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The cyclo-cross vs gravel conundrum: understanding the differences

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Cyclocross and Gravelbiking (Recreational) This has to be the most physically intense sport ever invented. It's high speed bicycle racing on a short off road course or riding the off pavement rides on gravel like :The Dirty Kanza". We also have a dedicated Racing forum for the Cyclocross Hard Core Racers.

The cyclo-cross vs gravel conundrum: understanding the differences

Old 11-05-19, 12:41 PM
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chas58
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The cyclo-cross vs gravel conundrum: understanding the differences

I couple of years ago, I was struggling to understand the differences between CX and Gravel bikes. Its easy to see how the specs are different, but I wanted to know how do they really ride.

This article does the best job I've seen summing it up (quoted below).
https://www.cyclingnews.com/features...e-differences/

I'll add that if you are not a beginner, CX is somewhat more fun - specifically in urban riding, commuting, pavement, and single track.

The agility, tight turning radius, amazing hill climbing ability (short punchy hills), and out of the saddle acceleration can put a smile on your face.

If you like all day rides or fast loose downhills, you definitely want the stability of a gravel bike (longer/lower/slacker). If you are the type to stay seated (vs out of the saddle acceleration), you'll likely be happier on the more endurance focused gravel geometry.

That and of course, "gravel" is more versatile with slightly larger tire clearance, lower gearing, and of course many more mount points for carrying gear.

What do you think?

key thoughts from the article:

"If you're looking at a cyclo-cross bike, it's a race bike. Cyclo-cross courses have a lot of sharp turns, there's a lot of acceleration, and you need to pedal through most of the corners. So, the handling characteristics are pretty unique and specific to the courses at hand.

"Conversely, most of the gravel infrastructure involves straighter roads, and there isn't much in the way of turns and corners. From a rider perspective, you don't need to pedal through a corner and accelerate immediately out of it because a lot of gravel events are longer in duration - they don't have nearly the same intensity.

With a lower bottom bracket on the Diverge, you get incredible stability on the bike. This is a benefit when descending on tricky roads. With a higher bottom bracket on a pure CX bike, you get a livelier feel and can change direction a bit easier but lose out a bit in terms of stability at higher speeds or cornering."

"In a gravel bike we tend to favour stability, whereas on a cyclo-cross bike, generally, you want the bike to be much faster to respond to what you're doing, and so that trail figure tends to be significantly different between the two. Your front-centre might be the same between those two bikes, but the way that the front wheel flops based on how you're leaning the bike is really dramatically different,"

..unless you're planning on racing a lot of cyclo-cross events, opt for a gravel bike. "Gravel bikes as a category can sort of do everything pretty well. So if you want it to be a road bike, it's a pretty good road bike. If you want to be a commuter bike, well it has all the mounts for racks and fenders. It provides versatility putting a really big tyre on it so if you want to ride some singletrack or if you want to go onto gravel roads, whatever you can put the biggest tyre on it that you want."

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Old 11-05-19, 12:59 PM
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A[ed.] couple of years ago, I was struggling to understand the differences between CX and Gravel bikes.
You've been riding for 30 years?

These articles are a dime a dozen and don't help anyone beyond the most recent inductee to the sport. Full of platitudes and clichť none of the important parts of geometry are given more than a glancing look. Certainly nothing of the depth that contributes to informing a given rider with the knowledge to find the bike suitable for their riding style. You seem to lack much experience on gravel outside of your relatively sedate terrain so I suppose it's no surprise you think this would be helpful. We've done this better and more comprehensively on this forum multiple times.
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Old 11-05-19, 01:03 PM
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I think the difference is mostly marketing horse**** intended to sell more bikes. Most people would do fine on either.

When you actually compare the geometry of gravel and cross bikes the differences in mm are quite small. The biggest noticeable difference I suspect is from tires. I have two cross bikes a Boardman CXR and an older S-Works Tri-Cross. The Tri-Cross is probably closer to a modern gravel bike and accepts bigger tires. They're both fine on gravel. If I need 2" tires I prefer to use a MTB with proper suspension.

If I look at the head tube angle for example a large CXR (cross) is the same as a large Open UP (Gravel)
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Old 11-05-19, 01:22 PM
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+1. It doesn't help that "cross" bikes were always kind of a nebulous market anyway. Sometimes they were legitimate cyclocross racing bikes, sometimes they were cyclocross-ish try-to-do-anything bikes, sometimes they were just warmed-over hybrids.

