What is the difference between a cyclocross and a gravel?

18 May, 2020

Gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes are very similar and, at a glance, they look like road bikes with mountain bike wheels, but in reality, they are different.

“What am I going to use the bike for” is the first question you should ask yourself when you start looking at bikes. If you are already undecided between a cyclocross or gravel, it means that you have already decided that the use of your next bike will be multi-purpose and on varied terrains.

You want to be OK on almost any type of surface: fast in a race, comfortable on uneven ground or dirt tracks and safe in wet or muddy areas. Both a gravel and a cyclocross will satisfy these requirements. So where are the differences?

GRAVEL    vs    CYCLOCROSS

Cyclocross bikes, more than 100 years getting covered in mud

Origins of cyclocross bikes

Let’s start with the origins. Cyclocross is a discipline born in France at the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of doing a certain number of laps of a varied course with areas of tarmac, dirt and mud (normally a lot of mud) and obstacles, which are usually steps, mounds…which don’t necessarily need to be tackled on top of the bike.  They are races of approximately one hour in duration, so they are very intense, fun and a very attractive product for television.

Cyclocross has a great tradition and following in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and France, although the events are gradually spreading throughout Europe during the winter months.  Recently, in addition, there have been an increasing number of professional road cyclists who take part in cyclocross events given they take place during, what are theoretically, the months of rest.

Cyclocross bikes

Characteristics of the frame

Let’s look at the bikes. On a technical level, cyclocross bikes are mounted on frames that are very similar to “aero” road bikes, but with a few differences. The distance between the axles is less than normal and the length of the fork blades will be shorter in comparison to road bikes. This makes them very reactive, essential for taking the closed bends of circuits.  The light weight of the frame is also a very important aspect to make it easier to lift the bike onto the shoulder when having to tackle obstacles and ramps by foot.

diferencias entre bicis ciclocross y gravel

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Tyres and bottom brackets

Due to competition regulations, cyclocross bikes can have 33c wide heavily treaded tyres as a maximum, meaning the forks have to be more separated than normal to quickly get rid of the mud that accumulates.  Another specific aspect of the geometry is the height of the bottom bracket, which is higher than normal to facilitate jumping over obstacles and prevent knocks to the frame.

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Specific components for cyclocross

In terms of components, a mono plate is fitted to reduce weight and prevent mechanical problems.  Although in the past they used cantilever brakes, nowadays hydraulic disc brakes are the standard due to their braking power in wet conditions. Narrow handlebars to facilitate turning and overtaking and the absence of a bottle holder are other features of cyclocross bikes. No, it isn’t that cyclists don’t need water. A bottle holder is not fitted to make it easier to lift the bike onto the back when necessary.

Gravel bikes are here to stay

Some people say that gravel bikes have been with us for more than 75 years and we just didn’t know it. It is argued that classic road bikes were already gravel because they were mounted on frames that allowed wider wheel arches, but we believe that the revolution arrived in the last 5 years.

diferencias entre bici gravel y ciclocross

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Geometry

The first thing that differentiates a gravel from a cyclocross is the geometry. The distance between the axles is greater, enabling a more relaxed and comfortable position. Perfect for spending many hours on top of the bike. The length of the fork blades is also greater than the cyclocross bike, this means more stability and less reactivity than the cyclocross. The bottom bracket is situated in a lower position compared to the cyclocross, thereby also improving the comfort.

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Specific components for gravel

The handlebars are also different, they are usually wider and with an open angle to be able to grip them comfortably in different positions. In terms of gears, there are two types, from single plate with 11-46 cassettes to double plate with more conventional road bike cassettes. A positive aspect of the emergence of the gravel bike is that you can find gravel bikes aimed more at road cycling with narrower wheel arches and almost road geometry, as well as the other extreme of seeing gravel bikes that can take 42c or even 29” tyres, and some even with rear and front suspension. 

Accessories for gravel

Most gravel bikes are also prepared for installing saddlebags, which makes them the perfect bikes for journeys of several days, taking advantage of their versatility when rolling perfectly on any type of terrain.

Conclusions

  • Broadly speaking, cyclocross bikes are created for competing and gravel bikes are more for enjoying trails, tracks and roads.
  • Cyclocross bikes are a more niche product and gravel bikes are aimed at the general public.
  • While cyclocross bikes will enable you to go faster in all conditions and situations, gravel bikes are more comfortable for longer sessions on a bike.
  • In Cyclocross bikes we find more limitations on a level of compatibility with tyres of more than 34c, whereas in the gravel, the wheel arch is usually larger, enabling you to use wider tyres or ones with more aggressive treads.
  • Cyclocross and gravel are multi-purpose bikes, and in reality they are 3 types of bikes (road, mountain and urban) in one.
  • Thanks to the previous point they are perfect bikes for cyclists who have don’t have enough space to store more than one bike.
  • Indeed, it is important to consider the limitations of the cyclocross and gravel: You won’t go as fast as on a road bike on tarmac or be able to ride down challenging trails or tracks like on a mountain bike.
  • The gravel bike is an expanding modality, every season there are new trends and developments in terms of geometry. Cyclocross bikes, however, have generally maintained the same characteristics for decades. The only significant development in recent years has been the inclusion of disk brakes.
  • Economically speaking, the cyclocross normally involve a greater investment (depending on the model). With gravel bikes, the price range is wider, you can find the basic models from €700.

Have you already thought about taking the leap to the gravel or cyclocross? And if so,  Gravel or cyclocross?

 



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