There’s a proper tool for every job, and there’s a proper bike for every road. Though they may look fairly similar, road, cyclocross, and gravel bikes have small differences in design that make each better suited for their intended purpose. There’s plenty of crossover between categories, but understanding what a bike is best at and picking a specialized tool can greatly improve your riding experience.
Ideal Use: Road racing, criteriums, gran fondos, light mixed surface riding
Examples: Specialized Tarmac, Trek Emonda, Cervelo R5
Geometry: Designed for neutral handling on paved roads. Can be either race or endurance oriented.
Drivetrain: 2x drivetrains are the standard. Drivetrains can be geared toward ease of climbing or flat out speed. Road gearing is generally spaced closer together to provide more precise control of your cadence. Chainring and cassette combos can be adjust to suit your fitness or terrain.
Tire Choice: Tire width of 23c-28c. Narrower tires with slick tread offer maximum acceleration and speed. 25c is the most common size now, seen on many racing machines. 28c is the go-to for maximum comfort on rougher roads.
Comments: Meant for going fast on paved roads, these bikes are generally stiff and efficient, with design focuses on light weight and aerodynamics. Endurance oriented models can handle rough roads, cobbles, and some dirt with compliance enhancing frame features, more relaxed geometry, and the ability to fit slightly wider road tires.
AKA: CX, Cross
Ideal Use: Cyclocross racing, gravel grinding, mixed surface riding
Examples: Focus Mares CX, Cannondale SuperX, Trek Boone
Geometry: Generally higher off the ground to allow you to pedal and maneuver around tight and technical courses. Stack is usually slightly taller and reach slightly shorter than road geometry for better handling in off-road situations.
Drivetrain: Similar to road but generally geared lower with smaller chainrings to make pedaling easier in off-road conditions. 1x drivetrains are becoming a popular option due to their simplicity.
Tire Choice: Tire width of 30c-40c, UCI regulations limit tire size to 33c for cyclocross racing so most bikes are equipped with and designed around tires that size. Treads range from file to knobby depending on if they’re intended for dirt/grass/mud.
Comments: Designed for technical off-road handling in dirt, mud, sand, and grass. Cyclocross bikes are not only good for cyclocross racing, but can be used for all-round riding as well. With some simple modifications they can act as all-road bikes or gravel grinders.
AKA: All Road, Enduroad
Ideal Use: Gravel grinding, mixed surface riding, adventure riding, bike packing
Examples: Niner RLT, Van Dessel A.D.D., Orbea Terra
Geometry: Lower bottom brackets and slacker angles give gravel bikes increased stability off road. Riding positions are generally much more upright with an emphasis on long distance comfort.
Drivetrain: Usually similar to cross gearing but usually a lower gear range is desirable for pedaling longer distances, and pushing fat tires up hard unpaved climbs. Wide range 1x drivetrains are becoming increasingly the norm in gravel for their simplicity and ability to run 1-to-1 ratio (e.g. 42t chainring with a 42t big cog) or lower.
Tire Choice: Tire width of 38c-47c or 2.0-2.25in. Clearance is key in gravel riding and usually the bigger the tire, the more grip and comfort you have. Some bikes are also designed for 650b tires to allow for even more volume. Treads can be slick or knobby depending on conditions.
Comments: Low and slack geometry and greater tire clearance push allow gravel bikes to go beyond the limits of your average cross bike. These are truly go anywhere bikes, meant to handle any unpaved road surface, no matter how rough or technical. They are comfortable enough for all day adventures, and inspire confidence when getting lost on the road less travelled.