Drop-bar road bikes that can be ridden on surfaces other than smooth roads seemingly have as many names as there are marketers willing to come up with new ones. For the purposes of clarity and brevity let’s stick with two: cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes, both of which have gained in popularity for cyclists who want to leave behind the increasingly frustrating congestion of the asphalt jungle.
“A lot of people want to enjoy the road but don’t want to be flipped off or buzzed,” said professional rider Jeremy Powers, a four-time national cyclocross champion who will ride Fuji cyclocross and gravel bikes this coming season. “When you’re out on the trails, off the beaten path and you don’t see anyone, that is like the greatest thing. I think a lot of people want that now more than ever.”
Although cyclocross and gravel bikes may at first glance look the same, they’re as different as their disciplines.
“’Cross is an intense sport,” Powers said. “Gravel can have an inclusive feeling that’s different, more relaxed.”
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The sport of cyclocross was born in France in 1902 but its roots are historically Belgian. Races are roughly one-hour tests over closed courses of two miles or less, with roads and trails, obstacles and stairs, and short climbs so steep that riders must dismount, sling their bikes over their shoulders and carry them uphill.
And there’s weather. As a fall-winter sport, it’s not uncommon for cyclocross races to take place in rain (or snow) that turns the course into a glorified mud bog, and riders must switch to clean bikes every few laps when the wet earth renders them all but immobile.
The rigs for cyclocross are specific to the need.
“A ‘cross bike is really just designed to be a one-hour machine,” Powers said. “They’re purpose-built for handling, for shifting your weight.”
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) and always with a knobby tread. The wheelbase is longer, too; that provides more stability when riding over non-firm surfaces like sand pits. (Yes, there are often sand pits.)
The bikes also position the rider more upright, with a higher center of gravity, a geometry that makes it easier to forge obstacles or navigate unsettled track and gives more pedaling clearance. At the same time, steeper headtube angles make for sharper turning.
Traditional cyclocross bikes came with double cranksets, usually close-ratio 46/36T or close to it. This past season’s men’s and women’s world champions rode bikes with front derailleurs but the move to exclusively 1x drivetrains for ‘cross bikes is all but inevitable. (Four of Fuji’s six cyclocross models, both of its Altamira CX carbon bikes and two of its aluminum Cross models, use 1x.)
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Gravel riding, on the other hand, is relatively new and an American phenomenon, owing to our wealth of unpaved country roads. The world’s marquee gravel event, the ultra-endurance Dirty Kanza 200-miler held in Kansas every June, was first run in 2006 with only 34 entrants and now draws more than 2,000. (This year the race added a 350-mile punisher, which also drew 34 pioneers.)
Gravel, though, is less about racing and more about riding. Powers was introduced to the sport when he began taking long training rides on the off-piste roads of western Massachusetts after he settled there in 2006. (He has also hosted is own gravel event, the JAM Fund Gran Fundo, for 10 years.)
“You’re out there for four or five hours. You definitely don’t want to be on a ‘cross bike,” he said. “We started off riding our road bikes, and there were barely any real roads. Mostly trails and mixed terrain. We broke a lot of frames that way.”
Gravel bikes have filled the need for endurance-type bikes, with stronger frames that can handle the rougher stuff. With more relaxed handling, the bikes are comfortable for long rides and are often equipped with the flexibility to serve as camping steeds for bikepacking. They fit wider tires than cyclocross bikes (although generally they have a smooth center section for better on-road performance), up to the 2-inch-wide range and the smaller 650b wheels that often use them. On the other hand, using 700c wheels with narrower tires turn them into what is essentially a comfort road bike.
They tend to have a longer headtube and thus are a bit more upright than cyclocross bikes, befitting their call as an all-day ride. Long wheelbases are there, too, and usually that’s tweaked so that seatstays are longer, both for additional comfort on the back end and to more easily accommodate racks and panniers.
Gearing is easier on gravel bikes because a) the hills you find in the open, as opposed to on a cyclocross course, are longer and b) chances are you’re going to ride up grades as opposed to hopping off your bike and portaging. There seems to be a fairly even split between double and single drivetrains on gravel bikes, although as with every category save road race bikes 1x is fast becoming the wave of the present.
Water bottle bosses are often in abundance on gravel bikes, usually three, often as many as five, including on the fork. “Traditionally, the roads for gravel riding are for adventuring. There are no rest stops out there,” Powers said. Some bikes (like the Fuji Jari) have top-tube bosses for rigid or semi-rigid bento box carriers, too.
As a typical result of racing trickle-down, technology is spreading across the gravel scene, and there is no longer a one-bike-fits all limitation. Dedicated gravel race bikes are becoming lighter and almost exclusively made of carbon fiber. Gravel bikes made for adventure riding and bikepacking lean more toward the touring side of things, of aluminum or steel, built to carry days’ worth of stuff deep into the wild.
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Given the particulars, what bike is right for you?
The easy answers are these: If you’re going to race cyclocross, it’s best to get a dedicated ‘cross bike. If you’re not going to race but high on your wish list is quick off-road handling for shorter rides, ditto.
But if you plan longer outings, plan to bikepack or want a machine that is equally at home on or off the road, look at a gravel bike.
“The easiest way to tell is if you go ride your ‘cross bike and someone’s on their road bike,” Powers said. “You will immediately know why you want a gravel bike.”
There really are no rules, though, and those that do exist are set more in foam than stone. Testing is learning. You be the judge.