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Puzzled by the latest bike type? It's not just hype

What’s the difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel or adventure bike? It’s a question we see asked a lot, as more and more bikes are launched in this new niche. Let’s try and clear things up.

According to our resident cynic VecchioJo Burt the difference between a cyclocross bike and a gravel/adventure bike is “£200”. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Bike industry labels for bike varieties often confuse people because they usually don’t refer to discrete categories but to points on a spectrum. In those case that means bike labelled ‘adventure’ or ‘gravel’ can be very similar to a cyclocross bike, especially if you don’t dig deep into the specs.

What are they for?

specialized crux robin willmot copy.jpg

specialized crux robin willmot copy.jpg

Our Dave Arthur puts a Speciaized Cruz through its racy paces

Form follows function so to kick off, let’s look at what these two bike types are for.

cyclocross is a bike racing discipline that involves riding a drop-handlebar bike on a short, off-road course, usually in a park or similar. Courses include features like mud, sandpits, barriers and steps or slopes too steep to ride, forcing riders to run, as well as easier sections. An international-grade course has to be between 2.5km and 3.5km long. An elite-level cyclocross race lasts an hour and a lap; other race categories are shorter.

A cyclocross bike is designed specifically for this form of racing, and, as we’ll see, its design serves its purpose of going fast, and being able to be carried when the terrain demands.

>>Read more: Buyer's Guide to cyclocross bikes - how to choose the right one for you
>> Read more:  Beginner's guide to cyclo-cross essentials

Raleigh Maverick Comp Riding 2

Raleigh Maverick Comp Riding 2

Despite his cynicism, VecchioJo keeps coming back happy from gravel/adventure bike rides

While there’s an emerging discipline of gravel racing in the USA, most gravel/adventure bikes are not purpose-specific racers. Rather they’re designed for long days in the saddle on a mixture of surfaces and terrains and for riding with various types of luggage on multi-day trips.

The key difference between gravel/adventure bikes and old-fashioned touring bikes is the baked-in ability to tackle unsurfaced trails, tracks and dirt roads. People took touring bikes off the beaten track in the era before the mountain bike, but fatter tyres make it much easier and more comfortable. A gravel/adventure bike combines the multiple hand positions of a road bike with the go-anywhere abilities of a mountain bike.

What design and feature differences come out of these purposes then?

Frames

Specialized Crux Elite X1- bottom bracket

Specialized Crux Elite X1- bottom bracket

Specialized uses carbon fibre for its Crux Elite race bike

A cyclocross frame has to be light, because the bike built around it will be carried. That means pared-down aluminium and carbon fibre frames are the norm.

Gravel/adventure frames are usually a bit heavier, because they need to be stiff enough to carry loads.

A pure cyclocross frame won’t have eyelets for mudguards or racks, because you’ll never need them for racing. But they’re a feature of gravel/adventure bikes because you might want to racks to carry luggage, and mudguards to help keep you dry.

A frame’s geometry — the angles and lengths of its various tubes — determines how it handles, and here there are significant differences.

A cyclocross bike will usually have a head tube of around 72-73° for quick turns, while a gravel/adventure bike’s will be a degree or so shallower for steadier handling.

The riding position is also different, with longer head angles and shorter top tubes on gravel/adventure bikes giving a more upright position.

Raleigh Maverick Comp - Rear Tyre Clearance.jpg

Raleigh Maverick Comp - Rear Tyre Clearance.jpg

Raleigh anticipated the need to fly a light aircraft through the chainstays of its Maverick gravel/adventure bike

Out back, a gravel/adventure bike will have longer chainstays so there’s heel clearance for panniers. A cyclocross bike typically has 425mm chainstays; on a gravel/adventure bike they’re as long as 465mm.

Of course this wouldn’t be the bike industry without glaring exceptions to general rules. Specialized’s Diverge gravel/adventure bike has 415mm chainstays to tuck the back wheel in for more traction on steep climbs. Specialized presumably expects multi-day riders to go with frame bags and plus-sized saddle bags rather than traditional panniers, or to choose the Sequoia range with longer stays and rack and mudguard eyelets.

