Updated: December 17, 2020
Cyclists have always been drawn to the freedom of riding a bike. The early cycling pioneers had no preconceptions of where their bikes were “meant” to go. So they rode them across all types of terrain from paved city streets to cobbled farm roads to untamed dirt and gravel that traversing the countryside and mountains.
Today's riders are also seeking this sort of freedom. But now, we're using modern gravel and cyclocross bikes with off-road components, technology, and geometry designed for leaving the pavement behind. These bikes allow riders to venture off the beaten path, to explore unfamiliar roads, and to escape cars and congestion to rediscover the simple joy of pedaling their bikes.
Buying a new gravel or cyclocross bike can be exciting, especially when you have the world’s biggest selection of pre-owned bikes at your fingertips. As you start researching and making decisions, all the different options and terminology can start to seem overwhelming. If you’re looking to finally take the plunge and try a new pre-owned or Certified Pre-Owned gravel or 'cross bike, these are the basics you need to know to get started.
The best part about buying used, especially with an option like Certified Pre-Owned bikes, is that it’s easier and more affordable than ever to get on a high-quality used bike. If you have any questions, our Ride Guides are always here to help you on your journey.
See our Cross / Gravel Collection.
- Rider Type
- Bike Type
- Frame Material
- Wheels and Tires
- Gravel Specific Components
- Geometry and Fit
- What type of rider are you?
- How will you use your bike?
To define your own riding style and help narrow down your bike choices, imagine your dream riding scenario. This level of fantasy exists in some form within all of us, even if you've never ridden a bike before.
Now that you're interested in a new gravel or cyclocross bike, do you see yourself racing on a muddy course with spectators ringing cowbells, sprinting out of corners? Are you finishing long gravel events like Dirty Kanza? Are you riding in search of rugged singletrack once dominated by mountain bikes? Are you a racer? A fitness nut? An adventurer? A weekend cruiser looking to relax?
The answers to these questions can help you understand what you need and pick things like bike type, frame material, drivetrain, wheels, tires, components, and geometry when searching for your new pre-owned bike.
Your dream riding scenario is something that might change or evolve over time. Saving money and buying pre-owned and Certified Pre-Owned bikes lets you continue to explore, experiment, and develop yourself as a rider. With helpful options like Guaranteed Buyback, it's easy to change course and try something new.
Cyclocross and Gravel bikes are drop-bar bikes designed to handle off-road riding. These bikes split the difference between the efficiency of road bikes and the capability of mountain bikes.
For the purpose of simplicity, this guide discusses both gravel and cyclocross bikes together. There is a significant amount of crossover and a large number of riders will use one bike to satisfy both styles of riding. When looking at our selection of Pre-Owned bikes, you will note that 'cross and gravel are grouped together.
If you need help discerning a bike's intended purpose or finding a bike that is right for you, you can always contact our expert Ride Guides for assistance.
In recent years, gravel has become its own riding genre. This has been driven by riders seeking bikes that are more comfortable, stable, and rugged. To achieve this, dedicated gravel bikes have longer wheelbases, more upright positions, and lower bottom brackets to increase comfort and stability. They are also able to fit tires that are much larger than what cyclocross bikes can traditionally fit.
The gravel category is still evolving and there are no rules or traditions to follow. As a result, there is plenty of experimentation. Adventure gravel bikes have pushed the boundaries of geometry, suspension, wheels and tires, and componentry to produce capable mountain/gravel hybrids. Some, for example, use gravel-specific suspension forks to handle rougher terrain. They often have tires that are 40mm or wider and some use 650b wheels to give riders the option to run tires that are nearly the size of mountain bike treads. These bikes excel at loaded touring, extremely rough gravel roads, and even singletrack trails.
At the racier end of the spectrum, all-road gravel bikes have been developed as capable machines that still retain high-speed road bike features and DNA. They are built to be lighter and employ more road-oriented geometry, while still providing the necessary gearing and tire clearance to handle gravel. These bikes are incredibly versatile. They are fast and efficient for riders who race gravel events or split their time riding road and gravel.