While some of the hardware changes are lost on me, I think "gravel" bikes generally suit recreational gravel riders a lot better than pretend cyclocross bikes did.
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Old 11-05-19, 01:35 PM
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Loosely-defined categories with lots of crossover and internal variance. Broad generalizations about them can be made, but are not overly useful when choosing what particular bicycle to buy.
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Old 11-05-19, 02:28 PM
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Originally Posted by Spoonrobot View Post
We've done this better and more comprehensively on this forum multiple times.
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Old 11-05-19, 03:07 PM
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I think the difference is mostly marketing horse**** intended to sell more bikes. Most people would do fine on either.

When you actually compare the geometry of gravel and cross bikes the differences in mm are quite small. The biggest noticeable difference I suspect is from tires. I have two cross bikes a Boardman CXR and an older S-Works Tri-Cross. The Tri-Cross is probably closer to a modern gravel bike and accepts bigger tires. They're both fine on gravel. If I need 2" tires I prefer to use a MTB with proper suspension.

If I look at the head tube angle for example a large CXR (cross) is the same as a large Open UP (Gravel)
Iím not most people then, lol. And certainly, if you are not pushing it, it doesnít really matter much. Humans are very adaptable and will adapt to a different bike typically in about 10 minutes. And, if you know what you want, this isn't the thread for you.

Still, If I want stability at speed on loose surfaces, I struggle a little on a CX bike and get frustrated. If I want to maneuver in tight spaces, corner hard, or power out of turns, I struggle a little on a gravel bike and get frustrated. I could go on, but itís in the first post. When purchasing a bike I would rather understand the differences and not feel I need to trade in my bike in a year for something that works better for me (nope, youíve never seen those posts, have ya?)

Certainly, Iíll agree with you that the Open UPís geometry isnít much difference than my cross bike. But the Open is at the extreme ďroad bike likeĒ end of the gravel spectrum.
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Old 11-05-19, 03:32 PM
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My opinion is that the best gravel bike is my rigid 29-Plus bike. Your mileage may vary, but at the proper psi inflation, the grip and handling ability of plus tires on loose surfaces simply cannot be beat.
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Old 11-05-19, 07:14 PM
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I'm just sick of people saying they need a gravel bike not a CX bike, like CX bikes can't go off road. THEY BOTH GO OFF ROAD WELL AND ARE LOADS OF FUN.
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Old 11-05-19, 07:38 PM
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Originally Posted by Hmmm View Post
I'm just sick of people saying they need a gravel bike not a CX bike, like CX bikes can't go off road. THEY BOTH GO OFF ROAD WELL AND ARE LOADS OF FUN.
I donít believe theyíre saying that because they believe CX cannot go off-road. I believe theyíre saying that because CX bikes are typically more race focused so their geometry will reflect that. People who donít race much or at all might be more comfortable with stability of a typical gravel bike.
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Old 11-05-19, 07:46 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
The agility, tight turning radius, amazing hill climbing ability (short punchy hills), and out of the saddle acceleration can put a smile on your face.
Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
Iím not most people then, lol. And certainly, if you are not pushing it, it doesnít really matter much.
No disrespect, but I read that comment from your first post and discount pretty much anything else you have to say. I've never been on a non-electric bike that had 'amazing' hill climbing ability. I've had power meters on many different types of bikes and have never seen any differences in the power output for any of them (other than my sprint power is gradually deteriorating with time )
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Old 11-06-19, 07:58 AM
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I have a raleigh CX bike (appears similar in geometry to the specialized crux which I know is a true CX bike) and I did gravel riding on it this summer (including 150mile gravel event). It was fine. I'm not an expert by any means, but I believe common wisdom says if you're doing CX get a CX bike and it'll work just fine as a gravel bike, whereas a gravel bike is not super compatible to doing CX races.
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Old 11-06-19, 10:59 AM
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Originally Posted by gregf83 View Post
No disrespect, but I read that comment from your first post and discount pretty much anything else you have to say.
Ha, Im not sure how that couldnt be viewed as disrespectful. Not saying you are wrong to discount pretty much everything, I just laugh when I see 'no disrespect' or 'no offense' before totally discounting and ripping on a view.

One of my kids constantly says 'no offense' to begin comments that are hurtful and the other interrupts with 'you cant just say that before being insulting!'.
Good stuff.
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Old 11-06-19, 12:34 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
Ha, Im not sure how that couldnt be viewed as disrespectful. Not saying you are wrong to discount pretty much everything, I just laugh when I see 'no disrespect' or 'no offense' before totally discounting and ripping on a view.

