Gravel bikes. Cyclocross bikes. The latest buzz in bikes and its venerable mixed-surface cousin. Striking a super-versatile middle ground between dedicated road bikes and dedicated mountain bikes, these steeds deliver the zippiness and efficiency of a road bike that makes it easy to cover plenty of ground, all the while relying on the toughness and dirt-friendly tread patterns drawn from the mountain bike realm that make them at home when venturing off the beaten path. And both are just flat out fun to ride.
There are plenty of options for gravel and cyclocross bikes at Bike Nashbar, but what category of bike do I need? And what exactly is the difference between a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike anyway?
Cyclocross – The elder statesman of drop-bar bikes on dirt
At its essence, cyclocross is about racing. The sport has its roots in Europe as a means for road pros to stay fit in the off-season, and in the mid-20th century cyclocross evolved into its own dedicated competitive discipline with a race season encompassing the fall and winter months. ‘Cross is a sport that’s been dominated by Europeans, with Belgium the current world power and spiritual homeland, but North Americans have made inroads, particularly on the women’s side with riders like the USA’s Katie Compton a perennial superstar.
Cyclocross races are roughly one-hour, multi-lap events over a course typically no more than two miles in length, with a variety of surfaces (dirt, grass, asphalt/concrete), plus features such as barriers and short, steep climbs that force riders to dismount and carry their bikes. It is a thing of beauty watching world-class ‘cross racers approaching obstacles at speed and their subsequent super-smooth dismounts and remounts.
And as a fall/winter sport, weather conditions play an enormous role. It’s not uncommon for cyclocross races to take place in frigid rain (or snow) that turns the course into a literal sea of mud, and riders must switch to clean bikes, sometimes every lap, when the accumulation of muck, slime, and ice renders bikes barely rideable.
Within these general parameters of cyclocross racing evolved bikes specific to the sport’s needs. Tire clearance on a cyclocross bike is generous, to allow for wider off-road tires, typically but not exclusively in the 700x30c-ish range (pros are limited to a max width of 700x33c). There’s a range of tire tread patterns available, ranging from minimalist file treads to aggressive, mud-oriented treads, to dial in the bike’s traction needs to the course at hand. The wheelbase is longer, too, which provides more stability when riding over non-firm surfaces (even sand!).
If you become a devoted racer, you’ll find that carbon fiber is king regarding frame (and fork) materials, with Bike Nashbar’s own Carbon Cyclocross Bike a remarkable value. For the more budget-conscious, aluminum frames provide nearly as light a material as carbon that’s much friendlier to the wallet. And even steel, such as our super-fun Nashbar Single-Speed Cyclocross Bike, is still a viable, very affordable option.
‘Cross bikes position the rider more upright, with a higher center of gravity, a geometry that makes it easier to navigate unsettled terrain plus ensuring more pedaling clearance. The frames are designed with steeper headtube angles to handle the demands of sharper turning. There’s plenty of changes in speed and direction on a ‘cross course and a cyclocross bike is optimized for aggressive riding and accelerating out of every turn to maintain a speedy tempo.
Traditionally, cyclocross bikes have been set up with drivetrains featuring double chainring cranksets, but in recent years single chainring, 1x set ups have immensely increased in popularity. A 1x configuration is lighter in weight, is a mechanically simpler system (less likely to be affected by sloppy conditions), and delivers super-intuitive shifting (very important when you’re deep in the pain cave and don’t have the mental acuity to work with both front and rear derailleurs).
Gravel – The new kid on the drop-bar block
Gravel bikes, on the other hand, are less about racing (although gravel races are definitely growing in popularity) and more about enjoying riding for riding’s sake on the road less taken, and having the capacity to keep you comfortable and well-equipped for tackling extended-length adventures over pretty rough terrain. Possibly multiple days in duration.
