You might have seen a lot of cycling media telling you need a gravel bike. You might now be trying to work out what is the difference between a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike. Nicely we have the answer for you and you will be pleased to know it is not all just marketing.
What are gravel bikes? Gravel bikes are a road bike that can also be ridden on non-technical off-road sections, such as gravel tracks, canal towpaths, and flowing singletrack. As a result, these bikes are stronger than road bikes and can fit wider tyres and sometimes come with a variety of mounts for going bikepacking or touring.
Is that not just the old cyclocross bike then? No. Cyclocross bikes are a different breed from gravel bikes although like all things there is a crossover point. You might be worried that the cycle industry is just trying to dupe you into buying a cross bike but paying more for it, so read on, and you will discover why cyclocross and gravel bikes differ.
Gravel bike versus cyclocross bike geometry
If you think about how you use a gravel bike versus how you would use a cyclocross bike you can see why they may need a different geometry. With a gravel bike, you will be planning long days in the saddle, possibly multiple days. You will be out in the wilds and the routes you pick might like to throw a few little surprises at you. You might load the bike up so you will need a stable platform on which to ride. You want a bike that is not going to throw you off as you ride along rough country roads.
Cyclocross is all about racing around a muddy winter field. You will be looking at spending an hour on and off your saddle — jumping hurdles, whipping the bike around corners, avoiding furrows, dealing with ice and snow. This bike is designed to be raced fast through a sprint style event.
This then means that cyclocross bikes tend to have more aggressive angles than gravel bikes. One is designed for endurance and the other for sprints.
Part of the evolution of gravel bikes is muddied by the fact that entry-level cyclocross bikes used to come with water bottle mounts and fender and pannier mounts. This was designed to make them a better purchase. Commuters could buy them and then dip into cyclocross at the weekend. These mounts are now generally found on gravel bikes, and there is one big difference you may notice between gravel and cyclocross bikes that helps if you are a commuter.
Standover height on cyclocross bikes
Cyclocross frames come with a frame that is designed for shouldering. That is why cyclocross bikes look like they have a bigger front triangle than road bikes. They also used to have a higher bottom bracket height, for clearance when offroad. Putting these together means that the standover height on your bike is taller than a standard road bike. So people would size down for standover height.
You don’t want to do this as your top tube would be shorter. Your other issue would be your stack height. Cyclocross bikes as they were really race bikes have always had a low stack height.
What is stack height? Stack height is an important measurement in bike fitting. It measures the vertical distance from the centre of your frame’s bottom bracket to the top middle point on your frame’s headtube.
Stack height on gravel bikes fits commuters
You will have seen pro riders with slammed stems. They are getting their stem as low as possible and not adding anything to the stack of the bike. Some may even be lowering the stack. These people though have masseuses, chiropractors, and doctors on call. They also ride a bike for a living. You probably do not. Imagine you are sat at a desk all day, would you be as flexible as a pro rider?
The answer is probably not. That is why stack is important. Can you bend you fit a low stack height? Most of us can’t. Cyclocross bikes were designed to have a low stack for racers. If you ride a smaller bike, you are making this stack even smaller. You probably want to take up yoga if you do this.
Gravel bikes go for a bigger stack. How do they do this? They have a longer headtube than you find on cyclocross bikes — a pretty neat but straightforward fix. You will now be sitting up slightly more than with a low stack. You are then putting less strain on your spine and hips. You should have less lower back pain, and it can help alleviate groin pain. No one wants pain in their groin. You might even find you are a more efficient cyclist.
A higher stack is great if you are a commuter.
Gravel bike versus cyclocross head angle
That is not the end of the story around the head tube of your bike frame though. Your cyclocross frame will be engineered for racing. It is designed to turn at speed. A gravel bike is designed for comfort and possibly for fully laden touring.
You will, therefore, need a different head angle for both of these bikes. The cross bike will have an angle of around 72-73° for snappy turning. You will then find that gravel bikes have a shallower angle. The shallow angle will make them feel much more stable, particularly if you are descending with your gravel bike fully loaded. You don’t want to tip over with a months’ worth of supplies on your bike.
Matched to this head angle, we will also see that gravel bikes have a shorter top tube than cyclocross bikes. The shorter top tube will give you a slightly higher up seating position and stop you feeling as stretched out as a cyclocross bike may make you feel. Again this is about adding stability and long ride comfort. It is okay to be stretched out on a for an hour race, but you will probably feel a whole lot different about that after an 8-hour gravel ride.
Gravel or cyclocross chainstays
Like the top tube, a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike will have different length chainstays. This time the longer tube is on the gravel bike, and the cyclocross bike has the shorter chainstays. The cross bike has short stays to bring a racy feeling, and the gravel bike long stays for stability.
If you need the stability for touring, you might also be after heel clearance. You do not want to be kicking pannier bags on every revolution of your pedal stroke. You will not have the issue of pannier bags during a cross race, so cyclocross bikes will be looking at having 425mm long chainstays.
You will see that gravel bikes have chainstays heading out to around 460mm in length. This longer length also gives road vibration a chance to damped by the time it hits you. You can then be both comfortable and stable all from a correctly designed rear end length.
You will also now see that some gravel bikes that are designed for mega-endurance events are bringing their chainstay lengths back in. The reason is that these bikes are designed to use the enormous saddle packs and frames bags that are currently de rigure. These bikes are designed for speed. This is what we meant earlier when we said there was cross-pollination.
