Cycling has evolved over the past decades, it has become more available to people and there is much more joy here than using regular vehicles. Let’s take it from road cyclists, they are hard at work finding new ways to enjoy cycling. Just like this mountain bikers and even triathletes are exploring the joys of going off-road and having new adventures.
Gravel riding has become more famous now, with this new trend the main question that arises is what is the difference between Cyclocross Bikes and Gravel Bikes? And which one might be the best one for you? Although there are key differences between these two bike types, we must first focus on the purpose these bikes fulfill.
Understanding the purpose of these bikes will provide clarity on them which will allow the consumers to make better decisions for themselves.
As the name implies, cyclocross bikes are meant for cyclocross racing. These races are held at flat courses that test the skills and patience of racers. These bikes are made for high-intensity riding, which means the best is often demanded. As per the nature of these races, these bikes are supposed to deliver sharp steering and even an aggressive riding position. These are the main requirements of a cyclocross racer and the bike needs to fulfill these basic aspects.
As the construction criteria are also strict, as instructed by the UCI, if the criteria are not met then the bikes are just simply disregarded. UCI is the entity that governs professional racing, and they have instructed manufacturers to follow these protocols.
Let’s take a UCI-sanctioned cyclocross race as an example. In these races, the bikes being used should have a maximum tire clearance of 33mm. If it is found to be more than the bikes are deemed unusable.
Now it is time to reflect upon gravel bikes, unlike their cyclocross counterparts, they are designed for a variety of purposes. You can use gravel bikes for fun adventures, now that could include bike-packing which could go on for days, and even explorations on different kinds of terrains
Apart from this, you can also use these bikes for gravel races, which bring out the best in riders. Gravel-riding is a varied discipline, which means that these bikes are going to have different designs, and different structures. Although there are no “Special Instructions” to be followed for their manufacturing, some outstanding gravel bikes share basic features (Which we will get to later on!).
Road Disc Brakes bring out the best performance in a gravel bike and before these types of bikes were even into the fray, people were using Cyclocross bikes with extra versatility and different features. These cyclocross bikes even came with mudguards and rack mounts, something you see in gravel bikes and mountain bikes usually.
When the Gravel bikes finally came, they offered comfort and versatility like none other. That is why a lot of people love using them.
With the basic knowledge of both Cyclocross and Gravel Bikes covered, we will now discuss what makes them truly special and what differentiates them.
Geometry: Gravel Vs Cyclocross
There is a difference in geometry of the two bike types, it is what makes them special and loved. When we look at a gravel bike, we can see that it has a relaxed construction and geometry, this is because these riders spend multiple days riding this bike, and for a variety of reasons too. Sometimes it is bike-packing or just adventures with friends and family.
As the gravel bikes are concerned more about comfort, their emphasis on aerodynamics is very less. Apart from that, these bikes also have a short reach but expect to have an upright riding position. You may also notice that gravel bikes are not made to be used for higher speeds apart from the aero gravel race bikes. These types of bikes are made for gravel racing.
Bottom Bracket Differences
Another aspect between these two bikes is the bottom brackets. A bottom bracket should be as low as possible (In some bikes), with this adjustment there is a better sense of stability with gravel bikes. This makes riding over rough terrain easier and it also reduces the standover height. With these features, if you are riding over technical terrain then it becomes very easy to dismount whenever you want.
Gravel bike users enjoy better stability thanks to the lower bottom brackets installed and a longer wheelbase. These are also the key aspects that make riding these bikes fun!
Cyclocross bikes are all about the thrill of the race, riders who use these bikes require sharp steering and aggressive riding positions. You will notice a higher bottom bracket in these bikes as compared to gravel bikes. This addition improves ground clearance and allows for aggressive but safe riding. A higher bottom bracket also allows the user to shift their weight towards the front of the bike which enhances the steering.
Head Tube Differences
There is also a matter of head tube angles between the two bikes. Gravel bikes feature a slacker head tube angle, this is very familiar to mountain bikes. Cyclocross bikes, however, have a steep head tube angle familiar to racing road bikes.
Gravel bikes allow them to have a great off-road performance as compared to Cyclocross bikes.
Tires and Tire Clearance: Gravel Vs Cyclocross
The next major difference between these two bike types is tire and tire clearance. As we discussed before, UCI has ruled out some rules when it comes to cross bikes manufacturing. With that ruling in place, cyclocross bikes have tires that have a maximum width of 33mm. Naturally, with this kind of effect, these bikes have narrow tire clearance.
Cyclocross Tires are also of different types, here are the following:
- Super-Aggressive Treads: Allows clearance for mud, high-intensity racing
- Bone-Dry Treads: Best for grass and mud
Another thing to note here is that cyclocross bikes don’t have tire puncture protection as compared to gravel bikes. This is where the nature of the bikes comes into play. Gravel bikes are meant for multi-terrain whereas Cyclocross bikes are meant for high-intensity racing.
Gravel bike tires are much wider as compared to their cyclocross counterparts (40mm). There are also some new and improved frames that allow for tires that are 50mm wide. If you are planning to go for tubeless then that works really well with gravel bikes. These wider tires allow the riders maximum comfort over the long rides and also make it easy to ride over technical terrain.
