Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bike: What’s The Difference?

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To the untrained eye, cyclocross and gravel bikes may appear almost identical.

Furthermore, in recent years, cyclocross bikes have increased in popularity in the non-racing consumer market, meaning that you’re a lot more likely to see them out and about.

Whilst they are very similar in many ways, there are a number of distinct differences between cyclocross and gravel bikes, stemming from the different styles of riding they are designed for.

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bike: What Are They Used For?
  • Gravel Bike Vs Cyclocross: What’s Different About The Bikes Themselves?

Ready to learn all there is to know about gravel vs cyclocross bikes?

Let’s jump in!

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Title Image

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bike: What Are They Used For?

At the most basic level, the differences between cyclocross and gravel bikes stem from the fact that cyclocross bikes are specifically designed for cyclocross racing, and therefore are optimised for speed and lightness.

Cyclocross bikes are also subject to regulation from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body which regulates and oversees competitive cycling racing on an international level. This means there are certain restrictions on how they can be built and customised for competition.

However, it is certainly worth noting that UCI regulations are unlikely to be enforced outside of official UCI events, so you may see some customisation that violates regulations in more informal events and casual riding.

Cyclocross bikes are generally much closer to road bikes than mountain bikes in their design philosophy. It’s often possible to convert a cyclocross bike to something very similar to a road bike with minimal changes to the tires and gearing.

Gravel bikes, on the other hand, fall a little closer to a middle ground between road bikes and mountain bikes. They’re designed to perform well on light off-road terrain. However, beyond this, gravel bikes have a wide range of uses spanning from casual riding to endurance riding and bikepacking.

Consequently, there are many different types of gravel bikes, and they are not subject to any regulation for regular use. This results in a wide range of variety and customization options.

A cyclocross rider is silhouetted as they come around a corner.

Gravel Bikes Vs Cyclocross: What’s Different About The Bikes Themselves?

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Tire Differences

Cyclocross was traditionally a European winter sport. Therefore, the tires have an aggressive tread that is optimized for muddy, grassy, winter conditions.

UCI regulations specify a maximum tire width of 33mm for cyclocross racing. The frames are designed around this regulation and don’t have the clearance for tires wider than 33mm.

The relatively thin tires of cyclocross are made of a softer rubber which also optimizes them for wet winter riding conditions. However, nowadays, as cyclocross has expanded beyond Europe and is now sometimes practiced in dry summer conditions, you may occasionally find tires with a lighter, less aggressive tread.

Overall cyclocross tires are relatively light, which allows for faster racing speeds, but at the cost of increased vulnerability to punctures.

Tubular tires are popular in cyclocross due to the fact that they can be used at low low pressures, increasing the contact area with the ground (and therefore traction) without increasing the risk of puncture. They are also lighter – which means faster.

However, clincher tires may still be used on cyclocross bikes due to the fact that they are much more easily repaired and replaced, and are generally cheaper.

Gravel bikes on the other hand are subject to no regulation, meaning that some frames may be able to accommodate tires as wide as 50 mm. This means a wider range of customization in tire types to suit whichever style of riding is desired.

Generally speaking, tires on gravel bikes are harder than those on cyclocross bikes, making them better suited to riding over gravel and rocks, as well as riding with heavier loads. Furthermore, gravel bike tires are more suited to riding in year-round weather conditions.

Alternately, you may eve find some gravel bikes with slick tires, for those who are only interested in some light summer riding.

At the cost of more weight, gravel bikes will generally have puncture-resistant tires which are more comfortable and durable for long-distance riding. They will often use lower tire pressures than road bikes, and may have tubeless tires too.

Gravel bikes may have any type of tires: tubular, clincher, or tubeless. Clincher tires tend to be the most common.

A red gravel bike sits in an autumnal forest.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Frame Differences

Once again, cyclocross frames are optimized for racing performance – i.e. to get the rider through one hour of racing as quickly as possible.

This means that they are lightweight, have precise handling, and are designed to shed mud easily.

Weight is also prioritized in cyclocross due to the fact that rider may dismount and carry their bikes up to 30 times during an hour-long race. Because of this, the top tubes often have a flat underside, which facilitates carrying the bike over the rider’s shoulder.

Cyclocross bikes tend to have a higher bottom bracket to enable better ground clearance for obstacles and rocky terrain during a race.

Furthermore, the gear cables are usually routed along the top tube rather than the bottom tube to prevent mud from interfering.

Due to the importance of lightness, cyclocross bikes are mostly made of aluminum or carbon fiber.

On the contrary, comfort is given greater consideration in gravel bike geometry. This often means a shorter reach to enable a more comfortable, upright position, at the expense of wind resistance.