Because gravel bikes defy easy categorization, a proper gravel bike can really be whatever the rider deems appropriate for his or her terrain and riding style. In general, more race- and performance-focused riders may want lighter, faster bikes, like all-road gravel or cyclocross bikes. Riders more interested in touring, bikepacking, and exploration will want more robust and comfortable adventure bikes.
The cyclocross bike is the original off-road bike. Cyclocross has a long history in cycling, dating back to the early 1900s. Cyclocross racing has long been an off-season staple for road riders looking to hone their skills and fitness.
Cyclocross racing has unique demands. Riders navigate technical courses with sand, mud, grass, and obstacles that require them to dismount and run while carrying their bikes. Cyclocross bikes have evolved to suit this type of riding. They resemble road bikes but have greater tire clearance for knobby tires that are usually 33mm wide.
A 'cross bike's geometry is traditionally steep and high, designed for quick and responsive handling so riders can pedal and maneuver through tight corners and challenging terrain while racing elbow-to-elbow. Cyclocross bikes often have less standover than comparable road or gravel bikes because the top tubes are not sloping. This makes the bike easier to shoulder when riders need to dismount and run.
Cyclocross bikes, obviously, are best suited to those interested in riding or racing cyclocross. But they are also versatile for disciplines outside of cyclocross racing. Before gravel-specific bikes became mainstream, cyclocross bikes were the best tool for dirt, gravel roads, and light singletrack. Many riders still choose cyclocross bikes for modern gravel riding as they are versatile, easy to find, fast, light, maneuverable, and sporty feeling.
Your choice of frame material will usually come down to personal preference, price, and the type of riding you like. The integrity of a bike’s frame is paramount to its value and safety, so it is essential to check for structural damage, cracks, and other potential issues. Carbon often receives the most scrutiny, but all frame materials can fail and should be carefully inspected when purchasing a used cyclocross or gravel bike.
If you choose a pre-owned or Certified Pre-Owned bike from The Pro’s Closet, they are all professionally inspected by one of our full-time bike mechanics and guaranteed to be in perfect working order. They are also professionally packed and shipped so they arrive safely.
Aluminum is often the most affordable frame material. When comparing two similar bikes, it will usually be heavier than carbon, but it’s also less expensive and, in some ways, slightly more durable. This makes it a good option for budget-minded riders and amateur 'cross racers who will abuse their bikes. Though aluminum has a reputation for being extremely stiff, many newer aluminum bikes can provide a ride feel nearly as good as some of their more expensive carbon counterparts.
For more information, check out our detailed Carbon vs. Aluminum article.
Carbon is the latest and greatest material in cycling, and most high-end bikes will use it in some form. It can be used to make frames that are lightweight, stiff, and responsive, and it can also be shaped into special aerodynamic shapes. Across all cycling disciplines, high-end race bikes are almost always carbon. Carbon can also be engineered to have greater compliance in key areas for added comfort. This generally comes at a price as carbon frames are typically more expensive.
For more information, check out our detailed Carbon vs Aluminum article.
Steel is the classic frame material, used since the bicycle’s inception. It’s revered by many for its supple ride quality and durability. A steel frame will likely last a lifetime if it's maintained correctly. Steel's rugged nature makes it a popular option for adventure riding and long-distance off-road touring. It is often slightly heavier than other materials, but plenty of riders prefer it simply for the feel, durability, and the classic good looks.
Like steel, titanium is a classic and rugged frame material. It has a supple ride quality similar to steel, but is much lighter, and has great durability thanks to its high strength and resistance to oxidation. The trade-off is a much higher price tag. Few big brands offer titanium frames, so it is often limited to smaller boutique and custom builders.
When buying a used bike, it’s important to check the function of the drivetrain and make sure it has been properly cared for. A drivetrain's cleanliness speaks volumes, and simply shifting through gears and pedaling around can tell you a lot about how well the gears are working.
