Gravel bikes vs. cyclocross bikes

There's no question that if you take cyclocross racing and training seriously, a purpose-built cyclocross bike is the best tool for the job. Enthusiast cyclocross racers must have a proper 'cross race machine (maybe even more than one!)

But over the past decade, gravel bikes have also become increasingly popular - and visually, they look very similar (in many cases almost identical) to cyclocross bikes, with a drop handlebar, disc brakes, and knobby tires, making them hard to tell apart from a distance.

In some cases, a gravel bike can make an acceptable substitute for a cyclocross bike, and vice-versa. In other circumstances, it's better to stick with the proper tool for the job. Let's take a look at what these bikes have in common, and how they are different:

What do cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes have in common?

Cyclocross and gravel bikes share some key features. Almost all modern cyclocross and gravel bikes will have:

  • mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes
  • a drop handlebar
  • a frame and fork that accept 700c wheels and tires (that's the same size used on modern road bikes as well.)

Both cyclocross and gravel bikes also tend to use road-focused components: shifters, brake levers, and derailleurs that come from road bikes, not mountain bikes. But the pedals are the MTB-inspired clipless pedal type, not "road style" shoe and pedal combos.

What are the key differences between cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes?

While gravel and cyclocross bikes look similar to the untrained eye, more experienced riders can recognize their differences, which lead to different strengths and capabilities.

While a cyclocross bike is designed to accept knobby tires, they are still relatively narrow - 33mm wide is the standard, common size. A modern gravel bike might be designed for tires up to 50mm wide, more like the width of a mountain bike tire. Some gravel bikes also use a different wheel diameter, called 650B (or "27.5") instead of a 700c. A few gravel bikes can work with both 700c and 650B wheelsets, providing a great deal of flexibility and allowing the rider to fine-tune their wheel and tire choices to suit their riding style.

Cyclocross bikes tend to be very race-focused, so you may not see mounts for racks or fenders. These would be extraneous for riders who race for an hour, or less. A gravel bike, in contrast, often includes mounts for racks, fenders, a top tube "feed bag", 3rd or 4th water bottles, and so on - extra gear for extended adventures.

Cyclocross bikes usually have a level top tube, that runs parallel to the horizon. This aids in carrying the bike on your shoulder, a common feature in cyclocross races. Since gravel bikes aren't often carried on your shoulder, gravel frame sets sometimes have more dramatically sloped top tubes (more like a mountain bike) which can create additional standover clearance for starting or sudden stops.

Gravel bikes typically have lower gears, and a wider-range gear ratio, compared with cyclocross bikes. These bikes are ridden on multi-hour climbs, and are used for backpacking or touring, where those gear ratios are needed and appreciated - especially when loaded down with gear or supplies. A cyclocross bike can have a tighter-range drivetrain, resulting in faster shifting and smaller gaps between the gears. Since the races are so short, it doesn't matter if the rider is overgeared periodically, they can simply stand up (or run!)

Gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes have distinct frame and fork geometry

Visual similarities aside, cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes have different frame tube lengths, wheelbases, and angles suited for their unique needs. A cyclocross bike usually has shorter chainstays, and often a shorter wheelbase for snappier, crisper handling - designed to rail corners with confidence. On a cyclocross course, there are many tight corners and the rider accelerates many times per lap.

A cyclocross bike also has a higher bottom bracket, to create additional clearance when hopping over obstacles or riding off-camber terrain. In contrast, gravel bikes tend to have lower bottom brackets, making them more stable with a lower center of gravity.

A gravel bike has a longer wheelbase designed for stability when riding in a straight line - think hours powering down a dusty country road, or putting on a jacket while riding no-hands. A gravel bike can of course go around corners, too, but the geometry is optimized for other needs. It's easier to change directions quickly on a cyclocross bike.

For comfort, gravel frames often have a higher stack height - a longer head tube and/or more spacers under the stem, for a more comfortable, forgiving ride. The rider sits more upright, which is friendly to the lower back, at the possible expense of aerodynamics or performance. Cyclocross bikes sacrifice comfort for speed, because the race is so short (one hour or less), while a gravel race or ride could take 4, 6, 8 hours or more.

Can you use a gravel bike for cyclocross races?

Absolutely. New riders who are just getting started in cyclocross won't notice the subtle differences. 

Don't worry about showing up for a cyclocross race with the "wrong" bike. Beginner and first-timer categories allow cyclocross bikes, gravel bikes, MTBs, BMX bikes, and so on, with no restrictions on handlebar shape or tire size.

As your performance, skills, and commitment improve, you'll likely want a purpose-built, dedicated cyclocross bike to keep growing, but don't let that stop you from giving cyclocross racing a try, regardless of what bike you've got today. Sign up and bring whatever you have to get started!

Can you use a cyclocross bike for gravel riding?

Definitely. Before proper gravel-specific bikes even existed, cyclocross riders were using their 'cross race bikes to tackle "gravel" races and tours like the Belgian Waffle ride, Dirty Kanza, Mid South, and Crusher in the Tushar.

Using a cyclocross bike for these types of events might mean you use bags that attach with velcro, instead of bolting to the braze-on mounts included on gravel frames and forks. You might also be limited in tire size choices. Perhaps you'll carry a hydration backpack, as an alternative to 3rd or 4th water bottle braze-ons. But it's doable! 

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