Gravel Bikes vs Cyclocross - What are they for?

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Gravel bikes and Cyclocross bikes are quite hard to distinguish: Both bikes share key design elements, including dropped handlebars, wheel diameter, and knobby tires. Although both Gravel and Cyclocross bikes can be used in similar riding conditions, they are optimized for their specific purpose.

This guide aims to highlight the key differences between these seemingly similar bike types, including frame geometry, wheels, tires, gearing, and weight. Let’s get started with an overview of each type before exploring the differences between them and hopefully find which one is more suitable for you.

Cyclocross Bikes: Unique Dicipline

Cyclocross is a cycling discipline that involves racing on a closed circuit, mostly built on grass, sand, and mud. Like Gravel bikes, Cyclocross bikes (aka CX, Cross bikes) are built to handle a wide variety of terrains. However, Cyclocross bikes are made to go as fast as possible to cross the finish line first.

That’s why comfort is not the primary concern, since fast steering and rigidity are more important when it comes to cyclocross racing. Races usually last between 40 minutes to an hour. Therefore, the focus remains on speed and agility instead of comfort during longer rides. Also, due to racing regulations, tire width is limited to make sure that no rider has an unfair advantage over his competitors. Cyclocross bike manufacturers tend to determine the maximum tire clearance of the frame according to that rule. That's why not all cyclocross bikes can accommodate tires that are wider than 33 mm.

Key Characteristics of Cyclocross Bikes

  • A horizontal top tube that allows the rider to lift the bike on his/her shoulder to clear obstacles on foot (yes, that's a thing)
  • Tire clearance can usually accommodate up to 33mm wide tire (as per UCI regulations)
  • Tall bottom bracket height, the shell sits higher than road bikes to prevent the cranks from hitting obstacles
  • ‘Racier’ geometry: longer top-tube, shorter head-tube, and steeper head/seat tube angles
  • Shorter chainstays and short wheelbase to increase the maneuverability at slow speeds
  • Typically come with a 46/36T chainring combo with an 11-28T cassette or à 1X setup with a 40T chainring with 11-28T cassette.

Who Should Buy a Cyclocross Bike?

In addition to cyclocross racing, cyclocross bikes are also an option worth considering if you are a fun-seeker looking for a versatile bike. These bikes can also help make you become a better cyclist by learning to ride over a variety of surfaces and even single tracks (which are not suitable on road bikes and too easy on mountain bikes). Some older cyclocross bikes can make affordable commuters because of their larger tires and quick handling that are quite useful in a busy city.

Cons of Cyclocross Bikes

Cyclocross bikes are very nimble in a wide variety of terrain, but they still have a narrow purpose. They are not as fast and efficient as road bikes on paved roads and not as comfortable and stable as gravel bikes on gravel/fire roads. They often also lack attachment points for rack and paniers. Comfort over longer rides is not a priority, especially since most of them can't accommodate wider tires. So, if you plan on doing long rides or bike packing with a lot of gear, it might not be the best option for you.

Gravel Bikes: Ready for Adventure

The idea behind the Gravel bikes was to enable road cyclists to go off the beaten path and explore dirt roads with little to no car traffic. Taking key design elements from endurance road bikes, gravel bikes allow cyclists to ride on both tarmac and gravel roads efficiently and comfortably.

Some gravel bikes can also accommodate special bike bags using the front and rear attachment points for racks. This allows cyclists to take their luggage with them on their bike tours. The overall geometry of Gravel bikes is designed to facilitate bike packing and off-roading, enabling cyclists to venture out on multi-day rides with all their gear. Because of this, they are slowly replacing many touring-specific bikes.

Key characteristics of Gravel Bikes

  • Endurance geometry: Shortertop-tube and taller head-tube for a comfortable, upright position
  • Increased stability at speed: Slacker head tube angles, and longer wheelbase.
  • Can accommodate both 700C as well as wider MTB 650b wheels for off-road biking
  • Larger tire clearance allows using a variety of tires up to 42mm-47mm wide
  • Attachment points for racks and mudguards, bags, etc.
  • Wide and generous gear ratio: this gives the rider plenty of gears to tackle steeps hills even when carrying a lot of equipment

Who Should Buy a Gravel Bike?

The key characteristics of Gravel bikes make them a great choice for cyclists who want decent performance on tarmac roads as well as the ability to conquer challenging terrains (except the most challenging terrains which require all-mountain/Enduro/Downhill bikes). The main purpose behind Gravel bikes is not to win championships, but to provide a good balance between on-road and off-road performance. The target market for these bikes mainly includes riders looking for a comfortable bike for enjoyment and recreation. Stability and comfort are the focus of Gravel bikes as reflected in its design and key characteristics covered above.

Cons of Gravel Bikes

Since Gravel bikes focus more on comfort and stability than speed and raw performance, they are more suitable for recreational purposes than racing and competitive riding (gravel racing is also a discipline in some regions, but not as widespread as cyclocross racing).

Key Differences Between Cyclocross and Gravel Bikes

Geometry

Cyclocross bikes are optimized for speed and agility. They are purposely built to navigate tight turns and obstacles. Gravel bikes have a geometry closer to Endurance bikes and even Mountain bikes. Gravel bikes have longer chainstays and wheelbase, slacker head-tube and seat-tube angles, and a lower bottom bracket than Cyclocross bikes. These characteristics make Gravel bikes more comfortable and stable than Cyclocross bikes at speed, but less nimble around tight corners at lower speeds.

Tire Clearance

Gravel bikes usually come with a generous tire clearance accommodating up to 42 to 47 mm wide tires without having to worry about tires rubbing against the fork or the frame. Clearance increases even more when using 650b wheels. Wider tires translate into more comfort and provide better traction on gravel roads, which is required for long rides and uneven roads but are slightly heavier than the narrower 33 mm cyclocross tires.

Gearing

Cyclocross courses have a lot of short and punchy climbs that do not require the rider to settle in an easy gear for long periods of time. That’s why these bikes have a narrower gear range that is not suited for long sustained climbs.

Gravel bikes have a wider range of gears, which is needed to handle different types of terrain, including longer climbs while potentially carrying a heavy load.

Weight

Cyclocross bikes prioritize speed and efficiency and saving a few grams might help a racer win the race. CX bikes also need to be light enough so cyclists can carry them on their shoulders to jump over barriers, walk through deep mud, running upstairs, and so on.

With mounts to fully load up the bike and wider tires, Gravel bikes are almost the opposite in this regard. That’s because they need to be more robust and durable to handle gravel/fire roads and single tracks for extended periods of time. Gravel racing is starting to be more and more popular, but for most riders, riding gravel is about enjoying the journey, not rushing to the finish line.

The Wrap Up

Looking forward to the next Cyclocross race? Look no further: a purposely built CX bike will help your shred the course in no time. It will also be a nice weekend companion for shorter gravel rides with friends, but it won't be the most comfortable and stable ride out there. If you are looking to get away from busy roads and hit the paths less traveled, a Gravel bike will take you there and then some. You will feel fresh at the end of the day because of the comfortable ride the geometry and wider tires offer. You might not get there as fast, but you'll enjoy every second of your journey.