At first glance, it’s hard to tell the differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes. The lines are blurred, and most CXs could be mistaken for gravels, especially with a swapped wheelset.
But there’re several of them.
The main difference between a cross bike and a gravel bike is the bike geometry and tire size.
A gravel bike has a more relaxed geometry and wider tire clearance, while a CX bike is basically a race bike, but not for the road.
However, if you’ve been in the cycling game for long, you know that the term “gravel bike” refers to a wide spectrum. What one manufacturer calls a gravel bicycle could be a cyclocross bike for another, and yet, another would call the bike an off-road touring bike.
There’s a lot of overlap and gray areas between these two bike categories, but in my opinion, a gravel bike is a cross bike as endurance is to race bikes.
Nonetheless, if you’re still undecided between cross and gravel bikes, our guide below will help.
I’ve had the privilege of using both bikes, and I’ll shed more light on the differences between the two. Hopefully, it’ll be much easier to decide what options to pick by the end of our cross vs. gravels.
What is a Cyclocross Bike?
A cyclocross, also known as a cross, is a race-oriented bike designed to light-off roading.
Usually, the cyclocross bike is often used in Cyclocross races.
A cyclocross race is a competition based on multi-surface conditions, mainly on dirt, grass, hills, obstacles, and riding off-road.
The CX bike is, therefore, a specific niche bike.
Some of the standout characteristics of the CX bikes include a lightweight frame, drop handlebars, higher bottom bracket clearance, and fewer mounting spots.
But the most notable feature with the CX bikes is the tires. CX tires can’t exceed 33mm as this is a requirement by the UCI.
Overall, a cyclocross bike is an ultra-specific bike capable in the right hands. However, they’re not so good as all-arounder bikes.
What is a Gravel Bike?
A gravel bike is quite a wide-ranging term, covering different bike categories.
Typical gravel bikes feature traits of race machines, off-road adventure bikes to some mountain bikes.
Generally, though, any gravel bike category has a more relaxed geometry; and the sitting position can support a range of tire sizes and has wider gearing, disc brakes, and bottle cage mounts.
And as their name suggests, gravels excel on the gravel and rougher terrain.
Difference Between Cross and Gravel Bikes
Let’s compare the cross and gravel bikes, and see where they excel over the other.
As I’ve just mentioned above, professional cyclocross bikes are usually dedicated to cyclocross racing.
Usually, the cyclocross race takes around an hour of flat-out speed and high speed.
It also requires superior maneuverability around the corners and tight spaces, and therefore, CX bikes need to have razor-sharp steering.
Using a cyclocross bike won’t frustrate you if you need to corner hard, ride in tight spaces, and power out turns.
I’ll also add that if you’re not experienced enough, a cyclocross bike may somewhat not be fun, especially if you’re using it for recreational riding in urban areas, commuting, pavement, and single tracks.
But its agility, tight turning radius, and hill-climbing abilities on the small punchy hills will put a smile on your face.
On the other hand, gravels are designed for use on different road surfaces and terrains.
The gravels are an incredible option for riders looking for multi-day day bikepacking, gravel racing, and gravel riding adventures on a wide-ranging terrain.
For example, I’d suggest a gravel bike if you like the all-day ride or fast, loose downhills and still want the stability on loose surfaces.
Gravel is also an inspiring pick for users who love sitting compared to the out of saddle acceleration.
But I also have to mention that the term gravel is a far-reaching discipline that can navigate quite different terrains.
It’s not as ultra-niche as the cyclocross bikes, so there’s no uniformity among the different gravel bikes.
However, a couple of standard features characterize the gravel bikes, including larger tyre clearance, a couple of mount points, and a wide gear range.
The other difference between gravel and cyclocross bikes is the choice of terrain.
If your idea of cycling is navigating the light trail, beaten path, and gravel, you’d be okay with any bike labeled as gravel.
Gravels are fairly aggressive than the typical road bikes but still on the endurance end side of the road spectrum.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to backpack in adventurous places or even tackle the gnarly terrain, you’d better be suited with a CX bike.
I’ve a 2017 Cannondale SuperX CX, and while it struggles on the super gnarly mountain bike courses, I can use it as an everything bike, especially on the local trails, thanks to the good tyre clearance and all-weather braking.
Another striking difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel riding bike is the geometry.
Generally, most gravel bikes tend (I can’t emphasize enough on “generally”) to have a more upright/relaxed than cyclocross bikes and much like touring bikes.
The more upright riding position/gravel bike geometry and shorter reach emphasizes comfort.
It’s a handy design for when gravel riders need to ride for days rather than an hour or so with a cyclocross bike.
The endurance gravel cycling geometry is also useful for tackling rougher trails.
On the other hand, a cyclocross bike geometry has less of an endurance geometry and more of a race geometry.
Remember, a cyclo race is usually one hour or so. Thus comfort takes a back seat. Speed and agility are usually the top priorities on a cyclocross bike.
The cross’s more aggressive riding position puts the rider in an aerodynamic position, much like a road bike, so it’s easier to reach top speed effortlessly.