Gravel bike frames are often slightly heavier and studier so they’re able to carry heavier loads.

Gravel bikes also tend to have a lower bottom bracket, resulting in more stability. Additionally, they also tend to have a longer wheelbase, again resulting in more stability.

Gravel bikes will also tend to have a slacker headtube angle, which allows for steeper, mountain bike-like descents. This again reflects the greater adaptability of gravel bikes.

Gravel bikes are also more likely to have a sloping top tube, as opposed to the flat tube of cyclocross bikes. The frame may be made of any number of materials, such as steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber.

Two cyclocross riders navigate twisty turns on a grassy course.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Gearing Differences

Modern cyclocross bikes often have only one chainring, and generally have a narrower range of gears.

Because they aren’t required to be ridden in such a range of terrains, a wide range of gears isn’t as necessary. Because cyclocross races take place over a looped course, any climbs tend to be very short and punchy rather than long slogs up a mountain pass, so can be tackled with more aggressive gears.

The reduction in weight that comes with ditching a chainring is more beneficial than the extra gearing options in these situations. Furthermore, having only one chainring reduces the chances of mechanical failure during a race.

Having said that, older cyclocross bikes often have a 2x chainring, as this was the norm for many years. At the other end of the spectrum, some riders have occasionally opted for single-speed cyclocross bikes for mechanical simplicity and minimal weight.

Furthermore, simpler gearing means there is simply less for the rider to think about during the race, and they can focus on performing to the optimum.

Gravel bikes will usually have two chainrings. Although, as there is such a diverse range of gravel bikes, it is possible to find some with a 1x chainring too if you favor simplicity.

They also tend to have a wider range of sprocket sizes on the cassette to allow for more adaptability over the terrain.

Overall, the wider range of gears on gravel bikes means riders can cycle across a wider range of conditions and inclines. Whilst this adaptability means more weight, this is not so vital an issue on gravel bikes where speed usually isn’t the all-conquering priority.

A cyclist drifts on a gravel bike with flared handlebars.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Handlebar Differences

In order to reduce wind resistance, wider handlebars are not often used in cyclocross. Furthermore, the UCI does not permit handlebars wider than 50cm, and riders are restricted to standard drop handlebars.

Gravel bikes have a wider range of handlebar types. In general, they’re likely to be wider and more stable, at the expense of greater wind resistance, and therefore less speed.

Nowadays, gravel bikes often have flared bars (meaning the drops spread out wider than the top) in order to improve stability when riding downhill.

A cyclocross rider on a black bike speeds up a climb.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Seatpost Differences

Gravel bikes may sometimes have a dropper seatpost, especially if a rider wants to ride over rough off-road terrain.

A dropper post allows the seat to instantly drop down on downhill sections, giving greater maneuverability, before snapping back up to regular height at the press of a button.

Dropper posts are only rarely found on cyclocross bikes.

Close-up of a disc brake on a gravel bike.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Braking Differences

Cyclocross bikes traditionally have cantilever brakes.

However, since 2010, the UCI has permitted the use of disc brakes. The advantage of disc brakes is that they offer a greater braking capability, especially in harsh, wet conditions, and they’re becoming increasingly popular for cyclocross. However, they also add more weight.

Cyclocross bikes often have a second set of brake levers on the tops of the handlebars, known as cross or inline brakes.

Gravel bikes may be found with any number of different brake tires, although disc and cantilever brakes are the most common.

Two cyclocross riders without suspension round a muddy bend.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Suspension Differences

Cyclocross bikes don’t have suspension, as it adds weight and reduces pedaling efficiency.

Gravel bikes typically don’t have suspension either – although a minimal amount of front suspension is becoming increasingly popular in gravel circles.

Interestingly, some new gravel bikes may have innovative suspension types built into the frame, such as the Future Shock integrated headset suspension with 20 mm of travel, which debuted at the 2017 Paris-Roubaix.

Close-up of the cockpit of a gravel bike with bikepacking bags.

Cyclocross Vs Gravel Bikes: Mountings And Customisation

Nowadays, cyclocross bikes often have bottle mounts. However, the mounting capability ends there, as they’re primarily race-oriented bikes.

Conversely, gravel bikes often have mounting locations all over the bike. Going bikepacking and want to fit pannier racks on the back, bottle mounts on the sides of the front forks, and mudguards?

Not a problem!

Found this gravel bike vs cyclocross guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Hailing from Brighton, UK, Felix is a lover of running, cycling, and all things active. When he's not exploring a remote corner of the globe on a bike-packing trip, Felix enjoys meditating, making music, and running as far as his legs will let him!

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