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Gravel Bikes vs. Cyclocross Bikes: 5 Key Differences

Gravel and cyclocross bike look a lot alike. But can you ride gravel on a cyclocross bike or race cyclocross on a gravel bike? We explain the key differences so you can pick the right bike.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Gravel

Gravel is the new darling of cycling. It’s so beloved that many seem to have forgotten about gravel’s older sibling, cyclocross. But wait, I know what you’re thinking. What’s the difference? 

To the untrained eye, gravel and cyclocross bikes look pretty similar. If you browse bikes at TPC, you’ll see that we even categorize gravel and cyclocross bikes together because they have so much in common. But if we’re placing bikes into categories, there are five key differences that make gravel bikes better for gravel and cyclocross bikes better for cyclocross. This quick guide will explain these differences, so you can decide which bike is right for you. 

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1. Gravel vs. cyclocross: Intended use

Gravel vs. Cyclocross bikes explainedCyclocross involves fast and furious racing on tight courses. Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi / Red Bull Content Pool.

Gravel bikes

Cyclocross bikes

Designed for multi-surface exploration

Designed for racing on short off-road courses

Geometry enhances comfort and stability

Geometry enhances agility

Wider gearing for varied terrain

Tighter gearing for racing

Wider tires (40mm+)

Narrower tires (~33mm)

More mounts for gear

Simpler design for short races

Gravel bikes are designed to comfortably cover long distances over a variety of surfaces from pavement to gravel to singletrack trails. Gravel is also diversifying into sub-genres like gravel racing and adventure gravel, so you tend to see more variability in bike design than you do in cyclocross. Some more extreme gravel bikes will have components like suspension forks, dropper posts, and other comfort features. 

Cyclocross bikes are purpose-built for cyclocross racing. Cyclocross races take place in the fall and winter and last between 30-90 minutes. Racers do multiple laps on courses that feature technical off-road terrain with mud, sand, grass, and snow. These courses will also have run-up sections and barriers that require racers to dismount and run with their bike. 

2. Gravel vs. cyclocross geometry 

Gravel vs. Cyclocross bikes geometry and comfort

Gravel events can be super long. SBT GRVL is 140 miles! Gravel geometry is more relaxed to keep you comfortable on rough roads and over long distances. 

Gravel bike geometry

Cyclocross bike geometry

Designed for comfort and stability

Designed for agility

Lower bottom bracket

Higher bottom bracket

Slacker head angle

Steeper head angle

Longer wheelbase

Shorter wheelbase

Lower standover height

Level top tubes

More upright riding position

Race-oriented riding position

Gravel riders tend to travel at higher speeds for longer distances. Also, unlike cyclocross courses, gravel roads usually don’t feature repetitive tight corners or mandatory dismounts. As a result, gravel bikes emphasize comfort and stability for long stints in the saddle. They will have lower bottom brackets, slacker head angles, and longer wheelbases. Many gravel bikes use sloping top tubes, which provide a low standover height, and will have a more upright riding position (i.e., higher stack height). 

Gravel vs cyclocross bike geometry for racingCyclocross bikes need to tackle tight corners and be easy to shoulder while running. Photo: Kristof Ramon / Red Bull Content Pool.

Cyclocross courses feature repetitive, tight corners which require racers to slow down rapidly and then accelerate quickly multiple times a lap. To handle this, cyclocross bikes have higher bottom brackets, steeper head angles, and shorter wheelbases for fast and agile handling. The high bottom bracket is key because it also allows riders to pedal through corners, muddy ruts, and off-camber sections. High bottom brackets also make it easier to bunny hop over barriers.

The other major difference is in the top tube. Because ‘cross riders dismount and run with their bike, the top tube on cyclocross bikes is usually straight and more level with the ground to make it easier to shoulder the bike. The effect of the high bottom bracket and straight top tube means cyclocross bikes often have higher standover than gravel bikes, which can be problematic for shorter riders. 


3. Gravel vs. cyclocross gearing

Gravel vs. Cyclocross bikes gearing Gravel bikes tend to have bigger cassettes that provide more gear range.

Gravel bike gearing

Cyclocross bike gearing

1x or 2x chainrings

1x or 2x chainrings

Wider range cassette

Narrower range cassette

Easier low gears

Tighter jumps between gears

Gravel bikes face a wide range of terrain from flat roads to steep climbs to fast descents. This means they typically have a wider gear range than cyclocross bikes. This is accomplished with wide-range cassettes (10-36t, 10-44t, 10-50t) that provide a good mix of high gears for speed and low gears for climbing. 1x (40t-46t) and 2x (48/31t, 46/33t, 46/30t) drivetrains are common. 

Cyclocross races are relatively short and intense and don’t feature the long climbs, descents, or flat sections you find out on the open road. Because of this, cyclocross bikes don’t need the gear range of a gravel bike. They will usually use narrow-range road cassettes (11-28t, 11-32t, 11-36t) that provide smaller jumps between gears so racers can maintain their optimal pedaling cadence. Like with gravel, 1x (40t-46t) and 2x (46/36t) drivetrains are common.

4. Gravel vs. cyclocross tires and tire clearance

Gravel vs. Cyclocross tires and tire clearance

Cyclocross bikes like this Cannondale SuperX have lots of clearance for mud. That sometimes means they can fit wide gravel tires like these 37mm wide WTB Riddlers.  