But in my personal experience, my gravel bike geometry isn’t sluggish or noticeably slower than my cross. Going downhill and on technical descents has marginal speed gains over my road and cyclo bikes because of the confidence from having wider tyres and greater stability.
The other visible difference between the bike’s geometry is the frame.
Let’s start with rigidity.
CX frames are somewhat stiff, while the best gravel has put more effort into designing comfortable gravel frames.
The frame on a cyclocross bike doesn’t slope down as much. The cyclocross bikes have a slacker head tube angle/stand to make it easier for cyclocross racers to shoulder the bike on steep sections that can’t be ridden.
Cyclocross bikes tend to be less stable than gravel bikes.
One of the contributing elements is the higher bottom bracket for higher mud clearance on the cyclocross bikes.
It raises the center of gravity, making the bike feel tippy compared to the lower, longer gravel bike.
However, the high bottom bracket is useful for improving the ground clearance for obstacles.
On the other hand, the lower BB on the gravel riding bikes improves the overall stability, especially over the terrain.
The reduced standover height makes sit easier to dab or dismount on the technical terrain.
The length of the wheelbase also plays a crucial role in the handling of the bike.
Gravel bikes have longer wheelbases, so they generally improve stability.
Of course, specs aren’t everything, but you’ll know how a bike handles considering the aggregate of numbers.
For example, I usually ride my 2016 CX bike, and I love it. It’s not long, slack, and even feels twitchy, but I always have fun riding it.
My vote for this section goes to the gravels.
They’re a versatile machine for multi-use and can take on the roughest and muddiest tracks.
They also have the edge over the MTBs and fat bikes on gravel and paved surfaces, double-track forest terrains, and half descent surfaces.
Unlike the cyclocross bike, they’re not niched or boxed to a particular riding style and will take you to places where a cyclocross cannot.
On top of that, the gravel has the great advantage of allowing a new set of tires. It’s easy to add to the versatility of a gravel bike by adding a second wheelset.
I did this for my bikes, and I now have a 30mm set for riding surface and a 38mm wheelset for riding the trails.
Having an extra set of wheels is becoming popular among gravel bike riders, and I’m leaning on this approach to simplify my biking life.
And the good thing with the wheel swap is that it only takes a few minutes.
Of course, it’s still possible to swap the tires on your cyclocross, but with a higher BB than a gravel bike, it’s not anywhere comfortable on the road as a gravel riding bike would be.
The specialty section goes all back to the introduction.
Cyclocross bikes are designed for cyclocross racing. The competition has a bunch of rules, including the maximum tire width, so a cyclocross bike may not take wider wheels.
On top of that, cyclocross bikes usually have cyclocross-specific gears.
On the other hand, gravel bikes are designed for comfortable riding, especially on gravel. They’re usually less aggressive, allow riders to use wider tires, and may have 1x gears.
Speaking of gears, the choice of gearing system boils down to the purpose or riding needs.
For example, for cyclocross racing, you’ll need a gear that’ll allow sprints and power bursts on the short climbs. The gear should also be powerful enough to navigate the mud and draggy grass.
Ironically, a cyclocross has a narrow gear range.
Most CX bikes generally have a 1X drivetrain with 11 or 12-speed cassettes, depending on whether it’s Shimano or SRAM.
The 1X gearing provides a reduced bike weight, important when shouldering the bikes.
However, there’re some exceptions, and when a CX bike has a 2X, it’s normally 43/36 upfronts.
On the other hand, gravel bikes are designed for riding in a much wider range of terrains, so they’ve a wider gearing range.
Usually, it is 2X with 9/10/11 speed cassette gearing, though some options have the 1X gearing.
The 2X offer bigger gears, which is necessary for riders who take the less technical section and don’t want to spin out of speed.
Conversely, the 1X set is a fan among many users because of its simplicity.
Specific UCI rules governing cyclocross racing dictate the build of a CX bike.
Professional CX bikes should only have tires not wider than 33 mm. Therefore, CX bikes have a narrow tyre clearance & cyclocross tyres, with a small room for mud and debris.
Gravel tyres have wider tire sizes than can go upwards of 35mm, and with some even accommodate the 45mm tires.
The gravel tyres are an advantage for beginners because of the increased stability. You’re less likely to fall when riding wide gravel tires.
In addition, the tires work well for long distances and on loose grounds. They give more comfort over the long rides while allowing riders to navigate the technical terrains such as roots and rocks.
Another advantage of the wider gravel tires is they can run at low pressures, so they’ve more puncture protection and will reduce the risk of pinch flats, especially with tubeless tyres set up.
The cyclocross bike tire is designed to be lighter and supple for racing.
Finally, cyclocross bikes stick to 700c, while the gravels use either 700c or 650b wheelset.
Comfort & Stiffness
Usually, cyclocross races tend to consist of short and high-intensity bursts with hard braking and accelerations.
Therefore, the cyclocross bikes are designed with stiff chassis to optimize speed and maximize pedaling efforts.