There are also cyclocross bikes with rack and mudguard eyelets, because bike makers recognise that many riders have picked up ’crossers as fast urban pothole-bashers. Many of these bikes have morphed into gravel/adventure bikes in the last couple of years. The Pinnacle Arkose range from Evans Cycles is a good example. It was originally billed as a cyclocross bike, but now has fatter tyres and Evans calls it an adventure bike.

Read more: Buyer’s guide to gravel and adventure bikes plus 16 of the best

Tyres

pinnacle-arkose-four-fork-clearance.jpg

pinnacle-arkose-four-fork-clearance.jpg

Gravel/adventure bikes usually come with fat, multi-purpose tyres like these Kenda Small Block Eights

The rules set by cycle racing’s governing body, the UCI, say cyclocross tyres have to be no more than 33mm wide. There’s usually room in a cyclocross frame for tyres that are a bit wider than that, and there’s room for mud clearance, but gravel/adventure bikes will typically take much bigger tyres. Trek fits 2.0in tyres to its 920 adventure tourer, while Specialized goes 1.9in for its AWOL models.

You'll find dirt-specific knobblies on dedicated cyclocross bikes

You'll find dirt-specific knobblies on dedicated cyclocross bikes

You'll find dirt-specific knobblies on dedicated cyclocross bikes

However, some, like Norco’s Search bikes, just go a bit fatter with 35mm tyres, while Cannondale’s Slate has 42mm tyres and 650B wheels, the ‘middle’ size used on mountain bikes.

Tubeless-ready wheels are increasingly common on both cyclocross and gravel/adventure bikes. Tubeless tyres aren’t susceptible to pinch punctures caused by the tyre bottoming out on the rim — there’s no tube to pinch. They can therefore be run at lower pressures.

Gears

Trek 920 transmission.jpeg

Trek 920 transmission.jpeg

Trek fits a wide-range double with a big emphasis on low gears to its 920 adventure bike

Classic cyclocross race gearing combines a 46/36 chainset and a medium-wide cassette like an 11-28. You don’t need the high gears of a road bike because you won’t be zooming downhill at over 40mph, but you still need fairly low gears for climbing the courses more rideable slopes.

Adventure/gravel bikes have wider range gearing, but may sacrifice some top end to get lower ratios at the bottom. A 50/34 chainset with an 11-32 cassette is common, but some bikes widen the range with a 48/32 or even 42/28 chainset. Others go for the simplicity of a 1 x 11 system.

If you’re an old fart like me, you might be surprised that no gravel/adventure bikes have a triple chainset. You could get a bigger range with an extra chainring, but even I have to admit you get a pretty useful range when you combine a 42/28 with an 11-36 cassette.

Brakes

pinnacle-arkose-four-rear-disc.jpg

pinnacle-arkose-four-rear-disc.jpg

If the UCI hadn’t given the green light in 2010 for cyclocross racers to use disk brakes, the gravel/adventure category might never have happened — or at least not happened so quickly.

Every gravel/adventure bike we can find uses disk brakes. As well as their advantages in stopping power and consistency in the wet, disks have a very big advantage for bikes ridden on lousy surfaces: they’re not affected by rim damage. This is well worth the extra few grams over cantilever brakes.

A handful of cyclocross bikes are still available with cantilever brakes, but cyclocross bikes almost universally use discs too, for much the same reasons.

The big picture

The Light Blue Robinson 1x - riding 1.jpg

The Light Blue Robinson 1x - riding 1.jpg

In their purest form cyclocross bikes have a very narrow purpose and that leads to very specific frame design and features. They’re brilliant for cyclocross racing but limited as all-rounders by their lack of provision for mudguards and racks, their relatively narrow gear ranges and inability to take very fat tyres.

For many, the riding position of a pure cyclocross race bike will be too aggressive; fine for an hour and a lap exploring the upper limits of your aerobic range, less ideal for a full day exploring lanes and trails.

