Part of that depends on your riding conditions. Here in Ohio, most of the races were dry, or wet grass but the dirt would be tacky. Only the very last race of the year did we accumulate any mud (and on that day, any mud accumulation would freeze to your frame!). I had no issue with my bike (Fuji Cross Pro) nor my son's (Mongoose Croix Comp with a MTB rear cassette and long cage rear derailler). Yes a single speed would be the easiest and hardiest, but to answer your question: Are you handy with a wrench? If so, why not build up a single speed? Do you revel in being ultra-cheap or have a bazillion parts on hand? If not, there are lots of good single-speed bikes like the felt or the All-City or...
Ahh, I see. I just wanted to see where you were coming from.
Singlespeed is simple and there is less to go wrong. But I think it's almost too simple some times and doesn't work as well for 'cross as it does for MTB. But for a first bike it will be really cheap which might matter.
I know they are falling out of fashion but I am a big fan of 1x9 (or 10) bikes. Single ring up front, gears in the back. It will always work and is pretty simple.
Reliability in 'cross is primarily about having good technique and keeping a close eye on your equipment and replacing it as necessary.
How has the 1x9 worked for you? and have you noticed any drawbacks? compelling in that I could use my road bike wheels (they are stock on a Cannondale CX bike anyway). What setup are you running for the single ring up front? meaning chain watcher, etc..
CX mag has a really good run down of double vs single ring.
I love the 1x9 (now 10 for me). Simple, easy, light. In racing I've not really had any drawbacks. For general riding it can be a pain not having a low or high enough gear.
I have a 42t up front and a 12x25 or 27 in the back. On one bike I'm running an N Gear Jump Stop and outer ring. On the other bike I have an outer ring and a K Edge stopper on the inside. They seem equally good but then I've never bounced the chain off on either set up (chain tension matters kids)
Before that I ran a locked out front der only. It worked for me but was very sensitive to poor technique.
I've been riding a single ring setup for the past 5 years, 9 spd in the back. I use a Paul chain keeper in the front and a bar end shifter for the rear. Keep your chain clean and lubed, and check your tires, spokes and bolt torques before every race. If your using tubulars, use the Belgian tape and glue 'em on good.
I've not had a mechanical in over 5 years of racing 15+ events per year. I'm no lightweight either at 185 lbs. Usually when I see guys breakdown during a race its one of the following:
Occasionally you will see guys lose a cleat. Make sure to check the torque on you cleats while you are going over the bike.
The previous posts have expertly addressed the mechanical topics, but I caught something in your note that you may want to factor into your choice. You mention that you're on a road team and plan on racing (I'm assuming) a full road schedule. If so, how seriously do you plan to approach 'cross? In most areas of the country (my locale of Kansas City included) the folks that are getting results during cross season are making that priority number one. While they race other disciplines, the energy goes into cross. If that's the case, gears are a must. But if you're looking at cross as a way to sharpen some skills and have fun, then single is the king as far as reliability goes. You won't get the results, and will suffer on really heavy days, but the ability to hose-lube-n-go is really nice.
This depends, too - does your local CX series have a Single speed class? Quite a few guys in our races will do C or B races with their geared rigs, and then go back and race the single speed race as well. In fact, I'm toying with the idea for next year.
This is not to say you should race both groups. Instead, if your serious, and serious about single speed, you can do it.
Thanks J.D. How prevalent and serious do you think the single speed races have become? I have the latest issue of CX Magazine in which Barry Wicks responds why he opted out of the SingleSpeed worlds -- I had a really good time. But those guys are starting to take it serious, and I don't want to upset anyone by going over there and not taking it seriously..