Cycling is an enjoyable and popular hobby across a variety of age groups and disciplines.
But you must own a bike that best suits the terrain you’ll be riding on, as well as the type of cycling you enjoy.
Whether you enjoy off-road racing or multi-terrain adventuring, there is a different bike to suit your needs.
Today we’ll look at the main contrasts between a cyclocross vs gravel bike to help you choose between the two.
Although they may look very similar to the untrained eye, they are actually designed for quite different purposes.
Cyclocross vs Gravel Bike
Before choosing which type of bike will be better for you, it’s important to think about what you’ll mostly be using it for.
Both cyclocross and gravel bikes feature versatile drop-bar handling and off-roading capabilities.
So what’s the difference?
Simply put, a cyclocross bike is for agile movement and speed, as its primary purpose is racing on cyclocross courses.
A gravel bike is designed with more versatility in mind to suit longer adventures on various terrains.
Let’s take a look at how each bike’s different function affects the various components of the bike.
Materials and Build
The materials used in the construction of each bike can differ quite a lot to complement the function of each bike.
During a cyclocross race, there are usually various sections within the course that require you to jump off your bike and carry it.
Whether it’s to ascend a steep incline or jump over a barrier, you need to be able to pick up your bike easily and carry it at a moment’s notice.
As you can imagine, this means a cyclocross bike needs to be lightweight, so it’s usually made from carbon fiber or pared-down aluminum.
It’s also built with purposeful minimalism, so there is no unnecessary extra weight.
A gravel bike isn’t necessarily built for easy carrying and will usually be made of a stiffer, more durable material to handle heavier loads.
It will often feature eyelets to mount accessories and racks, enabling you to carry more luggage for longer journeys and multi-day trips.
- Cyclocross Bike: More lightweight and minimalist design, making it easier to carry
- Gravel Bike: Slightly heavier, but more durable to carry heavier loads
The angles in the bike frame’s geometry will also differ in several ways that affect both the handling and the rider’s seating position.
With the function of a cyclocross bike, it features more nimble, agile handling than a gravel bike.
The head tube on a cyclocross bike will be set at a slightly steeper angle, allowing quick turns on the racecourse.
A cyclocross bike will also feature a higher bottom bracket height.
This feature will allow you to continue pedaling the bike while at a greater lean angle without hitting the pedal on the ground.
Plus, it places you at a greater height with a higher center of gravity.
This, combined with the steeper head angle and longer top tube, contributes to the aggressive riding position of this bike.
Since you need to reach the drop bars from the higher seated position, you will be bent forward more severely, making you more aerodynamic.
Cyclocross bikes also have a shorter chainstay, making it easier for you to get your weight behind the rear wheel to perform tricks like bunny hops and drops.
This presents a cyclocross racer the opportunity to bunny hop over a hurdle instead of dismounting.
The wheelbase is designed to be longer on a gravel bike, and the geometry is tweaked to allow for easier, steadier handling.
The rear wheel is set slightly further back with a longer chainstay, so it would be more difficult to perform tricks on a gravel bike.
The front wheel on a gravel bike is also positioned slightly further forward.
But a slacker head tube angle and lower bottom bracket height mean that you’re seated lower down and slightly more upright.
This makes longer bike rides more comfortable, which is why a gravel bike is better suited to longer cross-country adventures as opposed to racing.
- Cyclocross Bike: Quicker turns and an aggressive riding position
- Gravel Bike: Steadier handling and a more comfortable ride
The tires typically found on a cyclocross bike will also look, weigh, and handle differently from those found on a gravel bike.
According to the Union Cycliste International (UCI), cyclocross tires must not be wider than 33mm for racing purposes.
However, many cyclocross bikes can take slightly wider tires than this, with mud clearance, as the manufacturers realize that not all owners will be pro-racing.
Tires for cyclocross bikes may sometimes also feature dirt-specific treads to tackle an all-dirt racecourse better.
Gravel bikes will usually take thicker tires, some even taking up to 60mm thickness.
Gravel bike owners may prefer thicker tires to offer more stability.
Having a thicker tire also means that you can run lower pressures, which will offer better grip and comfort on bumpy surfaces.
Plus, a gravel bike’s tires are more likely to feature universal treads.
This feature makes the bike extremely versatile, performing well both on the road and off-road terrains, such as rock, sand, gravel, and dirt.
- Cyclocross Bike: Usually slimmer with dirt-specific treads
- Gravel Bike: Fatter tires that offer better grip and comfort, with multi-terrain treads
The gearing range of the two bikes may also be different to suit the function of the bike and the rider’s needs.
Cyclocross bikes typically feature a narrower gearing range than gravel bikes.
That is because they’re designed to get around a cyclocross course as fast as possible.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be tackling huge mountains on a racecourse, so some pieces of lower gear are dropped.
This allows the manufacturers to provide tighter spacing between gear, offering smoother gear changes.
Gravel bikes are designed with more diverse terrains in mind, so they often feature wider gear ranges.
The lower gear will come in handy when facing steep mountain climbs.
The higher gear range will come into play when you’re zooming down the other side.
- Cyclocross Bike: Narrower gear range, sacrificing some lower pieces of gear
- Gravel Bike: Wider gear range offering more versatility
Can I Use a Cyclocross Bike as a Gravel Bike?
Yes, there’s no reason why you can’t use your cyclocross bike in the same ways you’d use a gravel bike.
The only factors you really need to consider are comfort and accessories.
Depending on your fitness level, the seating position of a cyclocross bike may make it too uncomfortable for a full day of adventuring.
It may also lack mounting points for you to attach a rack, water bottle, and panniers, so it won’t be as practical to take on a bike-packing adventure.
Still, you could fit slightly wider tires on your cyclocross bike to make it a more stable and versatile ride.
What Is the Difference Between a Cyclocross Bike and a Road Bike?
If you want to achieve the highest speeds possible when cycling, then you’re right in thinking that either a cyclocross or road bike will be the best option.
The one you choose will depend on whether you’ll be cycling on smooth surfaces, like roads or uneven, technical, off-road terrain.
A cyclocross bike is better suited to zipping around off-road courses and forest trails, whereas a road bike’s design means it will outperform a cyclocross on tarmac and concrete.
Are Cyclocross Bikes as Fast as Road Bikes?
Again, this depends on your terrain. Technically speaking, a road bike can achieve faster speeds because it’s built to be lighter and more efficient.
In reality, over thousands of miles and various terrains, a cyclocross bike probably won’t actually work out to be that slow.
Should I Buy a Gravel Bike or Cyclocross?
Still can’t decide between a cyclocross vs gravel bike?
Perhaps what you need is a gravel bike designed at the lighter, speedier end of the gravel bike spectrum.
As a relatively new category of bike, gravel bikes can vary quite a lot, with some being more similar to cyclocross than others.
You can also find gravel bikes that fit more closely with touring or mountain bike specs.
A cyclocross will offer better handling and speed on technical terrain.
That said, a gravel bike is more comfortable, features steadier handling, and offers greater versatility between multiple terrains.