Durability, reliability, and comfort are hallmarks of a well-made gravel bike. While there are full carbon fiber steeds for the dedicated gravel racer, for riders of a less competitive mindset who may be interested in long-distance adventure rides or bikepacking, rugged frames made of steel or aluminum make perfect, practical sense. The legendary Breezer brand, of Joe Breeze fame (one of the originators of the modern-day mountain bike), provides fantastic steel options in their Inversion and Radar models. Additionally, the Fuji Jari gravel bikes are available in steel and aluminum frames while the Diamondback Haanjo (men’s version) and Haanjenn (women’s version) gravel bikes are built around aluminum frames.
Gravel bikes tend to have a taller headtube and thus situate you in a more upright position than cyclocross bikes, befitting their call as an all-day ride. Lower bottom brackets are all about stability and a lower center of gravity while longer wheelbases are there, too, featuring longer seatstays than ‘cross rigs for additional comfort on the back end as well as more easily accommodating racks and panniers.
Gravel bikes are noted for the proliferation of braze-on mounts to facilitate extended rides away from readily available provisions. It’s normal for a frame and fork to sport braze-on mounts to handle five water bottle cages, front and rear packs & racks, as well as a top tube-mounted bento box. Contrast that with my personal ‘cross bike that’s only equipped with a pair of water bottle cage braze-ons.
Gearing is generally more forgiving on a gravel bike, befitting their endurance orientation and the demands of scaling lengthy, steep ascents. Climbing in cyclocross racing is short and punchy, and if the terrain is too steep you simply get off and run with the bike on your shoulder. In my days as an elite ‘cross racer, I ran a 42T single chainring with a 12-25T cassette. That’s fine for ‘cross racing and training, but my legs would explode in mere minutes using those gears on rides in Pisgah Forest in western North Carolina.
If you’re off the beaten path taking on an extended stint of National Forest fire roads, you may encounter steeply pitched climbs that are many miles in length and you need gears low enough to pedal up them – especially if your bike is loaded up with packs and bags. Which is why a bike like the Breezer Radar Expert gravel bike sports 48/32T chainrings plus an 11-36T cassette. You’ll thank your lucky stars your low gear is lower than a 1-1 ratio. Speaking of gearing, you’ll find a healthy mix of both double chainring and single chainring drivetrain configurations on today’s gravel bikes.
Befitting the demands of long rides on rough dirt/gravel roads, with “road” often used in the loosest possible manner, gravel bikes are designed with more tire clearance than ‘cross bikes so you can run plush, forgiving rubber. My ‘cross bike can barely clear a 700×38 tire, and I’ll only use that width in dry conditions, while at a minimum a gravel bike is expected to clear a 700×40 tire, with tire widths often running close to 50mm. Minimally maintained roads coupled with the possibility of gear for multiple days in the woods make running wide, higher volume tires a necessity.
But What Bike Do I Need?
It really comes down to the style of riding you’re more inclined to do. If you’re interested in ‘cross racing and/or riding fast and light on mixed surfaces over rides lasting up to a few hours in length, then a cyclocross bike is the logical choice. If you’re more comfort-minded, are more interested in the journey itself, and in particular are inclined to undertake rides that entail packing extra gear/provisions, then by all means look into a gravel bike.
And the beauty of both ‘cross and gravel bikes is there is a blurry middle ground. You can certainly race ‘cross on a gravel bike or add a sizable seatpost pack and handlebar bag to a ‘cross bike for longer rides. The bikes are fully capable of crossing boundaries, but are best able to handle their own specific genre of riding.
Don’t forget that ‘cross bikes and gravel bikes are remarkably versatile and it’s amazing just what they can do with a simple change of tires. My ‘cross bike has logged plenty of super-fast road group rides with simply a change of tires from 700×33 knobbies to zippy, 700×25 road rubber, and another switch to Continental Gatorskin tires and a set of platform pedals converts my ‘cross bike into a bombproof, around-town commuter. And a gravel bike transforms into the ultimate comfort, endurance road bike with a similar outfitting of slick road tires. And you can run them wide, too, – REALLY wide – and discover the beauty and comfort of 700×30 and wider slick road tires.
And no matter which bike you ultimately choose, there’s just no end to how much fun you’ll have when the pavement ends and the dirt begins.