Thursday 21 December 2023

The Drop Bar MTB - Is it faster for Cyclocross?

In my previous blog post, I described the drop bar conversion that I did for my hardtail MTB.  I did that conversion in an attempt to create a bike that's as fast as possible for 'light' off-road duties - faster than a hardtail MTB and faster than a traditional gravel or cyclocross bike.

Based on the testing that I've done in recent years, this drop bar MTB bike should be faster on a grass surface like a cyclocross (CX) course than my CX bikesomewhat counter-intuitively.

During the latest 2023 CX season I therefore decided to use my drop bar MTB for any CX races that were dry enough to be suitable for the semi-slick Schwalbe Thunder Burt tyres.  For the muddy races, I used my CX bike with mud tyres, knowing that the grip from the Thunder Burt tyres would be terrible in mud.  It's worth mentioning that my local Cyclocross League doesn't apply the UCI rule of 33mm maximum tyre width, and doesn't have other bike restrictions, so anything is allowed.  MTBs are often used by people that don't have CX bikes.  Given the lack of restrictions around bikes, my general approach is to use the fastest bike possible, rather than sticking with tradition.

The question is, was the drop bar MTB actually faster or not?

How I judged the bike performance

I did seven CX races this season, from September through to early December.  The last one I did was a regional race, with riders entering from two Leagues (Western League & Wessex League), so that 7th race was much more competitive than the other six races, so my result was worse than the others.

For the first six Western League races, I felt that my fitness was broadly similar, and therefore my results in those six races, and my speed relative to my competitors, would provide a good indication whether or not the drop bar MTB was faster than the CX bike.

It has been a very wet autumn here in the South West of England, so unfortunately there weren't many dry races this year. 
 Of the six races, only two races were dry enough to use the drop bar MTB.  Even for those two, the courses were still muddy in places.  So for two of the races, I used the drop bar MTB, and for the other four races I used my CX bike with 33mm Challenge Handmade Tubeless Ready Clincher mud tyres, with the tyre model choice based on the level of muddiness (either Baby Limus or Limus).

I analysed my performance relative to my competitors in two ways:

1) What my finishing position was relative to the size of the field, calculated as a percentile.  For example, if I finished 20th out of a field of 50 people starting the race, that's a 40th percentile finishing position.

2) Secondly, what my finishing time was relative to the winner.  For example, if the winner finished in 1 hour and I finished in 1 hr 6 minutes, my 6 additional minutes make me 10% slower than the winner's time of speed.

Of these two methods, I think the first one is a slightly more reliable method, because the second method is influenced by a single person; the winner's performance. It therefore depends on whether the fastest rider in the region raced in a particular weekend and how he performed in that race.

It's worth noting that although I changed bike and tyre width for each race depending on the conditions, almost everybody else in the field, especially the top riders, used the same cyclocross bike with 33mm tyres for all their races. 


The plot below shows the results using these two methods.  Regardless of the method, it's clear that I achieved better race results using the drop bar MTB than my CX bike.  Like many things, this is not 100% conclusive, but I still think it's a strong indication that the drop bar bike is faster.

Drop bar MTB versus Cyclocross bike


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