Gearing System: Gravel Vs Cyclocross
The gearing system of these two bike types is also defined by their nature and intent. When it comes to cross bikes, a narrow gear range is best suited for these types of bikes. A gearing system like this allows the riders to have a strong sprint and even ascend short climbs powerfully. Apart from this, a gearing system like this also allows the riders to tackle mud and grassy areas.
Cyclocross bikes first started featuring 2x drivetrains but often these had complaints of being too heavy. Now you will see that modern cyclocross bikes come installed with a 1x drivetrain, this reduces the overall weight of the bike and also protects against the mud-buildup. There is still a choice between 2x and 1x drivetrains when purchasing a cyclocross bike.
As per the nature of gravel bikes, they require a much wider gear range to perform perfectly. Gravel bikes are used on different kinds of terrain, from mountainous regions to technical terrain. This category of bikes is also fitted with 1x or 2x drivetrains, the latter is the prime choice in most cases. Riders that won’t be tackling the technical terrain that much and will be focusing on paved roads will love the nature of the 2x drivetrains. So with the 2x drivetrain choice, users will also be able to enjoy an easy bottom bracket.
While 1x drivetrains are great, they still have limits that badly affect the user’s experience. Although there are some groupsets that offer customized experiences like Shimano GRX, SRAM XPLR, and much more.
Luggage Mounts and Mudguards: Gravel Vs Cyclocross
Normal bikes that are used for a variety of reasons have luggage mounts and mudguards installed. When it comes to cyclocross and gravel bikes, this becomes very different. Let’s take a look at cyclocross bikes first.
As per the nature of Cyclocross bikes, most of them are only meant for racing. There are no mounts for luggage or even a mudguard. Most of the time you will only see a singular bottle cage, as racers believe that they need only one bottle for a whole hour of intense racing. Of course, this depends from racer to racer but that is how the construction of these bikes is implemented. Although this might limit the users in some way, it keeps the build streamlined and very easy to maintain/clean.
Gravel bikes on the other hand have a very generous construction with the exception of some “Special” gravel bikes. Versatility is a very big feature of gravel bikes, that is why these bikes are fitted with various bottle cage mounts. You may even sometimes find a third bottle cage and fork blade mounts that allow you to carry cargo.
People love munching while on the go, especially on adventures. That is why some gravel bike frames have a mount on the top tube where you can place a snack box or something like that in the category. Mudguard mounts are also very common in gravel bikes, most of the time you can install front and rear racks.
Finishing Kit: Gravel Vs Cyclocross
The last main difference between Gravel and Cyclocross bikes jots down to the finishing kit. The finishing kit depicts handlebars and dropper posts and seats so that is where we will be shedding a light.
As per instructions issued by the UCI, cyclocross bike handlebars should have a maximum width of 50cm. It cannot exceed this, you will find most cross bikes have a narrow handlebar width as compared to this. Riders can test out the handlebars and see what makes them comfortable.
Gravel bikes and Mountain bikes have one thing in common and that is super-wide handlebars. These handlebars make sure that the rider feels comfortable while having their long adventures over multiple terrains.
Let’s take a look at the bars now, you will see that gravel bikes feature a flared bar whereas cyclocross bikes have a more traditional drop. The positioning between these two drops is also different, it is wider than what is placed on the hood. The adjustment between the two bars is there to make sure that descending is safe and easy.
Gravel bikes have the kind of seatposts that allows the user to flex, which is necessary for comfort if you are looking at bumpy roads and long distances. Cyclocross bikes on the other hand have seatposts that allow for aggressive riding, and sharp turning, they allow maximum power transition.
The Fun Factor
We have discussed the main aspects that differentiate Cyclocross and Gravel Bikes. After going through all that information, you might be wondering if you can use these two bikes in reverse roles. What do we mean by reverse roles here: Using a gravel bike for cyclocross races and a cyclocross bike for gravel cycling. Let’s discuss!
Even though the nature of these bikes is different, many racers have customized their cyclocross bikes for off-road adventures. The only limiting factor over here would be the tire clearance but that can be sorted out. Even in some cases, the difference in geometry between the two bikes is also minimal. With the right customization, you can turn your cyclocross rig into an off-road race bike. You can even use a normal road bike for cyclocross racing if it well pleases you!
The other question that we will be answering here is if gravel bikes can be used for cyclocross races. The short answer is yes but here are the details. Most gravel bikes can be used for these sorts of racing because of their construction unless it is a UCI race because that is where the rules will have to be followed.
Even if the gravel bikes tend to have a wider tire clearance and wide handlebars than 50cm, they will work perfectly. People are encouraged to apply and test out their skills in the local cyclocross leagues. You can even start with a normal mountain bike because that is how your skills will grow if you are a beginner. Gravel frames are strong so it is fine if you take a bump or two.
One important thing to consider here will be the weather conditions and tires. If you are using a gravel bike for cyclocross racing and the terrain is wet or muddy then be sure to swap out the tires. You will need something for the extra strong grip and stability. Cyclocross tyres work really well in this regard! Gravel riders will love the combination of their bikes in these sorts of races.
With all the key differences between Cyclocross and Gravel Bikes explained, the verdict depends on you. All these bikes are unique and have special usage/features. Use them according to your needs and leisure. The fun thing with these bikes is that they can be used for both the varying disciplines, apart from some rules, you can use them however you see fit.
Go for either Cyclocross or Gravel, you will not be disappointed!
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