If you stroll past a cyclo-cross and gravel bike parked side-by-side against a wall, at your local coffee stop, you’d be forgiven for not being able to tell which is which. But there are notable differences between cyclo-cross and gravel bikes due to their different purposes. Cyclo-cross biking is a racing discipline, whereas gravel bikes are designed for a much broader spectrum of riding than timed competitive events.
The geometry debate
Tom pidcock cyclocross 2022, by Red Bull
Even the slightest difference in geometry numbers can significantly affect riding performance. Cyclo-cross bikes are designed for racing, hence their aggressive geometry. Cyclo-cross courses aren’t like anything you’ll experience on conventional drop handlebar bikes. There are steep grassy climbs and all manner of obstacles. This requires cyclo-cross riders to dismount often and carry their bikes.
Beyond the challenging obstacles and format of a cyclo-cross racing course, there’s the question of bike agility. In a cyclo-cross race, corners are tight and riders aggressively position for overtaking opportunities. The bike geometry requirement is for very responsive steering. As a result, cyclo-cross bikes feature reach measurements, head angles and cockpit geometries that facilitate rapid direction changes - to generalise, everything is shorter and narrower.
Although cyclo-cross geometry works a treat on a muddy field, with tight corners demarcated by plastic posts and marker tape, it can be a touch too harsh for general off-road riding. On the cycling geometry equation, agility and stability are at opposing ends. The more you have of one, the less you’ll have of the other. And cyclo-cross bikes trade high-speed tracking stability for cornering agility.
Built for different purposes and courses
SITW rally x East Devon Trail-66.jpg, by Suvi loponen
Gravel bikes roam far and wide, beyond the muddy fields of cyclo-cross races. And they often carry more weight in the form of additional water bottles and bikepacking bags.
When you are pedalling or descending at speed on a corrugated gravel road, stability is the main requirement. To achieve this, gravel bike geometry features a longer wheelbase, slightly slacker head angle and wider handlebars to calm steering feedback and mediate rider responses. This applies to even modern gravel racing bikes that are borrowing aerodynamic shapes from road bikes, but still maintain a longer and slacker geometry.
When racing on a cyclo-cross track and positioning that last inch of space into a corner, absolute steering accuracy and precision are required. You want the bike to ‘sense’ where you wish to go. It’s why newbie cyclo-cross riders often experience the handling characteristics of dedicated cyclo-cross bikes as ‘nervous’.
On a gravel bike, the off-road riding experience is different. You could be rolling along a section of forest singletrack and happen upon some slippery roots or loose shale. And that’s when you want a bike with slower steering responses, which prevents rider reactions from being too dramatic.
Most riders tend to overcompensate when there’s a loss of traction or ‘slipping’ trail feedback from the front wheel. But that overreaction can lead to a crash. Gravel bike geometry helps calm your steering inputs, preventing overcompensation that can trigger a crash when rolling down loose, tricky terrain.
Don’t underestimate the influence of wind, either. Wind shear isn’t a big issue during a cyclo-cross race because the speeds are low and the races last up to an hour. But on a long 100-mile gravel bike ride, wind gusts can unbalance the rider and bike. Especially if you are rolling carbon wheels with a deeper section rim profile. Countering wind shear is another example of when a gravel bike's inherently more stable geometry is beneficial.
Different drop handlebar arrangements
Merit_Rodla_Handlebar_Fitted.jpg, by Matt Page
By stretching the wheelbase, designers give gravel bikes inherent lateral stability at speed. This is enhanced even more with the wide drop handlebars, which have become popular among gravel bikers. Some gravel riders even decide to equip their gravel bikes with flat handlebars, blurring the lines between gravel and mountain bikes further. But without going into the personal preferences of each rider, there are a few reasons why gravel bikes generally have much wider handlebars than those found on cyclo-cross bikes.
