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Gravel vs Cyclocross bikes

Over the past few years, gravel bikes have seen a massive rise in popularity. The appeal of gravel riding is not surprising, giving the exciting riding possibility it opens as an “in between” category that combines elements of other cycling disciplines. 

Cyclocross is an established discipline of bike racing that emerged as a way for elite road racers to train in the winter months.

If you look at typical gravel and cyclocross bikes, they often look extremely similar at first glance!

Most bike manufacturers now have at least one gravel bike, if not multiple models, among their lineups. The same manufacturers will also have the close cousin of the gravel bike represented in another model: the cyclocross bike.

Gravel and cyclocross bikes have many similarities, including their versatility to multiple types of terrain and riding scenarios. Cyclocross bikes can be considered a predecessor to modern gravel bikes, and due to the similarities between gravel and cyclocross bikes, many people think they’re the same thing with different branding or clever marketing. There are, in fact, many key differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes, but some differences are often rather subtle.

In this article we compare gravel and cyclocross bikes to find out the ways in which they’re similar, and where they differ.

Geometry


Frame geometry might be the single most important factor in how bikes that virtually look identical might have vastly different handling characteristics. 

Cyclocross bikes were developed to allow road racers to have a bike to use for winter training. When cyclocross racing became a distinct discipline in sport cycling, modern cyclocross bikes evolved to meet the demands of this kind of bike racing. 

Cyclocross races are short and intense, and often involve riding in sand and mud and hopping over barriers. Cyclocross frame geometry prioritizes sharp handling with short wheelbases, high bottom brackets and aggressive riding positions. 

While there is significant variation in gravel bike geometry – given the vast range of offerings currently on the market – the general trend in gravel bike geometry is to optimize for comfort on long distance rides. Gravel bike wheelbases are longer, bottom brackets are lower and head angles are slacker, which all result in a more stable and comfortable ride. The riding position is also more upright and relaxed compared to cyclocross bikes.

Tire widths


The UCI limits tire width of cyclocross tires to 33. This is only important if you intend to race in UCI-sanctioned cyclocross, and it does not apply to the majority of local grassroots races. Most high-end cyclocross bikes are designed with this regulation in mind and have enough clearance to accommodate this width plus any mid buildup that might happen during the course of a cyclocross race.

Gravel bikes do not have a UCI-specified tire width maximum (although now that the UCI has taken an interest in gravel racing and there are UCI sanctioned gravel races, this may change!). Most gravel bikes come with tire clearance, or even the ability to run both 700c and 650b wheels with various tire widths. Some bikes can accommodate 700cx47C and even larger in 650b wheel size, like 650×2.1. The latter is verging on XC mountain bike tire width territory!

Gearing and drivetrain

Cyclocross started out as road bikes on steroids, and the off-road nature of the sport required lower gearing than traditional road bike gearing. While classic cyclocross gearing is based on subcompact cranksets with 46-36t chainrings, modern cyclocross bikes have moved towards 1x drivetrains with wide ratio cassettes for simplicity and reliability.

Gravel bikes also come in 1x and 2x drivetrain flavors, but often with even wider gear range than cyclocross bikes. Double chainring setups are a bit more versatile for most gravel rides. A typical gravel ride can take you on multiple types of terrain and road grades, and having a double crank makes for a bike with a ‘ready for anything’ attitude.

Frame accessory mounts

 

Many modern gravel bikes come with a plethora of accessory mounts on the frame. Aside from the usual double set of bottle cage bosses inside the main triangle, gravel bikes often come with accessory mounts on the bottom of the downtube, top tube, fork blades and even rack and fender mounts.

Cyclocross racing bikes often prioritize low weight, the ability to easily shoulder the bike using the main triangle and this omit all accessory mounts, but the bottle cage bosses. That said, many mid-range cyclocross bikes are also marketed as commuter bikes, and they do come with additional mounts than what a carbon fiber CX race bike offers. Keep in mind that many frame bag systems do not require mounts at all, as they are affixed to the frame by means of flexible straps. For maximum versatility, though, accessory mounts on gravel bikes are great to have for bike packing and adventure riding.

Can you use a gravel bike to race cyclocross (or a cyclocross bike to ride gravel)?

 

Indeed you can! While we explained the ways in which these categories of bikes differ, both are highly versatile and can be used for various riding scenarios. If you already own a gravel bike and want to do a cyclocross race, your gravel bike will do just fine (unless you intend to race in a UCI regulated race, in which case you will need to check that your bike follows regulations). If you just own one bike and it happens to be a cyclocross bike, there is nothing stopping you from strapping a set of bike packing bags to it and going on some epic exploration rides.