Check the chainrings and cogs for wear. See if the chain has excessive stretch. Every pre-owned bike at The Pro’s Closet has been professionally serviced by our mechanics, so the drivetrain is always fresh and tuned right out of the box.
Used bikes will often have drivetrain components from older component generations. But any drivetrain that's been properly maintained, serviced, and tuned, will work just as well as new equipment.
The three most common drivetrain manufacturers are Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo. All three brands offer groups with hydraulic disc brakes that are compatible with modern disc brake-equipped 'cross and gravel bikes.
Your choice will largely come down to personal preference and budget. Entry-level drivetrains will generally be cheaper, but feel less refined and are heavier. As you become more experienced and competitive (and pickier), high-end components will feel like a greater necessity.
Basic Component Hierarchy
1x vs 2x
Most modern cyclocross or gravel bikes will have either one or two chainrings. These are referred to as 1x (“one-by”) and 2x (“two-by”) or double cranksets. The double is a more traditional option. Most modern 2x cyclocross bikes come equipped with 46/36-tooth chainrings.
Single-chainring drivetrains grew in popularity in the mountain bike world and have since been adapted to 'cross and gravel. The advantage of a 1x drivetrain is greater simplicity and lighter weight as it removes a chainring and front derailleur. The drivetrain utilizes a single chainring with a “narrow-wide” tooth profile which helps prevent the chain from falling off the chainring in rough and bouncy terrain. A clutch rear derailleur is also essential for chain retention by maintaining constant tension on the chain.
How many “speeds” a cyclocross or gravel bike has is equal to how many cogs are on the rear cassette. An “11-speed” drivetrain has a cassette with 11 cogs on it, regardless of how many chainrings there are. With newer generations of drivetrains, manufacturers have been able to add cogs on the cassette to increase drivetrain speeds.
The newest drivetrains will have 11 or 12 speeds. The advantage of more cogs is that they allow for a wider gear range with smaller steps between shifts.
Entry-level drivetrains generally have fewer speeds than high-end drivetrains. Older or more entry level 9- and 10-speed drivetrains will still work great and will cost less, at the expense of refinement, potential compatibility with new components, and resale value.
In cyclocross, 46/36t has been the traditional 2x chainring combo paired with an 11-28t cassette. With a 1x drivetrain, a cyclocross racer might run a 40t or 42t chainring paired with a wide-range 11-32t or 11-36t cassette. This will provide enough gears for most racers on standard 'cross courses.
As you ride more on dirt and gravel roads, your gearing needs change. Riders that have to hang in fast-moving groups and on paved roads often need harder gearing to keep from getting “spun out,” meaning they can't pedal fast enough to maintain the desired speed. Riders doing lots of extended dirt or gravel climbs need more low-end so they have easy gears to keep spinning.
A cyclist who does fast group rides, gravel races, and some road riding might choose a double crankset with 50/34t or 52/36t chainrings. A big chainring larger than 46t gives you more gears to maintain higher speeds, paired with an 11-32t, 11-34t, or 11-36t cassette. These cassettes have smaller steps between gears, making it easier to maintain a consistent cadence when riding fast, but still offering a low enough gear for most dirt and gravel climbs.
A rider who needs more low gears for climbs or hauling bikepacking gear might try wide-range cassettes originally designed for mountain bikes like 10-42t, 11-42t, and 10-50t. This gives riders an ample amount of gears, especially when paired with a smaller chainring. For example, a 42t chainring paired with a cassette with a 42t cog gives the rider a one-to-one ratio for the easiest gear, which is great for loose, steep climbs. Some may equip their bikes with an even easier gear if needed.
Each of the three major drivetrain manufacturers also has electronic shifting options. These are generally reserved for their higher-end offerings. Shimano's electronic groups are designated as "Di2," SRAM as "eTap" or "eTap AXS," and Campagnolo as "EPS." For example, if you see a used bike listing with "Shimano Ultegra Di2," it means the bike is equipped with an Ultegra-level electronic groupset.
