex, which will help ease the worst bumps.
The quality of the welds on the T•Red were impressive. How this outfit can produce quality bikes from every material out there mystifies me. I mean, I can only conjugate verbs with any skill in a single language. So while the fact that they build in other materials didn’t make this bike any better, the fact that they are bicycle polymaths is significant to me because a client can tell them what sort of bike they want and this outfit has the ability to choose from any material for the specific application of that bike. That’s pretty cool.
However, our winner came from the Russians at Triton. Their entry was a convertible ‘cross bike made from titanium, because they are Russian and Russia has titanium the way the U.S. has Starbucks. The bike was convertible in that it could be switched from geared to singlespeed and back by just swapping out the cassette, adding a derailleur and swapping between two different chains.
Why was it that easy? Because they went with SRAM Red eTap. Flippin’ genius, that was. We had a convertible ‘cross entry a few years back and it had a really inventive way to deal with the rear derailleur cable, but going with Red eTap was ideal.
As we tend toward polite discourse here, I can’t reveal what the decal on the top tube says, but it’s fair to characterize it as an encouragement for a feline to pedal with a bit more verve. The AK-47 decal on the back of the seat tube was a cool idea because they are Russian and it’s a ‘cross bike. I mean, what else are you going to put back there.
That this bike embraces a sense of humor and the heckling that is inherent to cyclocross is honestly a small part of why this bike won. It is, shall we say, category appropriate. Tire clearance was great, terrific welding, the geometry intelligent, yadda, yadda. Sometimes it’s the little things that will put a bike over the top.