TESTED: Specialized Tricross
We know what you're thinking - this isn't a mountain bike. So what's it doing here? Specialized describe the Tricross as a "Freeroad" bike. It's designed to do a whole bunch of stuff: "From paved road, to dirt road, to no road at all, the wide array of settings allows a wide array of rider motivations: urban/transportation, adventure riding/touring, and even cyclo-cross racing." Mention of dirt roads, no roads and 'cross racing makes this enough of an off-road bike for us. But can it really hack it in the dirt?
Carbon seatpost "not designed for off-road use"
44cm drops carry Sora STI and extra flat-bar levers
Cranks spin on reliable square-taper bottom bracket
Carbon fork features vibration-damping inserts
Over the last few years Specialized has been working hard to bring some distinctive styling to its road (and road-style) bikes, and the Freecross continues the trend. Nearly every tube is manipulated or shaped in some way - you get the feeling that the designers only grudgingly left the seat tube alone because you have to put a seat post in it.
It's made of double-butted "A1" aluminium in a "semi-compact" shape. For those not familiar with the way of road bikes, traditional road bikes have a completely level top tube. Compact ones have a very low sloping top tube. Semi-compact ones fit somewhere in the middle. The Tricross's frame may feel tall to those used to low-slung mountain bikes, but it's pretty low by road bike standards.
Up front there's a flared headtube that takes an integrated headset. Attached to the back of that are the top and down tubes. The down tube features various changes in cross-section and a gentle curve on its way to the bottom bracket, while the top tube has a shoulder-friendly flattened section in the middle for those 'cross races.
At the back, the stays are fairly conventional, while the dropouts feature cunningly-concealed rack eyes. You also get low-rider rack mounts on the FACT carbon fibre fork. It's described as a cyclocross fork, which means that it's got plenty of room for tyres and mud, cantilever bosses and "Speed Zertz" vibration-damping inserts. These cunning gizmos are found on lots of Specialized road bikes. The rubbery inserts are claimed to absorb up to 85% of road vibration before it reaches the handlebars, reducing rider fatigue. It's a similar idea to the inserts found in squash rackets and so on.
The whole thing's held together with really smart double-pass welds, lending a kind of old-school fillet-brazed look to all the joints. You can't help but be impressed by the amount of work that's gone into the frame of what is, after all, not a crazily expensive bike.
At first glance the Tricross's component spec is pure cyclo-cross. 34/48 double chainset (running on a trusty Shimano square-taper bottom bracket), 12-25 cassette, 44cm drop bars, Shimano Sora STI levers, Tektro cantilever brakes, extra "sissy levers" so you can brake from the flats, all that stuff.
We wouldn't recommend that you try a 'cross race on it out of the box, though. There are two main reasons. First, the Specialized Borough tyres supplied are perfectly adequate for roads, lanes, even towpaths or hard-packed dirt. But your typical 'cross race involves grass and mud, and the Boroughs don't really have anything that you'd call a tread. We fitted some Maxxis CX knobblies for the dirt.
Second, there's a big disclaimer in the instruction manual about the carbon fibre seatpost, which "is not designed for off-road use". We're told that that's largely to dissuade people from doing jumps or drops on it, but it's not a confidence-booster. That said, we used it off-road lots and the bike even left the ground a few times. If it was our bike we'd probably change it for something else, though. Better safe than sorry, and all that.
The whole thing comes in at 10.9kg (24lb) - pretty hefty for a road bike, pretty light for an off-road bike.
Seeing as this bike's meant to do just about anything, we tried lots of different things on it. The first thing it proved rather suitable for was road riding. Not all that surprising, but it felt a lot more at home on the sorts of roads around BM HQ than posher, racier road bikes. There's something about roads surfaced with a combination of broken Tarmac, grit, grass and cow dung that's a little off-putting on something svelte, shiny and Italian shod with 20mm tyres. The Tricross just feels solid and confident, with the added bonus that it's already black so it doesn't matter that it'll come back black.
It's not as sprightly as a pure road bike, though, largely on account of the weight and chunky tyres. Your speed is also somewhat limited by the gearing - a 48/12 top end isn't much of a gear on the road. If you just want to ride and you're not in any particular hurry, then it's fine. And it's nice to know that you can amble off down a farm track or towpath without too much difficulty.
The riding position and solid feel make the Tricross fairly adept at fast commuting or lightweight touring, too, applications for which the rack eyes will prove useful. You get two sets of bottle bosses too, something that pure CX frames often do without.
As for off-road, it's a hoot. If you want to seriously race cyclo-cross then you'll probably want something a bit lighter, a bit shorter at the back and possibly fractionally less steep at the front, but for recreational trail riding it's surprisingly capable - if you're feeling sufficiently in the groove it'll keep up with pretty much anything else on even quite nadgery singletrack. Obviously the cantilever brakes and skinny tyres mean that you'll have to rethink your braking distances a bit if you're used to 180mm hydraulic discs and 2.35in tyres, but it's a lot less of a handful than you'd think. It's quite a confidence-booster in a strange sort of way - if you can ride a trail on a bike like this then you should have no problem at all on a mountain bike.
The gearing that feels a bit low on the road feels a bit tall off it, with the 34/25 bottom gear being some way shy of the sorts of wall-climbing ratios that you'll probably be used to. But to be honest there's not really the grip to make the most of really low gears. You can muscle it up most things with the aid of the powerful on-the-hoods hand position. And if you get it on a medium grade fire-road climb you'll be doing a lot of thumb-twiddling at the top while you wait for the MTBs to catch up...