Gravel/adventure bikes take ideas from cyclocross bikes and throw in fatter tyres rom mountain bikes and hybrids, wider gear ranges from touring bikes and all-day riding positions from sportive bikes. The details of the mix vary between manufacturers, but they’re clearly a new, distinctly separate breed.

If you fancy expanding your riding to include dirt roads and trails, but want to get there on the road, the good news is you have plenty of choice. Think about the riding position you prefer, how you’re going to carry luggage — if at all — and the gears you need and take it all into account when you make your choice.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

17 comments

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imajez [92 posts] 9 months ago
1 like

Way too many labels are marketing nonsense. I ride various mountain bikes on all kinds of terrain without any issue, they're not not 'all mountain bikes' or whatever category comes out this week. As for gravel bikes, tested a few of them and bought a CX bike and ride it even with 28mm tubeless road tyres in the rocky and technical Dark Peak and have one my fastest times down a local Roman Road on that same bike with 32mm near slicks. Left most of those on full sus MTB bikes for dead on one ride and was only 0.7% slower than when riding  a full sus 29ner that cost 3 times as much. It has sensible gearing too, 50/34 - 11/32. Thought about putting 40mm Nanos on it to make it a 'gravel' bike, but it's so very competent with skinnier tyres and sensible pressures that tubeless allows, I've not bothered yet. Maybe when I get a third wheelset for it I'll add a pair of them just because. yes

The other bikes hardly get used any more, as this is very quick on road and makes the boring off road section [fire roads etc] fun and the fun bit even more fun! So as MTB rides from home invariably have road sections and road rides have a habit of wandering off [the actually really rough in places] tarmac this is as close to the the one bike to do it all as you can get. With one little exception. It's a Specialised Crux, so to empahasise it's for racing there are no mudguard eyelets which are actually really handy  for keeping the crap off you in Winter or British Summers for that matter. Something discretely present on most of the rival bikes, which didn't ride or fit as well, so I had to make that compromise.

 

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shotbybarry [5 posts] 9 months ago
4 likes

Many bikes, very few differences. Marketing tells you that you need a slightly longer wheelbase or a higher BB shell. They tell you you need 2mm more clearance or you cages need to be positioned higher. You know what you need? Skills. That comes with time and practice. Most bikes will do most things and I can see (breaking the V 12 rule) that 3 bikes would accomplish most things for most folks but if you wanted to believe the indutry they would have you with 7-9. 

What are those three? 

1. Road

2. Mtb

3. Something in between. Just how in between is up to you, your style of riding and local geography.

Avatar
joules1975 [454 posts] 9 months ago
5 likes
shotbybarry wrote:

Many bikes, very few differences. Marketing tells you that you need a slightly longer wheelbase or a higher BB shell. They tell you you need 2mm more clearance or you cages need to be positioned higher. You know what you need? Skills. That comes with time and practice. Most bikes will do most things and I can see (breaking the V 12 rule) that 3 bikes would accomplish most things for most folks but if you wanted to believe the indutry they would have you with 7-9. 

What are those three? 

1. Road

2. Mtb

3. Something in between. Just how in between is up to you, your style of riding and local geography.

Yes, most bikes will do most things quite happily (within reason), but a slight variation can make a big difference to your enjoyment.

I have a hardtail and a full sus mountain bike. Why? because I can flick the hardtail around a bit more as it responds to my commands pretty much instantly, but I get beaton up on it a lot more, while the full sus gives me more confidance when it comes to throwing the bike down drops etc, and it's less fatiguing.

I also have two road bikes - one a typical road bike with aero ish wheels and fairly agressive position, the other essentially a cross bike set-up for road because it has a slightly less agressive position, bigger tyres and mudgaurds. The road bike is more flickable and faster, the cross bike more relaxed and comfortable. On a 70 mile loop I sometime do there will only be 20 mins or so difference between the two, but the different bikes give me a different take on the same ride. This I value enough to own the two bikes.