Comfort is usually a main priority on the CX bike, as winning the race is.
Every second counts on cross bikes, but the design makes it exceptionally stiff and rigid.
Some cyclocross riders prefer the rigid frame, especially on the road, but others can’t stand up to the vibrations and everything,
That’s why gravel bikes come with a comfort-oriented construction.
A gravel construction absorbs the vibrations for use on rough roads while transferring the shocks from the big drops and hits.
Overall, using a gravel bike is more comfortable and a particularly pleasing experience over long distances.
Accessories & Storage Solutions
Most cyclocross bikes for professional racing don’t have any sort of bosses or mounts for mudguards, racks, or water.
Gravel bikes will always have water bottle bosses, rack mounts, frame bags, bikepacking bags, and many attachment points, especially if bikepacking is your thing.
But modern cross bikes, especially those oriented towards casual road use, may come with some extra storage solutions.
The professional options for cyclocross racing eschew features that would bulk up the chassis. For example, they lack the storage solutions for tire repair kits and mudguards in pursuit of speed.
By contrast, the gravel bikes have numerous storage solutions allowing riders to bring along tools, spare kits, hydration bottles, and anything they need throughout the ride.
Some gravel bikes will sometimes include gimmicky stuff such as suspension seat stays, stem, etc.
Can my Cyclocross Double up as Gravel Bike?
It will depend on the size of the tire and the tire clearance available.
See, gravel bikes have “chunkier” and knobby tires than cyclocross bikes.
Their widths are also much larger and may not sufficiently fit the available space on your cyclocross bikes.
However, you can still squeeze some of the gnarly tires for off-road riding depending on the size.
Many riders usually choose to follow this route because it’s much cheaper and easy.
However, I wouldn’t advise using your swapped cyclocross bike on the muddy terrain because of the marginal spaces and tire clearances.
Dry surfaces would be okay, but the muddy terrains are likely to clog up the tire clearance and even hinder the movement of the wheels.
In addition to the cyclocross tyres swap, you can add aftermarket components such as the flared handlebars to help improve the handling and stability, especially on rugged terrains.
Can My Gravel Bike Double up as a Cyclocross Bike?
Unless you need to use your bike for a professional cyclocross course, a gravel bike can double up as a cyclocross.
As we mentioned earlier, professional cyclocross races are governed by the UCI, which also dictates the sizing and components of each CX bike.
For example, every professional CX bike should have tires with a width of 33mm.
But for casual and non-professional cyclocross races, you can go with gravel, even if you’re riding with tires wider than 33mm and bars wider than 50cm.
The local cyclocross is probably the most accessible form of CX racing, and organizers usually encourage riders to use any bike capable of off-road riding, not necessarily true cyclocross models.
However, if you need an edge over your competitors in the cyclocross bike race, you need to make several adjustments on your gravel bikes.
The most important one is switching your tires. Remember, most cyclocross racing takes place in muddy and wet conditions, so you need tires with a more aggressive tread for better traction, especially on the slope.
Cross Bike vs. Gravel Bike Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: What are the limitations of gravel bikes?
A: Generally, gravel bikes are slower and feel sluggish than the CX bikes. They’re also bulky and may fatigue you riding over long distances.
Q: What are cross bikes good for?
A: Cross bikes are versatile but mainly suited for cyclocross racing.
They can take on a variety of terrains, from muddy sections and wet areas to dry surfaces.
Q: What’s special about a gravel bike?
A: A gravel bike typically has an upright and relaxed geometry than a road bike or cyclocross bike. This, along with a longer head tube, provides riders with better riding comfort, especially when riding for long distances.
Q: Why do gravel bikes lack suspension?
A: A gravel bike lacks suspension because most road bikes are usually in pursuit of lightness and speed.
A suspension will only add extra bulk, slow your performance, and make it harder to accelerate.
Q: Why are gravel bikes bulkier than cross bikes?
A: Generally, gravel bikes are heavier than CX bikes because they’re built with sturdier frames.
Q: Can I use my cyclocross for of-roading?
A: Yes, you can still use your CX for off-road, but only light off-road.
Some of the racing courses that a CX will take include muddy sections, sloppy climbs, sandpits, and steep sections.
As I mentioned earlier, the lines between the cyclocross and gravel bikes are increasingly blurry as bike manufacturers seek to fill or invent niche categories.
For example, a few bikes in the CX category can take 40mm+ tires and have a more relaxed geometry for comfortable road use.
I mean, you would have a hard time differentiating such a CX bike from the regular gravel bikes.
Then there’re gravel bikes that have started taking up the suspension forks, making them more suitable for rugged off-road use.
While on the other end, you’ll see gravel bikes with a more touring or bike packing appeal.
Therefore, in m opinion, unless you need a CX for professional cyclocross racing, you could as well go with a gravel bike.
On the other hand, a simple switch of wheelset on your CX is enough to go over gravel and other gnarlier terrains that a dedicated gravel bike would.
Of course, you won’t have the best versions of either bike category, but you’ll go to places where you’ve never imagined a different bike category.