You will also be wanting to look at tyre clearance while you look at the back end of your bicycle.
Gravel bike tire widths
The UCI set a limit on cyclocross tyre width. To race cyclocross at a UCI event, your tyres can be no wider than 33mm. Cyclocross frames were then designed with this as the maximum clearance. You can fit a 33mm and get a bit of mud clearance, and that is it.
For gravel cycling though the UCI holds no sway. The more people rode gravel, the more they realised that tyres are what brings comfort to gravel bikes — the wider the tyre, the comfier the ride. Sure, they might ride slower, but you are out riding and want to look at the scenery anyway. Don’t you?
You will now be able to find gravel bikes with clearance for up to 2” wide tyres. Perfect if you accidentally go off down a proper mountain bike trail. There is something else that gravel bikes, and cyclocross bikes, are taking from mountain bikes — tubeless tyres.
Having to stop and fix a puncture is never fun. By going tubeless, you can help to eliminate that danger. You can still get punctures but they will mostly self-seal, and you should be able to carry on a ride having only lost a few PSI in your tyres. You can also safely ride lower pressures in your tyres, bringing more comfort to your ride again.
Going tubeless is excellent and with the right wheelset and tyre choice setting up can be done in minutes.
If you are like me, you might find building your dream bike to be a very personal affair. Every part is picked for its own merit. You can spend hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months deliberating over the parts you want. No place is this truer than when building a gravel bike.
On a gravel bike, you can spend hours arguing over tyre choice. Road or mountain bike pedals, the wrong answer can send you into an apoplectic rage. You know what you want, and you do not want something off a shelf. Step forward the ICAN AC388 frameset.
At the heart of every custom build is a great frame. The ICAN AC388 frame is designed to be at the heart of your gravel race bike. This frame will allow you to build a great lightweight and strong frame designed to take on the toughest self-support gravel bike races.
To be light and strong the frame is constructed from Toray T700 carbon fibre. Toray T700 is an excellent choice for building bike frames from as it helps to construct compliant but stiff frames. ICAN has also added another factor into the mix, by selling directly to you from the factory floor the frame is way more affordable than you are currently imagining. We all want an affordable carbon gravel bike frame.
To make fitting your choice of cranks easy the frame comes with a BB86 bottom bracket. The shell area around the bottom bracket is massive, to make sure all your power is transferred to the rear wheel. To make sure you can pick from the highest quality wheels the rear wheel spacing is 142 x 12mm. You can build a super stiff set of wheels or even run a set of 29er wheels if you want bombproof construction. It also compatible with 135mm quick release wheels if you have some old bling kicking about in your garage that you want to use. The fork at the front is spaced for 100 x 12mm as well.
In order to keep your cables working as well as they should, even when on muddy gravel roads, the AC388 gravel frame comes with internal cable routing. Do not fear though the routing is designed to make fitting and servicing your cables as straightforward as possible. You will not be tearing your hair out trying to fit a gear cable to this frameset.
There you go an awesome gravel bike and an excellent gravel frame. Two perfect choices to set you off down the road that is covered by loose stones. We feel that gravel bikes have been a long time coming and now we are glad that they are here to stay.
Maybe the roads less travelled will soon be well travelled by people on their gravel bikes.
Gravel versus cyclocross, your choice
That is the basics of the difference between cyclocross and gravel bikes. We could also add in gearing choices or handlebar choices, but this is where it starts to get more subjective than objective. So where does all this take us? It takes us to a point where you might be thinking about a new gravel bike.
We have decided to recommend to you one of our favourite new gravel bikes for 2019.
Welcome the ICAN Explorer
ICAN might not be a brand you have heard of before. But, on the hallowed grounds of some internet forums, ICAN is considered to be one of the best direct to consumer bike brands in the world. This bike is ICANs step into the world of gravel bikes, and if it is as great as their fat bikes, we are in for a treat.
The ICAN Explorer is one of the new breed of gravel bikes. It is designed for the self-supported races. As such it has a geometry between an out and out cyclocross bike and a more sedate gravel bike. This bike is going to make self-supported races a breeze. Fixe on your saddlebag, frame bag, and handlebar bag and take on the world.
The ICAN Explorer gravel bike is built around a Toray T800 carbon fibre frameset. This frameset is light and stiff and is just begging for you to take it out on huge rides. This bike would devour the Dirty Kanza gravel race in America or the Dirty Reiver in the UK. I would also consider it a very likely candidate to help you win the Transcontinental race, while leaving you with enough money to buy all the extra equipment you will need for the race.
To make sure the bike shifts and stops, as well as possible ICAN, have fitted the bike with a Shimano Ultegra groupset. All the quality of Dura Ace but at a much more wallet-friendly price. You get the proven Shimano quality but do not have to fear getting your bike serviced as consumable parts are not too expensive. You don’t want to be forking out for new cassettes for a gravel bike every couple of months. To carry on the high spec, you get a set of carbon fibre wheels.
50mm deep section carbon wheels at that. These wheels will have you flying along at a great rate and best of all they are tubeless ready. You can get wide tyres on and drop the pressure for an all-day gravel ride in comfort. You could alternatively ride high pressures and do the local chain gang. The Explorer is that versatile and will not have you feel that you have hindered your progress in any way. These wheels will have you conquering mountain passes and flying along the Strade Bianchi.
This bike is what you want in a gravel bike. Light, comfortable, strong, and fast with the ability to fit wider tyres. We have now reached a time where the bike industry creates bikes for their customers and not just for professional racers.