Do I need two road bikes and two mountain bikes, absolutely not, but I enjoy have them and the different riding options/styles they offer me.

So for all the different genres and niches that are being pushed right now is a bastard for anyone new to bikes or for the stores trying to explain stuff to customers, but it's great for people like me who appreciate the subtlties of bike design how a small change can have a big effect.

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cyclesteffer [258 posts] 9 months ago
0 likes

I bought a Ridley x-Bow 1317A Cyclocross bike from Wiggle for £675 a few years ago for commuting its been really good. The only thing that bugged me a bit was the brake wear (it has TRP CX9s) because for year round commuting and being 90 Kilos I trash wheels like they are going out of fashion - it is a quick bike though.

Last week I bought a GT Grade in the Chain Reaction Sale (£649, less British cycling discount and Quidco, it worked out a ridiculously cheap £570-ish), so now I have a Gravel bike to compare it to,

My experience has been that the Cyclocross is much more "twitchy", around corners and on long downhills, still fun to ride on a commute though, its a good blast. The brakes are quite "on-off" though. You feel as though you are sat "on top" of the bike.

The GT Grade is completely different handling, much more like a road bike. You feel sat "in" the frame. It has a long wheelbase, compared to the Ridley and vs my other road bikes. Previous hills that I would hesitate to descend on I can now do much quicker, with no issues, without really trying. It is a monster at descending. The brake discs are TRP Spyres and are much more forgiving of over cooking it into a corner.

I used to think the Cyclocross bike was the answer to "the one bike that can do it all", but its not, its the Gravel bike.

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jterrier [98 posts] 9 months ago
3 likes

I have both and have done cx races on both. The difference is in the handling in the tight turns.

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Meanredspider [21 posts] 9 months ago
3 likes

I love it when people complain about being given more choice 

Bring it on, I say. There's nothing that says you have to have one of each - what it does mean that there's a bike that almost certainly meets all of your needs - that's not "marketing nonsense" or whatever other complaint people want to make - it's called "consumer choice" and I love it. 

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CXR94Di2 [1577 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes

I would like a "Gravel" geometry bike in titanium with all the eyelets and mounts, so I can make it my one and only road bike.  I would have a couple of wheelsets for comfy commuter riding and a set slimmer tyres for club runs/TTs.  My Boardman carbon CXR has all these  but is a little twitchy(steep head tube angle) when I set it up for club TTs.  

 

One day  1

 

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Tintow [44 posts] 8 months ago
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CXR94Di2 wrote:

I would like a "Gravel" geometry bike in titanium with all the eyelets and mounts, so I can make it my one and only road bike.  I would have a couple of wheelsets for comfy commuter riding and a set slimmer tyres for club runs/TTs.  My Boardman carbon CXR has all these  but is a little twitchy(steep head tube angle) when I set it up for club TTs.

Exactly this.

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cyclisto [192 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
Tintow wrote:
CXR94Di2 wrote:

I would like a "Gravel" geometry bike in titanium with all the eyelets and mounts, so I can make it my one and only road bike.  I would have a couple of wheelsets for comfy commuter riding and a set slimmer tyres for club runs/TTs.  My Boardman carbon CXR has all these  but is a little twitchy(steep head tube angle) when I set it up for club TTs.

Exactly this.

 

Me too, but with Ti fork, otherwise it is meaningless, the dream of Ti is that it the Highlander of materials being bumproof,rustproof,fatigueproof and at the same time relatively light. The CF forks just destroy this dream.

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riotgibbon [217 posts] 8 months ago
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my bike shop banned me from having any more rim brakes after the winter of 2014/5. Harsh maybe, but fair. They pointed out the Diverge range, suggesting that this was the only form of road bike I should be allowed, 'adventure' or 'gravel' never came into it, just extremely tough and ready to go all the places I do - I like to have a choice of road or path. 

Match made in heaven - I did a 45   mile spin around the Chilterns first thing this morning, and it takes all the different road surfaces on offer without complaint, and last week I bagged a reasonable contested quarter mile KoM flat segment on it , at 30 mph for  30 seconds - big following wind obviously, and there's lots of people who could go faster if they went that way, but the bike doesn't hang about if you don't want it to. 