Electronic groups are more expensive than tradition mechanical groups but have a few benefits. They provide crisp, fast shifting, require little tuning, and many new groups have a smartphone app for updates and customization. Batteries will generally last months without recharging. As newer components are released, electronic groups will become more and more common on many pre-owned bikes.
Brakes come in two styles: rim and disc. Rim brakes have been the standard almost since the inception of the modern bicycle. Disc brakes, however, are now the dominant technology for cyclocross and gravel as they provide lots of advantages and few drawbacks.
Cantilever Rim Brakes
Cyclocross bikes have used the cantilever brake for decades. These differ from the calipers used on road bikes as cantilevers use two separate braking arms on their own pivots rather than a caliper with the two arms connected by pivots. This affords more tire clearance. Cantilevers are light, simple, and easy to maintain.
The greatest downside is that they use your bicycle’s rim as a wear component. Once the rim's braking surface wears out, the entire rim is no longer safe to ride. This happens faster if you ride a lot, and especially in wet conditions. Riders with high-end wheels will often have a second set of “training” wheels to preserve their nice wheels for races and special occasions.
Cantilever rim brakes are generally found on older cyclocross bikes and are great for budget-minded riders, or those who don’t need the latest and greatest tech. When looking at used rim-brake cyclocross bikes, rim brake tracks should be inspected for excessive wear. Rims with worn brake tracks should be replaced. The Pro’s Closet’s mechanics perform a full inspection on all our pre-owned bikes and replace any rims that show unacceptable levels of wear.
Disc brakes entered cycling from mountain biking and are now the standard for 'cross and gravel bikes. Brake disc rotors mount to the hubs of compatible disc wheels and are stopped by disc caliper. This moves the wear surface away from the rim, which preserves high-end carbon rims.
Disc brakes are much more powerful than rim brakes and are less affected by grit, mud, and wet conditions. They also provide increased modulation which is great for maximizing braking traction on loose surfaces and greater resistance to heat which is beneficial on fast and long descents.
Hydraulic disc brakes are the most common, as they provide the greatest amount of power and modulation and are sealed from the elements. They require the use of hydraulic fluid in the form of mineral oil or DOT brake fluid and need to be periodically bled to maintain performance. Home mechanics who want to service their own hydraulic brakes will need some special tools and know-how.
When inspecting a used 'cross or gravel bike, hydraulic disc brakes that feel spongy, weak, or have excessive lever throw should be bled and serviced. The Pro’s Closet’s mechanics perform a full inspection on all our pre-owned bikes. They also make sure brakes are serviced, bled, and functioning well.
Riders who don’t want to deal with hydraulic fluid may prefer mechanical disc brakes. These are cheaper and easier to maintain, and are compatible with older non-hydraulic shifters, but lack the same power and feel of fully hydraulic brakes.
Other than the frame, wheels and tires will have the greatest effect on how your bike rides. This is because wheels and tires are rotating weight, so they have a large effect on how easily and quickly you can accelerate. Tire volume, rubber compounds, and tread patterns will affect comfort, traction, and rolling resistance.
Clincher vs. Tubular vs. Tubeless
Most riders are likely familiar with clincher tires. A clincher tire houses an inflated rubber or latex inner tube. Riders often have to run higher air pressure, compared to tubular and tubeless setups, to avoid pinch flats on rocky terrain. This is the simplest type of tire to maintain and use but it is more prone to flats.
In cyclocross, serious racers often choose to run tubular tires instead of clinchers. The casing and tread of tubular tires are sewn or molded around an inner tube. The tire is then glued to a tubular rim, which lacks the rim walls required to hold the bead of a clincher tire. Competitive cyclocross racers prefer tubulars because they allow them to run much lower pressures for maximum comfort and traction, while also being more resistant to pinch flats.
Tubular tires are less practical than clinchers or tubeless tires for everyday riding. Gluing tires is often difficult for novice mechanics. It is also time-consuming and impractical to swap tires and fixing flats. When buying a used bike with tubular tires, be sure to inspect the tire and the glue to ensure it is safe to ride. It may often be beneficial to invest in a set of clincher or tubeless wheels and tires for everyday riding and training if you're committed to riding tubulars at the races.
