If there is one innovation in cycling that has really caught on in the last few years, it’s gravel bikes. These utilitarian bikes feature fat tires, disc brakes, drop bars, and plenty of ground clearance. This gives riders the opportunity to ride on terrain that my otherwise be unrideable on a road or cyclocross bike. Thanks to races like the the Grinduro and Dirty Kanza, many cyclists have rediscovered a love for participating in an organized event. Not to mention, it’s actually really fun too! So what makes these bikes unique, and why are they so popular?
The most common question people ask about gravel bikes is, “how a gravel bike different from a cyclocross bike?” Sure, they may look similar when put side by side, but a cyclocross bike is generally designed with racing in mind. That means tire clearance is limited to 33c tires, due to the UCI limiting tire width on cyclocross bikes. Gravel bikes can and do go much wider, with some bikes spec’d with 2” tires from the factory.
Gravel bikes are designed with strength taking a precedence over weight. Cyclocross bikes are the inverse, due to their race pedigree. Gravel bikes are also engineered to carry loads, like a touring bike. That means rack mounts and extra water bottle bosses. Cyclocross bikes, especially the race specific types are without these extra braze-ons.
Stability is the primary focus of a gravel bike’s design. When taking a bike off of the beaten track, keeping the bike upright is far more important than agility. This means a gravel bike will have a more slack geometry with more trail than a standard cyclocross bike. A gravel bike will also generally feature a taller head tube and shorter top tube, allowing for a more upright riding position. All of which translates into a more predictable handling machine.
Cyclocross bikes have a rather narrow gear range. Up front, chainrings are usually 46/36 or 46/34 with an 11-28 cassette. This narrow range is perfect for an hour long CX circuit, but not exactly optimal for off road adventure riding. Gravel grinders have plenty of options for gearing. The standard compact 50/34 is common up front, but so are 48/32 and 42/28 chainring combinations. Any of these combinations coupled an 11-36 cassette will a rider incredible gear ranges. A gravel bike rider can to tackle off-road sections otherwise impossible on a narrow geared cyclocross bike.
As you can see, a gravel bike is in fact quite different from a cyclocross bike. I have yet to experience riding one, but everyone I know who has one loves them. As the kind of rider who regularly takes his road bike on dirt and gravel roads, I can see the allure. There are times when I’m riding through deep sand on 25c tires pumped up to 100psi, and I wish I had something wider and softer. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on a ‘cross bike, and I am curious as to how a gravel bike may be advantageous to my racy CX rig. Anyone have a 60cm gravel bike they want to let me borrow for a weekend? Thanks for reading, and as always, keep the rubber side down!