One of my kids constantly says 'no offense' to begin comments that are hurtful and the other interrupts with 'you cant just say that before being insulting!'.
Good stuff.
Yeah, that's up there with "I'm not a racist, buuuut..."
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Old 11-06-19, 01:11 PM
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Originally Posted by biketampa View Post
I donít believe theyíre saying that because they believe CX cannot go off-road. I believe theyíre saying that because CX bikes are typically more race focused so their geometry will reflect that. People who donít race much or at all might be more comfortable with stability of a typical gravel bike.
This is how I read it. I ride my CX bike on gravel all the time and it's great. It may not be as long and stable as a purpose-built gravel bike, but it's still longer than my road bike and feels perfectly fine on gravel to me.
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Old 11-06-19, 01:18 PM
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Originally Posted by caloso View Post
This is how I read it. I ride my CX bike on gravel all the time and it's great. It may not be as long and stable as a purpose-built gravel bike, but it's still longer than my road bike and feels perfectly fine on gravel to me.
For sure CX bikes can be used for gravel bike. Many people do it.
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Old 11-06-19, 02:11 PM
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I think this is an interesting topic. I've always seen CX bikes as race-specific, and gravel bikes were for long hours of endurance type riding. CX bikes have the most aggressive geometry possible (while still accommodating the UCI max 33mm tires) and are built as light as possible, with 1x drivetrains. Gravel bikes are heavier, more relaxed, lower and had either 2x or really big range 1x setups.

That said, it's been interesting to track what kind of bikes are being used at big gravel races It used to just be CX bikes becuase there was no such thing as a "gravel bike", then around 2016 Ted King won Dirty Kanza on a Cannondale Slate with a suspension fork. A true gravel bike.
In 2017 the men's winner was on a 3T Exploro, billed as an "aero gravel" bike.
Then, in 2018, both Kaitie Keough and Ted King won Dirty Kanza on CX race bikes.

This year, both Colin Strickland and Amity Rockwell won the race riding a gravel-race specific Allied Able bike. The Allied Able is marketed as having a short and aggressive wheelbase and 1x gearing, which sounds a lot like a CX bike.

The gravel bike segment has definitely evolved to include a large range of bikes and some of them seem to overlap with CX bikes. Bikes billed as CX seem to be narrowly focused on racing. It wouldn't surprise me to see manufacturers moving away from entry-level CX bikes (like the CAADX), and instead relying on some of their more all-around gravel bikes that can be occasionally raced in CX.
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Old 11-06-19, 02:12 PM
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Originally Posted by biketampa View Post
For sure CX bikes can be used for gravel bike. Many people do it.
Likewise I see people race CX on gravel and mountain bikes all the time too.
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Old 11-06-19, 02:19 PM
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Originally Posted by msu2001la View Post
Likewise I see people race CX on gravel and mountain bikes all the time too.
Of course racing MTB on a CX would just be bonkers.

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Old 11-06-19, 06:42 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
Ha, Im not sure how that couldnt be viewed as disrespectful. Not saying you are wrong to discount pretty much everything, I just laugh when I see 'no disrespect' or 'no offense' before totally discounting and ripping on a view.

One of my kids constantly says 'no offense' to begin comments that are hurtful and the other interrupts with 'you cant just say that before being insulting!'.
Good stuff.
Touchť
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Old 11-06-19, 06:53 PM
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Originally Posted by gregf83 View Post
Touchť
Please know I'm also totally joking around and really think nothing of that wording. I totally get the point you mean in using it and I use that too sometimes.

Internet doesnt express joking around too well sometimes.
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Old 11-07-19, 07:44 AM
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Am I wrong in thinking that GRAVEL bikes are just a more comfortable CX bike with usually more tire clearance? And the two categories are mere marketing talk to sell more bikes?

Both are drop bar bikes with larger tire clearance. Some more aggressive than others, some larger tire clearance than others.
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Old 11-07-19, 09:49 AM
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Originally Posted by Hmmm View Post
Am I wrong in thinking that GRAVEL bikes are just a more comfortable CX bike with usually more tire clearance? And the two categories are mere marketing talk to sell more bikes?