Gravel bike tires

Cyclocross bike tires

40-45mm wide

~33mm wide

Frames designed for wide tires

Frames designed for mud clearance

Tubeless is standard

Mix of clinchers, tubeless, and tubulars

For gravel, most bikes fit tires that are 40-45mm wide. Some gravel riders may choose narrower (35-38mm) tires if their terrain is smoother, while others might go wider (up to 50mm) to handle exceptionally rough terrain or singletrack trails. 

For cyclocross races that are sanctioned by the UCI, the sport’s worldwide governing body, tires can be no wider than 33mm. However, rules vary by country or federation, and most local cyclocross events are not UCI-sanctioned, so amateur racers can use any tire size they like. Regardless, most manufacturers design their cyclocross bikes around 33mm tires. Because cyclocross racing often involves mud, cyclocross frames will have ample tire clearance.

Also, tubeless is the tire standard for gravel bikes, and most manufacturers spec gravel bikes with tubeless wheels and tires. Though tubeless wheels and tires are available, clinchers are still common on cyclocross bikes, and most high-level racers still tend to prefer tubulars. You will see a mix of tire types on cyclocross bikes, especially when searching for bikes in the used marketplace. However, many newer cyclocross bikes are coming with tubeless wheels and tires as more racers adopt tubeless technology. 

5. Gravel vs. cyclocross mounts and storage solutions

Gravel vs. cyclocross bike bikepackingMost gravel bikes are made to carry extra gear. Photo: Fisher Curran / The Radavist. 

Gravel riding often takes riders far from civilization so riders need to carry the supplies necessary to survive. This can mean extra water, food, tools, spares, and other luggage. To accomplish this, many gravel bikes feature mounts on the frame. The most common mounts are a third bottle cage mount under the down tube and a top tube bag mount on the top tube. Gravel bikes aimed at adventure riding or commuting may also have fender and rack mounts too. Built-in down tube storage compartments are also growing in popularity. 

A cyclocross race typically lasts 30-90 minutes so riders don’t need to carry the supplies needed for a gravel ride. Many racers only use one bottle cage mount and most modern cyclocross frames don’t feature extra mounts of any kind. This keeps cyclocross bikes lighter and simpler for racing, and it also provides fewer areas on the frame for mud to collect. 

Can you ride gravel on a cyclocross bike?

Can you ride a cyclocross bike on gravelThey're riding gravel on cyclocross bikes. Someone call the gravel police! Photo: Ray J. Gadd / Red Bull Content Pool.

Yes! Before gravel bikes became mainstream, we tackled gravel and dirt roads on ‘cross bikes. In fact, look at the winning bikes of Unbound Gravel, the world’s premier gravel race, and you’ll see several cyclocross bikes like the Cannondale SuperX and Niner BSB RDO listed among the winners. Also, many modern gravel bikes like the Specialized Crux and Santa Cruz Stigmata started out as pure cyclocross bikes and have evolved to handle both genres. 

Though there are differences in geometry, cyclocross-specific geometry won’t ruin the experience of riding gravel. Some riders actually prefer the agile handling of a cyclocross bike over a more stable gravel bike. Many won’t even be able to tell the difference. Tire width will likely be the main limiting factor. Most cyclocross frames can’t fit gravel tires wider than 35-40mm without rubbing. For a lot of gravel, this will be ample. You will need to do research to find out what size tire a given cyclocross frame can clear. Also, if you live somewhere with long and steep climbs, you may need to adjust the gearing with a wider range cassette or smaller chainrings. 

Can you race cyclocross on a gravel bike?

Unless you’re a pro competing in a UCI-level race, you’ll be fine racing cyclocross on a gravel bike. Local cyclocross leagues are often very welcoming of new riders, and it’s fine to compete on pretty much any bike capable of riding off-road. You could even race on a mountain bike. You don’t need a cyclocross-specific bike to dip your toe in. 

For run-ups, shouldering a gravel bike can be difficult if there isn’t enough room in the front triangle due to a sloping top tube. If that’s the case, the suitcase carry (just pick the bike up and run, like carrying a suitcase) or simply pushing your bike (if the ground isn’t too soft) are also common techniques.  

How to choose: Gravel vs. cyclocross bikes

Gravel vs. Cyclocross bikesIf you mostly ride gravel roads or participate in gravel races, then a gravel bike is the obvious choice. If you’re more interested in regularly competing in cyclocross races, then a cyclocross bike will help you achieve your goals. 

However, if you’re reading this guide, there’s a good chance you’re shopping for a bike and wondering if buying a discipline-specific bike really matters. In the grand scheme of things, no. Bike geeks like to optimize their bikes, but there’s nothing stopping you from riding gravel on a cyclocross bike or doing a full season of ‘cross on a gravel bike. Gravel and cyclocross bikes are both extremely versatile, and riders can usually adapt to whatever bike they ride. 

If you’re struggling to decide, I have three basic suggestions:

  • Choose the bike that can fit the tires you want
  • Choose the bike that fits your budget
  • Choose the bike that looks the best

The first suggestion is probably the most important because tires have a massive impact on how a bike performs. If you plan to ride chunky, gnarly trails that require big tires to survive, then pick a gravel bike with exceptional tire clearance. But for everything else, a bike that can fit a narrower 38-40mm tire is likely enough. This opens up your options a lot because the majority of gravel and cyclocross bikes will clear tires in that range. This will make it easier to satisfy the next two suggestions because having more bike options makes it easier to find a bike that fits your budget and appeals to your aesthetic sensibilities. Ultimately, no matter what you choose, having a bike that you can afford but that you also enjoy looking at is the key to happy riding.  

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