With more avid road cyclists, triathletes, and even mountain bikers discovering the joys of off-road riding on a drop-bar bike than ever before, it’s important to understand the key differences between the two most popular types of dual-purpose machines: gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes. A good, simple rule of thumb to remember is that a cyclocross bike is ideally suited for, as its name implies, going fast along a cyclocross racecourse, while a gravel bike is optimized for all-day riding adventures over mixed terrain. But what exactly separates these two types of bikes in terms of yielding different riding experiences? And can’t you just have one of the two types of bikes to use for both gravel riding and cyclocross racing? Before we answer that second question, let’s break down the top five key differences between a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike.
The principal difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel bike is found in their respective geometries. Cyclocross bikes are designed to be raced on cyclocross courses, which can often include a variety of terrains such as mud, sand, rocks, and even snow. They also include run-up sections that require racers to dismount their bike, as well as barriers that must be jumped over either by dismounting or bunny-hopping. As such, a cyclocross bike will have a higher bottom bracket height relative to a gravel bike, and even a road bike. A cyclocross bike will also have shorter chainstays and a lower stack height, both of which combine for a more aggressive riding position and significantly more agile handling than a gravel bike. This is intentional by design, because the confines of a cyclocross racecourse are incredibly tight, requiring racers to slow down rapidly, roll through a tight turn, and then accelerate up to speed quickly—a process which is repeated ad nauseum throughout multiple laps of a race.
Riding on open gravel roads, or even a mixture of paved and off-road surfaces, by comparison, typically doesn’t include such repetitive, tight corners and quick accelerations. Nor does this type of riding require the rider to dismount his or her bike. But it does include far more long stretches of road that will have the rider traveling at higher speeds for longer durations. As such, a gravel bike will be much more stable than a cyclocross bike, thanks to its longer wheelbase, longer chainstays, and lower bottom bracket height. And again, because gravel bikes are generally designed for versatility and comfort over the course of an all-day riding adventure, a gravel bike will generally have a taller stack height to allow for a more upright riding position.
A cyclocross race typically lasts between 30 and 90 minutes, and is ridden at very high intensity. So there’s no need for the rider to carry the supplies that one would typically take on a road ride or gravel ride. These include things like a flat tire repair kit, nutrition products, and superfluous hydration. So a cyclocross bike will eschew storage features that accommodate these items in the pursuit of a lighter chassis and added speed. It’s all about that podium position! By contrast, a gravel bike will feature plenty of storage solutions to allow its rider to carry nutrition, hydration, tools, spare tubes, and anything else the rider will need over the course of a long day in the saddle—especially if they find themselves off the beaten path. Likewise, gravel bikes will often feature mounts for racks and fenders, in order to give it some added versatility for commuting and wet-weather riding.
As we’ve outlined in the previous section, a cyclocross race is a relatively short, but insanely intense, effort. Gearing needs can vary greatly depending on the specific racecourse, but by and large, a cyclocross bike doesn’t require the range of gears that a gravel bike, or even a road bike, typically does. The most common gearing setup for a cyclocross race bike is a 46/36 chainring combination paired with an 11-36 cassette, or something similar. This ensures that during the high-intensity effort of racing, jumps between gears are kept to a minimum in order to ensure smooth and precise shifting, all while allowing the rider to keep his or her pedaling cadence and power consistent. A 46-tooth chainring may seem small at first to experienced road cyclists, but keep in mind that the top-end speeds of the cyclocross racecourse don’t reach those of a typically road or gravel ride.
When it comes to gravel riding, the world is your playground, and so you’re not confined to the areas between the boundary tape at a cyclocross racecourse. This means you can encounter any type of topography, include short, punchy climbs as well as long sinuous ascents, just like you’d find while out for a ride on a road bike. Also, you’ll most likely be riding off-road on hard-packed dirt, loose sand, and everything in between. That’s why gravel bikes typically have wide-range gearing, in order to make sure that you’re not only able to conquer any climb, but have plenty of energy for a long descent back home or a friendly yet competitive sprint with your buddies. For 1x drivetrains (that is, bikes with a single chainring), expect to see a chainring with 38 to 42 teeth, along with a cassette with a 11-42 spread, or something similar. For 2x drivetrains, popular chainrings combinations for gravel bikes include 50/34 and 48/32, and they’re usually paired with 11-34 or similar cassettes.
The de facto wheel size for cyclocross bikes is 700c, which is the same as the vast majority of road bikes. Some bike companies offer bikes with the smaller 650c wheel size to accommodate smaller riders, but this practice has steadily been growing out of fashion as most companies have been able to modernize the geometries of their bikes to allow all riders to utilize 700c wheels. For cyclocross races that are sanctioned by the UCI, the sport’s worldwide governing body, bikes must be fitted with tires no wider than 33mm. However, it’s worth noting that rules revolving around the size limits of your tires will vary by country or federation when it comes to non-UCI sanctioned events. In fact, most of your local events most likely will not be UCI-sanctioned, so we strongly recommend checking with your racing league to determine what their rules are when it comes to tire sizes. Regardless of the variety of rules out there for different regions, most bike manufacturers have optimized the performance of their cyclocross bikes around the 33mm standard. This means that most cyclocross frames will only accept up to a size 33mm tire.
Since gravel riding is all about exploration, having fun, and chasing the sunset across all types of terrain imaginable, most gravel bikes have been designed around versatility. Like cyclocross bikes, the most common wheel size is 700c. But some gravel bikes, like the Breed, were designed with dual-wheel compatibility—this means that they can roll on either a 700c wheel or a 650b wheel. This means that getting a bike like the Breed is really like getting two bikes in one! When it comes to 700c wheels, there’s typically clearance for tires up to around 42mm or so, while 650b wheels can utilize much wider tires due to their smallest circumferences, usually around 2.0 inches (which is common on many hardtail mountain bikes). The wider tires paired with 650b wheels make for more traction, especially when it comes to muddy or rocky terrain.
As we’ve already noted, cyclocross races consist of relatively short (30- to 90-minute) efforts of high-intensity with continuous hard braking into corners followed by immediate accelerations, lap after grueling lap. As such, a cyclocross bike are generally constructed with a stiffer chassis in order to maximize the rider’s pedaling power in order to put every last watt towards forward momentum. After all, in a race, every second of time counts. But this can also lead to a bike that is exceptionally stiff. While many riders prefer a stiff frame with plenty of feedback from the road or dirt, others do not. That’s why the majority of gravel bikes feature more a of comfort-oriented construction, which involves things like carbon layups and unique tube shapes working in harmony to mitigate the effects of vibrations and big hits from the dirt, making for a more comfortable riding experience over the course of a long ride on tarmac, gravel, dirt, and every other type of surface.
Now that we’ve outlined the five most significant differences between a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike, let’s revisit one of our original questions: Can’t you just have one of the two types of bikes to use for both gravel riding and cyclocross racing? The short answer is, yes, you can. Cyclists regularly bring out their cyclocross bike for their favorite gravel road ride, and, in a pinch, a gravel bike will work decently enough on the cyclocross course to get you to the finish line. But as you’ve no doubt gleaned from the information above, cyclocross bikes are ideally suited for cyclocross racing, while gravel bikes are a much more versatile option for various types of mixed surface riding. If you can only have one, we recommend that you consider all of the types of riding you plan to do over the coming season, and weigh your priorities accordingly. No matter what type of bike you choose, we promise that you’ll have some fun getting down and dirty.
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