Both are drop bar bikes with larger tire clearance. Some more aggressive than others, some larger tire clearance than others.
I don't think you're wrong in thinking that, but it's also a broad generalization. There are definitely some race oriented "gravel bikes" that have very similar tire clearance and geometry as some CX race bikes. There are also some more casual recreational CX bikes that would fit well into a "gravel bike" category that didn't exist a few years ago. Also, using this same generalization, CX bikes are really just more comfortable road bikes with more tire clearance and less aggressive geometry, etc.

Road Race - Road Endurance - Road Touring
CX Race - Gravel Race - Gravel Adventure

Now that disc brakes are everywhere, the differences between these bikes really comes down to frame geometry, tire clearance and gearing. To take it a step further, the differences between gravel adventure bikes and XC mountain bikes are getting pretty blurry too. There are several gravel bikes out there that are essentially hard tail XC mountain bikes with drop bars and rigid forks, running MTB rear components and hub spacing. Several manufactures are making gravel bikes with suspensions as well.

I think the bigger question I have is "what attributes make a good gravel bike?". This involves answering an even bigger question of defining what "gravel riding" even is. Is it flat and fast racing on gravel roads across open plains? Is it climbing a rugged two track twisting up into the mountains where you want to bring lunch and a few beers? Is it cross-country traversing over cobbled farm roads in northern France? Is it cruising a twisty singletrack trail along the shore? Each of these situations will favor a slightly different type of bike, but does that matter? Unless you're racing, it seems like your style of riding would dictate which type of bike works best for you, similar to deciding between road race and endurance styles of bikes.

Of course the bike industry is interested in selling more bikes, but also there's only a small segment of people who feel the need to own a specific bike for every purpose. I think there are just as many people out there that are finding they can use a single bike for all of those situations, plus more. Unless you're really into fast group rides or road racing, a CX or gravel bike with a second set of wheels makes a pretty good road bike for solo riding, touring, commuting, occasional CX racing, etc. Heck, there's a guy in my local CX series that is on the podium every weekend in the masters series while riding a flat bar rigid fork XC mountain bike.
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Old 11-07-19, 10:03 AM
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Originally Posted by msu2001la View Post
I don't think you're wrong in thinking that, but it's also a broad generalization. There are definitely some race oriented "gravel bikes" that have very similar tire clearance and geometry as some CX race bikes. There are also some more casual recreational CX bikes that would fit well into a "gravel bike" category that didn't exist a few years ago. Also, using this same generalization, CX bikes are really just more comfortable road bikes with more tire clearance and less aggressive geometry, etc.

Road Race - Road Endurance - Road Touring
CX Race - Gravel Race - Gravel Adventure

Now that disc brakes are everywhere, the differences between these bikes really comes down to frame geometry, tire clearance and gearing. To take it a step further, the differences between gravel adventure bikes and XC mountain bikes are getting pretty blurry too. There are several gravel bikes out there that are essentially hard tail XC mountain bikes with drop bars and rigid forks, running MTB rear components and hub spacing. Several manufactures are making gravel bikes with suspensions as well.

I think the bigger question I have is "what attributes make a good gravel bike?". This involves answering an even bigger question of defining what "gravel riding" even is. Is it flat and fast racing on gravel roads across open plains? Is it climbing a rugged two track twisting up into the mountains where you want to bring lunch and a few beers? Is it cross-country traversing over cobbled farm roads in northern France? Is it cruising a twisty singletrack trail along the shore? Each of these situations will favor a slightly different type of bike, but does that matter? Unless you're racing, it seems like your style of riding would dictate which type of bike works best for you, similar to deciding between road race and endurance styles of bikes.

Of course the bike industry is interested in selling more bikes, but also there's only a small segment of people who feel the need to own a specific bike for every purpose. I think there are just as many people out there that are finding they can use a single bike for all of those situations, plus more. Unless you're really into fast group rides or road racing, a CX or gravel bike with a second set of wheels makes a pretty good road bike for solo riding, touring, commuting, occasional CX racing, etc. Heck, there's a guy in my local CX series that is on the podium every weekend in the masters series while riding a flat bar rigid fork XC mountain bike.
owning more bikes can be fun regardless of whether itís necessary. But I agree, unless youíre racing a CX or Gravel bike with a 2nd set of wheels can do most, if not all that most people need outside of more mountain bike type riding. Iíve seen many people do well in gravel bike events on mountain bikes where the terrain benefits that style bike more.
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Old 11-07-19, 10:53 AM
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GCN, gravel v CX

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