Many cyclists believe that modern “Gravel bikes” are just dressed up, unsold cyclocross bikes painted in earthy colors to appeal to the more vegetarian among us.
They believe that evil cycling corporations are tricking consumers out of their hard-earned money by adding yet another style of bike. The old N+1 adage* about bicycle ownership just gets larger by creating a new style of bike.
*(N+1 is the formula for bicycle ownership where N= the number of bikes currently owned)
This piece will look at a few specific bikes from both the Cyclocross and Gravel categories, as well as taking a more general look into the facts around the differences between Cyclocross and Gravel bikes.
What makes a bike?
In one simple word, Geometry. When related to a bike, the word geometry refers to the angles of the frame tubes, their relative position, and distance from each other.
This is decided in the design process and is a very careful consideration. Geometry is what makes all bikes ride the way they do. It makes the steering feel slow or fast and controls how stable you feel on the bike.
Let’s look at the geometry of a classic cyclocross bike with proper Belgian heritage. The Ridley X-Bow is a Belgium (The home of cyclocross) born and bred race machine. This bike has one purpose only.
So what does that aim look like in terms of geometry? Well, a 72-degree head angle and a 280mm high bottom bracket are the most notable design features when we are comparing it to a gravel bike.
A responsive road bike like used by the pros may use a 73-degree head angle so we can see that the cyclocross bike uses a 1-degree slacker to enable a little more stability off-road but retains quick steering by not straying too far from the road machine.
In contrast, an all-mountain bike may use something as slack as just 65-degrees to enable stability on the bumpiest terrain.
But what about the Gravel bike? The Specialized Diverge is now a staple of the gravel-bike scene and it uses a 70.8-degree head angle which is a lot slacker than our cyclocross example.
This shows that the gravel bike has been considered for different terrain or riders than the other bike. The bottom bracket height on these two bikes also shows their differences.
The cyclocross bike has a 280mm high bottom bracket (from the floor to the center of the BB) to allow maximum ground clearance for the specific obstacles that cyclocross races have.
The other effect of this is that it puts the rider’s weight higher and further over the front of the bike, making the steering feel even more direct.
The gravel bike has a much lower bottom bracket at just 265mm adding stability and confidence. This also lowers the rider standover height meaning that the rider can touch the floor more easily when seated or stood over the frame.
Much better for more casual riders and commuters.
Components and accessories
By looking at the components and accessories on these two bikes we can further understand the different intended uses and users.
Cyclocross bikes do not have mounts for pannier racks or mudguards (or bottle cages sometimes!) This is due to the highly specialized nature of this form of racing, the riders simply have no use for them.
The gravel bikes, however, have mounts for almost every conceivable addition from racks and mudguards to extra bottle cages and low rider fork mounts.
The materials on these bikes and the way in which it is used also shows the myriad differences. Light and stiff is the cyclocross way to enable excellent power transfer with little care for rider comfort. This suits a racer but would not be good on your morning commute.
The gravel bike has pencil-thin seat stays to offer added flex and comfort to a less speed-oriented customer.
The additional comfort suits a rider spending more time in the saddle such as those bike-packing or adventure camping which is common with gravel bike users.
In terms of components, gravel bikes are often fitted with a more forgiving seat-post for additional comfort and flared handlebars which are wider on the drops to give a more controlled off-road steering experience.
This type of handlebar would be a real pain in the tightly packed environment of a cyclocross start line.
When riders such as myself took to buying cyclocross bikes in the early 2000s as a faster off-road commuter bike.
The cycle industry took note and ironed out the annoyances (like the high BB) of these hyper-specialized bikes to suit them for the use they were getting.
This created a new breed of niche bike which wasn’t a cyclocross bike and wasn’t a touring bike but somewhere in between.
Yes, gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes are very similar but for getting the best out of your new bike, you should choose the correct tool for the job.
My name is David Mckinven AKA Wheels of Karma. Bikes have been my life and have taken me to rural Africa as a bike mechanic teacher, Dubai as the SBC workshop manager and to work for as long as I care to remember.
I have written for Cyclist magazine and a host of online publications. I truly believe that bikes can save our planet and that small changes will make all the difference.