does it need to be a complete bike? or do you have some parts and can build yourself?
For that price range, there isn't much. The Redline Conquest is a fine entry level bike (see our issue 2 review) and one of the Motobecane Fantom models come to mind. Schwinn has a bike for a few hundred more (issue 3). Also take a look at the Kona Jake. How much racing do you plan to do?
of course it all starts with fit and riding style. go by top tube length to find something that fits your body well (assuming you'll have some standover). parts are pretty comparable nowadays for most bike ranges - customer direct can be cheaper but you won't get to try it first, and you won't get the service. if you're self sufficient that might not matter much.
good luck! also see our recent story on our site about chris cowan's first bike build.
Mike - I'm taking the plunge and ordering the x560 this weekend. Will tell you more once I have it in hand. For the components and other benefits, for me it's a better buy than the kona jake, fuji cross comp and others. Plus, ordering it through my local performance store will allow me a lifetime of free tune-ups.
also, my road bike is the road version of this bike. And, it's been very good to me for 3+ years.
Fuji cross comp and cross pro can be had at performance stores for a sweet price. aesthetically, it's a little lame but it's a solid choice for a first cross bike. Also check out the motobecane fantom from bikesdirect. I just bought the Scattante X 560 as well and can't wait to pick it up. Oh yeah, redline conquest seems a good choice too. Go read the cyclocross category at http://www.bikeforums.net/forumdisplay.php?f=23
I checked one of the FUJI's out this weekend. Mostly Ultegra stuff, FSA cranks, greta price just under $1200. The weight is of, but then I tried to shoulder it. I'm not tall (5'7") and ride a Tricross comp 52, which is a compact frame. I repeatedly banged my elbow and couldn't reach under the downtube to grab the bars. It was surprisingly awkward. I would imagine that anyone taller would have similar issues.