I rode the sample XLS last season and found it superb for flat-out racing - click here for my initial review. This year's builds are Ultegra based with some dedicated Shimano 'cross equipment in the form of top-pull front mechs and 'cross specific chainsets.
The frame at the heart of my XLS is a full carbon monocoque, hand-laid up to optimise strength and stiffness in the areas that count. It has a tapered headtube, wider at the bottom than the top, that makes a big difference to the handling in bumpy or technical sections, allowing you to ‘point and steer’ much more than with a conventional ‘straight’ headtubed bike, which can allow you to be knocked off line more easily.
The bottom bracket area is beefed up with extra carbon and also in size, and you can really feel this stiffness when putting pressure on the pedals and in technical riding. Whilst coloured paint finishes look great, the glossy black 12k weave finish on the XLS helps hide the inevitable scratches and scrapes that a season of muddy cross races brings. One of my favourite aspects to the XLS frame is its top tube. Flat on the top and bottom, it makes for really easy grabbing and very comfortable shouldering during the running sections of a race. Additionally, the cables are internally routed through the top tube – less maintenance as they are protected better from water and grit and contribute to less scratching of the frame in that area.
As with many new generation ‘cross frames, the XLS has disc mounts to allow full disc braking throughout. The debate on whether discs are better than cantilever brakes for ‘cross still rages. Certainly they are more powerful, but do you need the power? Some say yes, some no, citing a little extra weight for disc systems as a negative. For me the debate is less about the braking power, weight, or feel, but about two main advantages over cantis. Disc brakes mean no rim braking, and in ‘cross where rim and brakepad are covered in a fine coating of grit or mud on a constant basis, this means no rim wear. Which means your nice (expensive) wheels don’t get trashed every time there is a muddy race and don’t need replacing so frequently – a big advantage to the cost conscious ‘crosser. Furthermore, discs give clean lines around the fork and seatstays where on other traditional bikes, the cantilevers are sited that cause a big build up of mud and vegetation. In certain conditions, I have ridden disc bikes that kept working for longer than their cantilever rivals due to the reduction in build up of clag in those places. For someone with one bike only, or a lack of willing pit crew, a disc bike can be crucial in getting to the end of the race without grinding to a muddy halt. Whilst there are newer and pricier part- or full-hydraulic systems on the market, the mechanical Avid BB7 brakes make for super easy maintenance, predictable modulation and if used with harder sintered pads, great wear even in the worst of conditions. For 1 hour ‘crosses, I personally don’t feel the need for anything more complicated.
With crisp white graphics against the laquered carbon weave of the tubing, my 'crossjunkie' edition bikes should look fairly smart. For a lap or two, at least.