Tubeless tires became popular in mountain biking and are now regular equipment on a large number of cyclocross and gravel bikes. Tubeless tires are similar to clinchers but rely on an airtight seal between the bead and rim and tubeless sealant to hold pressure. Riders can often run less air pressure in tubeless setups, improving traction and comfort. Tubeless sealant helps fix small punctures by filling holes if you strike a sharp rock or ride through thorns. These benefits make tubeless tires ideal for gravel riding where debris is common. In a pinch, a tubeless tire can also be used with a standard inner tube.
In cyclocross racing, 33mm has long been the standard tire width. This is because international rules limit tire size to 33mm for cyclocross racing, so most cyclocross bikes are designed around tires of that size. Some 'cross bikes, however, are capable of fitting wider tires, sometimes up to 40mm. Depending on what level you are racing, race organizers may or may not care or check what size tire you are using. It is a bit of an arbitrary rule, after all.
Many modern gravel riders simply run the largest tires their bike can fit. The wider a tire is, the more comfort and traction you will have on rough and loose terrain. The main trade-off is that wider tires are heavier. Most gravel bikes have tires ranging from 37mm to 40mm wide, and more adventure-focused models are often capable of fitting tires up to 45mm wide.
For those who aren't as focused on speed and racing, 650b has emerged as a popular wheel and tire size option. These wheels are smaller in diameter than standard 700c wheels found on most cyclocross and gravel bikes. Pairing these with larger 650b tires brings the overall wheel and tire diameter close to a standard 700c wheel and tire combo. Because a 650b tire has so much more volume, it provides even more comfort and traction. A large number of modern gravel bikes are able to fit both 700c and 650b wheels and tires.
Tread and Casing
As you'd probably expect, knobby, aggressive tire tread provides more traction in dirt and gravel. The trade-off, however, is that knobbier tires also have more rolling resistance, especially when riding on pavement and smooth hard-packed dirt. Your tread choice should match the riding conditions you’ll encounter.
Those who ride lots of pavement and smoother dirt and gravel might prefer less tread for maximum rolling speed. Riders who ride more singletrack and rough, loose gravel might prefer a tire with bigger, widely spaced knobs for better traction.
Riders who will encounter sharp rocks, thorns, or other debris that may cause flats should consider using tires with more protective casings to prevent punctures.
Wider rims pair better with the wider tires that 'cross and gravel riders use, giving more support to the tire sidewalls for cornering and increasing overall tire volume so riders can run lower pressures.
Carbon wheels are one of the most popular aftermarket upgrade options. As we mentioned in the section on frame material, carbon fiber is exceptionally light, stiff, and strong. Because of carbon’s strength to weight advantage, rims can be made wider without a massive weight penalty. The stiff feel of carbon rims can also improve the cornering and acceleration of your bike.
Because of these benefits, racers and competitive riders often prefer to use carbon wheels. The addition of a quality set of carbon wheels can significantly increase the value of a used bike.
Despite carbon’s advantages, some recreational or utilitarian riders may still prefer traditional aluminum wheels. Aluminum is less expensive and in some cases more robust and resistant to damage.
When buying a used bike, it’s always important to inspect both carbon and aluminum wheels carefully to ensure they are free of cracks or structural damage. The Pro’s Closet’s mechanics inspect and service all wheels on our pre-owned road bikes to ensure they run true and straight and are structurally sound.
As gravel riding has evolved, components changed to suit it. There are now many parts offered on gravel bikes and as aftermarket upgrades that improve the experience of gravel riding.
As riders have sought greater confidence and control in off-road situations, flared drop bars have become popular. The lower drop portion of these bars flares outward so that they are wider at the drops than at the hoods. This wider stance provides more control when riding singletrack and technical descents.
Different bars have different amounts of flare (measured in degrees). In general, more adventure-style gravel riding will benefit from an increased flare. Riders doing more fast group rides and races may prefer traditional bars as they place you in a more aerodynamic position.
