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You’re reeling, confounded, and exasperated by five years of rapid-fire, near-constant technical innovation in cyclocross equipment.
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Cyclocross used to be the awkward, dirty child of the cycling family, built from parts and components cobbled together from other disciplines with very few dedicated equipment solutions. Today, ‘cross has become the proving grounds for new technologies, a torture-test that confirms the potential of a concept.
The avalanche started with disc brakes in ‘cross — an obvious stepping stone to road discs. Around the same time came electronic shifting, then 11-speed, hydraulic brakes, 11-speed electronic shifting with hydraulic disc brakes and now, as if that’s not enough to make your head spin, thru-axles.
Thru-axles have clear advantages to quick-release systems, especially in ‘cross, and if blazing-fast wheel changes are not part of the equation (as they are on the road), thru-axles make a lot of sense.
Since the disc brake revolution, I have built up a decent quiver of disc brake wheels, all different brands and types, and my first thought when preparing to switch to thru-axle frames (and to some extent 11-speed drivetrains) was how many of my existing wheelsets could be upgraded to 11-speed and/or thru axle. Looking forward, I wanted to know which new offerings were future-proof and what would be useable for at least a few years. I assumed everyone had thought of this, since most disc brake hubs for CX are really repurposed MTB hubs and any self-respecting hub designer should have seen this coming. I mean, how hard could it be to make a hub that can be swapped out from quick release to thru-axle, right?
Harder than you might think. Amazingly, rear hubs are typically easier to set up for conversion than front hubs due to the 12mm axle standard. A front hub that can accept a 15mm thru-axle needs a bigger (at least 17mm inner diameter) bearing so the bearing race width needs to decrease, which sacrifices reliability, or the outer diameter of the bearing needs to increase, which adds weight and typically requires a full hub shell redesign. Some manufacturers thought of this and incorporated it into their designs years ago, and some didn’t.
I did a little bit (OK, a lot) of research and came up with a pretty good outline of who did what and when.
DT Swiss: Any DT Swiss disc brake-compatible rear hub can be converted to 11-speed and 142×12 thru-axle with a simple kit. It’s amazingly easy to do, no tools required. Detail-oriented mechanics will re-dish by 0.5mm, but that’s small enough for most riders to simply ignore.
DT does not make a conversion kit for the standard, quick-release-compatible 240s front hub with the 15mm inner diameter (ID) x 28mm outer diameter (OD) bearing, citing a larger ID and a less reliable bearing. But there is a way: Western Mountainsports in Canada makes a conversion kit. It requires new bearings to be installed, but works well.
DT does make 15mm and 20mm front hubs. Those can be converted to quick release with the use of additional end caps.
Moving forward (model year 2015 and beyond) all DT disc brake hubs will be thru-axle compatible.
Grade: A-, all good except for that quick-release 240 front hub.
Kappius: This small brand has done it right. The KH-1.5 and KH-2 hubs are 11-speed and thru-axle compatible and have been from the beginning, which wasn’t that long ago. Again it’s a super-simple end cap swap.
Hed: Info is a bit foggy on backwards compatibility. Switching to 11-speed should be possible on most older Hed hubs, but thru-axle is not.
11-speed freehub bodies are available for older centerlock disc hubs and some rear thru-axle options are available, but the wheel will need to be re-dished about 2mm. All Hed disc hubs moving forward will be 11-speed and thru-axle compatible.
Grade: B, poor thru-axle backwards compatibility, but good looking forward.
Easton: OK, these guys nailed it. Any 2014 or newer disc brake wheelset comes stock as 11-speed and can be easily converted to thru-axle.
Looking backwards, any M1 series hub can be converted to 11-speed and thru axle with no re-dishing required. So too can some of the EA70-level wheels back to about 2011, but for your specific wheelset, it is best to check out compatibility online at Easton’s extras page.
Grade: A+, it clearly saw both thru-axles and 11-speed coming.
Chris King: King’s flagship disc brake road hub, the R45, is 11-speed compatible but sadly both front and rear are not convertible to thru-axle.
Grade: C, no thru-axles here. Look to King’s mountain hubs, which will be 11-speed compatible soon.
Rolf Prima: All disc-compatible hubs, even the older ones, are QR and thru-axle compatible, and most 10-speed hubs can be retrofitted to 11-speed by changing free hub bodies, though a slight re-dish is required on some of the model years.
Grade: A, backwards and forwards compatibility for both 11-speed and axle type.
Mavic: Just released at Interbike, Mavic’s new Ksyrium SL disc wheels come with quick release and thru-axle hardware for the front wheel but the back wheel is QR only. The good news is that the rear is 11-speed — at least Mavic is halfway there.
Grade: B+, it needs a thru-axle rear wheel.
Zipp: Any rear hub sold on a Zipp wheel today is 11-speed out of the box, but the 88/188 front and rear hubs can not be converted to thru-axle. They can be converted to 11-speed, but the wheel must be shipped to Zipp.
Grade: B-, good 11-speed backwards compatibility, new rear wheel not convertible to thru-axle.
Stans: All of Stan’s new road disc wheels with 3.30RD or 3.30RD Ti hubs are 11-speed and the switch to thru-axle requires a new axle and end caps. Older 3.30 front hubs are all able to go 15mm thru with simple end caps. Rear 3.30 hubs are limited to 10-speed but can be converted to thru-axle.
Grade: A-, good thru-axle compatibility, no way to convert old hubs to 11-speed.
The fork question: Here’s where you can make a significant upgrade without buying all new equipment. Once you round up some thru-axle bits for your wheels, a fork like the Whisky 9 ’cross can be added to any existing disc brake bike with tapered headset and will noticeably stiffen up the front end, where it matters most. The Whisky 9 is light, stiff and one of the best one-hit upgrades available.
The hope is that purchasing a suite of new wheels can be avoided, and at least some current equipment can be brought up to date. The good news here is that as far as wheels are concerned we should have a few years of relative calm in terms of technical innovation — whatever works now (11-speed and thru-axle compatible) will work for a while. So get out your wheels, get on Google and find out if your gear is future-proof.