For me, that's a real winning combination. Not ridden my mtb hard-tail since, and my other bike in use is  a Pashley Guv'nor, so I'm covered ....

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alanmc [3 posts] 8 months ago
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Tintow wrote:
CXR94Di2 wrote:

I would like a "Gravel" geometry bike in titanium with all the eyelets and mounts, so I can make it my one and only road bike.  I would have a couple of wheelsets for comfy commuter riding and a set slimmer tyres for club runs/TTs.  My Boardman carbon CXR has all these  but is a little twitchy(steep head tube angle) when I set it up for club TTs.

Exactly this.

Planet-X Tempest : 

http://www.planetx.co.uk/c/q/bikes/gravel-adventure-bikes/Tempest(link is external)

Just got one, and its brilliant.

2 sets of wheels :

- 28c Pro4 Endurance for winter commuting/Sunday rides/Audax - Mudguards On;

- 40C (!!) WTB nanos - mudguards off for off-road fun !!

https://goo.gl/photos/bxeuD4niaEE342K46

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alanmc [3 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes

.. multi post, sorry

 

 

 

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alanmc [3 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes

.. multipost 

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Cantab [102 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
alanmc wrote:
Tintow wrote:
CXR94Di2 wrote:

I would like a "Gravel" geometry bike in titanium with all the eyelets and mounts, so I can make it my one and only road bike.  I would have a couple of wheelsets for comfy commuter riding and a set slimmer tyres for club runs/TTs.  My Boardman carbon CXR has all these  but is a little twitchy(steep head tube angle) when I set it up for club TTs.

Exactly this.

Planet-X Tempest : 

http://www.planetx.co.uk/c/q/bikes/gravel-adventure-bikes/Tempest(link is external)

Just got one, and its brilliant.

 

Worth considering the Tempest's Half-sibling, the Alpkit Sonder Camino-Ti:  https://www.alpkit.com/sonder/sonder-camino-ti

One of its fathers is Brant Richards (?formerly?) of Planet X/On One fame and you can see the shared DNA.

I'm moving to Scotland from the Fens next year in all likelihood and when I do one of these will likely be high up my shopping list!

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remy1234 [4 posts] 6 months ago
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I came at this adventure/gravel bike thing from sort of the opposite direction about 5 years ago.

5 in travel mountain bike frame(Salsa--very light, very good) with a 5 inch travel fork.

Put a full uncut steer tube on and a randonneur bar at road height.

MTB gearing(22-32-44/11-34).

Old Shimano 105 shifter/levers pulling v brakes.

Relatively light wheelset currently running 2.5 inch Schwalbe Moto's.

The whole thing currently sits at 27 lbs.

BUT, my preferred set up is with 1.5 inch inverted tread tires(used to be Avocet Cross II's--hate it that tire is no more; Schwalbes are okay)

With the suspension set properly, the 1.5 tires are fast, cushioned by the suspension, and really dig on loose surfaces.

Finally, if I wanted to spend a bit more $, I could easily get the weight down to the 20 to 22 lb range.

Most of all it rides great!

I can tackle just about any road surface, including about 90% of the pretty technical, steep, singletrack we have here, and enjoy it.

It really shines on dirt/gravel roads; you can sit in and spin the big ring while floating over the bumps.

Cost effective, too

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Visionairey [1 post] 5 months ago
0 likes

Had our Gravel/Adventure bikes made about 10 years ago

Frames are Ti for strength not weight 

Had S&S couplings installed for air travel 

Did not choose disk brakes; concerned about damage while packing them in hats shell cases

Have ridden them many places across world - great investment 

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CXR94Di2 [1577 posts] 5 months ago
1 like

I've just ordered a tripster V2, I will build it up over the next week or so. It seems to have everything I could possibly want from a bike frame. Slack steering, decent stack height for comfy distance riding and huge tyre clearance, and its titanium  4