In the search for more comfort and traction, some bike companies have turned to suspension. Gravel suspension forks are similar in technology and spirit to mountain bike forks but are designed specifically for the demands of gravel riding. This means they are lighter and have less travel than a mountain bike fork.
The Lauf Grit and Cannondale Lefty Oliver are two examples of minimalist gravel suspension fork technology. The Lauf uses glassfiber springs that provide 30mm of travel and, unlike air forks, requires no maintenance. The Lefty Oliver is a single-sided air fork, similar to Cannondale's XC mountain bike forks, but with a carbon upper and 30mm of travel. This fork is standard equipment on the Cannondale Slate which we reviewed here.
There are a few other gravel suspension fork options available or in development. In the future, there are sure to be plenty more.
Dropper posts are a rare sight on gravel bikes but some riders swear by them. A dropper is a hydraulic- or spring-actuated seatpost that is height-adjustable. These posts are usually controlled by a remote at the handlebar which allows a rider to instantaneously lower their saddle. They aren't necessary for most gravel riding, but if you're interested in making your bike more capable, it's worth considering.
For optimal pedaling, you need proper leg extension for power and efficiency. A saddle positioned for optimal pedaling, however, is generally too high for some riders to descend comfortably on steep or technical terrain. A lowered saddle is out of the way, allowing you to easily maneuver the bike around beneath you. Droppers work best for riders who plan to descend aggressively on their bikes and don't mind carrying the extra weight.
Dropper posts take a lot of abuse. Used droppers and even some new ones often have a poor reputation for reliability. If any sag, stiction, leakage, or other issues are present, then a dropper will need to be serviced or replaced. The Pro's Closet inspects and services dropper posts on all pre-owned and Certified Pre-Owned bikes.
The biggest factor that will contribute to the enjoyment of a new cyclocross or gravel bike is the fit. A bike that fits properly is a bike that will let you focus more on the ride, and less on any negative sensations occurring in your body.
Determining your ideal fit may take some experimentation. Below is a generalized fit chart that will give you a basic range of sizes to look at.
When comparing the fit of a cyclocross bike to a road bike, traditional advice has been to size down slightly, because higher top tubes and bottom brackets change the fit. However, many modern 'cross bikes are close enough to road geometry that riders can ride the same or similar size as their road bike.
For cross, gravel, and off-road riding in general, most riders prefer to be more upright when compared to their road positions. This gives you more control and increases your comfort when things get rough.
If you already have a bike that fits well, it’s easy to determine if another bike you’re looking at will fit similarly. There are three basic bike geometry measurements you can look at: top tube length, stack and reach, and standover height.
Top tube length is the horizontal distance of the top tube from the center of seat tube to the center of the head tube. Stack and reach measure the vertical and horizontal distance from the bottom bracket to the center/top of the headtube. Standover height is the distance from the center/top of the top tube to the ground. If these values are the same or very close between two bikes, then they will have a similar fit.
If your current bike doesn’t fit that well, you can use these measurements to determine approximately what you need to look for in your new bike. Top tube/reach influence how long and roomy a bike will feel. If your current bike feels too long, a bike with a slightly shorter top tube or reach will probably work.
Stack will influence how upright it will feel. If your current bike feels too low, then taller stack will help. If you have trouble straddling your current bike, then a lower standover height will help. The Pro's Closet provides these measurements in all pre-owned bike listings, so you can understand how the bike you're looking at will fit.
It can take time to adjust to the fit of a new bike. All contact points (pedals, shoes, and saddle) can be changed and altered for personal preference, performance, and comfort. Fit can be fine-tuned and adjusted with stems, handlebars, and saddle position to suit your body. The tailoring of any bike is an important step toward the long-term enjoyment of riding.
If you have any questions or concerns about fitting one of our Pre-Owned bikes, our Ride Guides are available seven days a week to answer questions and help guide you in your search for the perfect bike.
See our Cross / Gravel Collection.