The first of these pertains to the racing issue. In a cyclo-cross race, you want the narrowest rider profile to expertly place the bike around corners or occupy a specifically advantageous position in a group. That’s why most cyclo-cross handlebars are much narrower than on a gravel bike.
Everything that makes a narrow handlebar appealing for cyclo-cross racing – quick-witted steering and responsiveness – is counter to the stability requirement for gravel bikes. Although there’s an aerodynamic drag penalty for having such wide handlebars, some gravel bikers believe wider is better.
Wider handlebars enable more steering leverage and control on unpredictably surfaced gravel roads.
Bigger handlebars are comfier
But there’s a comfort aspect, too, with wider drop handlebars. As we’ve mentioned, cyclo-cross races are short – about an hour in duration. And they are often run on muddy singletrack carved out of moist park lawns. That means you aren’t suffering the small-bump vibration and high-frequency terrain feedback fatigue, which affects endurance gravel cyclists.
Ride a corrugated gravel road for hours, and you’ll probably start suffering from hand, wrist and shoulder numbness. Carbon-fibre handlebars can be constructed with a specific orientation of fibres to help dissipate and absorb those vibrations and reduce fatigue. Comfort on long gravel rides can also be helped with gravel-specific, thick bar tape.
One reason why gravel bikes have such generously sized drop handlebars is the array of devices we use on an off-road ride. On that long gravel adventure ride (or weekend away), you’ll be using a cycling computer, lights and perhaps even a small handlebar bag. And the wider your drop handlebar is, the more space you’ll have to mount all those accessories.
Tyres can play a huge role in how your bike handles and how comfortable it is on your chosen ride terrain. Gravel bikes, generally, have a lot bigger tyre clearances with some modern gravel bikes taking up to 55mm gravel tyres which, in some cases, are starting to look more like mountain bike tyres.
Cyclo-cross bikes, on the other hand, are designed for racing and their designs are dictated by the international governing cycling body, the UCI. This means for example, that the UCI says cyclo-cross bike tyre clearance cannot be more than 33mm. Most cyclo-cross frames will still take wider rubber, but not as wide as gravel frames, which limits your options a lot.
Gravel bikes, until last year when we saw the first Gravel World Championships happen, were not really on UCI's radar and the bikes are still designed to suit the riding, not the rulebook.
A curious case of suspension
2023 Bombtrack Beyond Sus Gravel bike suspension fork, by Bombtrack
Frame geometry and cockpit dimensions differentiate cyclo-cross and gravel bikes, but what else? Suspension is an obvious differentiator.
You’ll hardly ever see a suspension fork on any traditional cyclo-cross-specific bike. In contrast, gravel bikes offer short-travel suspension fork options from all the established brands which serve mountain bikers.
And it’s not only forks. Some gravel bikes offer softail rear triangle construction, using the inherent flex of carbon-fibre stays, with elastomer bridging to the seat tube, offering riders superior comfort and terrain absorption. Cannondale has an even more advanced design on its Topstone gravel bike, with a pivot point on the seat tube. It delivers 30mm of rear wheel travel, optimizing carbon-fibre tube flex engineering without a shock absorber.
Gravel bike frames also contain many mounting points, which cyclo-cross bikes don’t. Adventure riding and bikepacking are fundamental to the gravel biking experience, which means clever on-frame storage solutions.
cyclocross national mud, by British Cycling
Nobody is keen on taking a dedicated cyclo-cross frame on that weekend 200-mile adventure ride, because its geometry is too race focussed and will become uncomfortable after a few hours of riding. There’s also the twitchiness of a cyclo-cross bike’s handling being irreconcilable with being laden with frame bags and gear – which you’ll struggle to mount in the first place, too, compared to a gravel bike.
In principle, cyclo-cross bikes are designed for short races on muddy fields and North Sea beaches. Cyclo-cross bikes can be used for local criterium route training rides, but not much else. For all-terrain riding and adventure touring, the gravel bike segment exists for a very valid reason.
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