No one can deny the powerful feeling and the exhilaration of riding in a cyclocross. The obstacles, the adrenaline, and feeling the wind as it blows in your hair are only part of the excitement of being part of such a long, strenuous race.
However, can gravel bikes be used for cyclocross? The answer is yes, but gravel bikes are designed to run on gravel and pavement, so choosing another style of bike might be advantageous to winning a cyclocross. A gravel bike can be modified to compete well in cyclocross, and there are six things to consider when deciding if a gravel bike can be used for cyclocross:
- Getting Rid of Flared Bars
- Replacing the Chain with a Single Setup
- Removing Bottle Cages
- Adjusting the Saddle Height and Stem
- Removing Racks and Bags
- Mounting 33 mm Cyclocross Tires
This article will concentrate on these considerations plus the difference between a gravel bike and another bike specifically manufactured to handle the grueling cyclocross.
Equipment Considerations for Cyclocross
A gravel bike is a combination of a road bicycle and a cyclocross bike that is happy on farm roads, gravel, cobblestones, tarmac, and whatever its owner wishes to drive upon. A gravel bike is a machine capable of performing on many different surfaces while still remaining comfortable.
However, gravel bikes are not specifically made to ride in cyclocross, but a few adjustments to the bike can make it cyclocross- ready. There are six basic changes that need to be made:
Now, let’s examine each of the above adjustments. (View Source)
Get Rid of Flared Bars
Gravel bikes often come equipped with flared handlebars for better handling and comfort.
Removing flared bars, if the bike has any, is an important consideration for a traditional or compact drop bar so that when sprinting during finishing straight is more efficient. A flared or wide handlebar will reach out at every corner of the course tape, so it is in the rider’s interest to adjust the cockpit so it better suits cyclocross. Also, flared, extra-wide bars improve stability and control when on rough gravel roads but can limit a rider in cyclocross races. It is recommended to angle the hood angle upwards for better control.
Replace the Double Chain with a Single Setup
A 1x gear is the recommended set up for cyclocross. The number refers to the number of gears on the bike, such as a 1 x 11 drivetrain will have one gear in front and eleven in the back.
Popular because of technological advances that make it possible to use a 1x setup, the main advantage of a 1x can be summed up in the word simplicity. A 1x allows for easy shifting with one hand, leaving the other hand free to drop the post or break.
The largest advantage of using a 1x drivetrain is how it allows riders to focus on their ride instead of needing to constantly adjust gears. It also allows riders to know that their chain is much less likely to drop off the front since it is fixed to one chainring.
There are a few pros and cons to using a 1x drivetrain. The pros are that it is space-saving and less prone to chain drops. The cons are it is that a 1x has a smaller range of gears causing it to make it harder to climb steep terrain. (YouTube Video)
Remove Bottle Cages
Cyclocross goes over barriers and up slippery hills. While a gravel bike frame won’t have much space for handling or shouldering, having bottle cages will make jumping or climbing over them more difficult. Removing bottle cages from a bike will make it easier to sling the bike up to carry it more efficiently and also offer less to carry when it is time to pick up and carry the bike during the race.
Adjust the Saddle Height and Stem
Adjusting the saddle height and stem are minor adjustments that make a gravel bike more suitable for cyclocross. A longer stem will compensate for the shorter top tube on gravel bikes that place riders in an upright position. It may also need to adjust the saddle height with remounting and riding out of the saddle being prevalent in cyclocross.
Remove Racks and Bags
A bar bag may be useful in everyday, all-day adventures, cyclocross may last hours, and lightening the gravel bike will make finishing successfully more likely. Bags and racks may attract mud and are unneeded in cyclocross so removing them is highly recommended. Also, as with bottle cages, racks and bags can get in the way when carrying the bike over nearly impossible terrain.
Mount 33 mm Cyclocross Tires
Perhaps the most important choice for cyclists to make for using a gravel bike in the cyclocross is the tires. To make a gravel bike suitable for cyclocross, gravel tires aren’t really suited well for the conditions one would be racing that include mud, hardpacked dirt, grass, and sand.
If the cyclist is racing in a Union Cycliste Internationale sanctioned event, cyclists are not allowed to run tires wider than 33 mm. Of course, if the cyclocross event the cyclist is considering entering is local, one may be capable of using a wider tire, but the best bet is to stick with a 33 mm tire.
Tires that are 33 mm offer not only less weight on the bike, but also a better ability to ride through mud, water, and slush.
Choosing the Best Pedals for Using a Gravel Bike in a Cyclocross
While road pedals and shoes work fine for riding dirt roads, mountain bike pedals work best when handling the mud and dirt of cyclocross. Off-road pedals resist clogging with mud and debris and are easier to get in and out of when one comes to a tricky section of the race.
One highly recommended pedal for gravel bike riding in cyclocross is the Shimano XT PD-m8000 pedal. This pedal maintains a larger interface with the shoe’s the cyclist is wearing, providing stability and power transfer. This type of pedal also plays nicely with a variety of shoe treads, and although it has difficulty at times with extreme mud, they clear themselves far better than most other pedals. (Amazon Link)
What is Cyclocross?
Cyclocross is reported to be a cross between road racing and mountain biking where competitors race laps around a course that has a variety of surfaces including:
Cyclists competing in cyclocross negotiate obstacles that may require them to dismount and remount their bikes often as they circle the approved area.
Cyclocross races typically last between forty minutes to one hour and are run over short circuits with each lap being one to three kilometers long. Competitors begin in a bunch and spread out with the faster riders completing more laps and commissars, also called timing chips, keep track of who is where on the course.
The courses of cyclocross are made over a mixture of terrain, including mud, trail with some concrete, and have a few obstacles for competitors to negotiate, such as sandpits, logs, and other things.
Understanding the definitions of gravel and cyclocross bikes can help riders decide which bike they would like to choose to ride.
Gravel and Cyclocross Bikes
The definitions of a gravel and cyclocross bike are simple and telling.
A gravel bike is a combination of a road bike and a cyclocross bike. These bicycles are happy on farm roads, and many other types of terrain and is capable of performing well on them while keeping the rider comfortable.
A cyclocross bike is a specific form of a drop-bar bike built to tackle the popular racing of cyclocross. Originally modified road bicycles, cyclocross bikes feature a resolute model in the line-up of most large bicycles manufactured today.
Cyclocross bikes are built to race on courses that traverse muddy fields, grass, sand, and other terrains that most bikes cannot go. Cyclocross bike frames will use geometry optimized around navigating the technical courses they are designed to handle.
Some of the greatest differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes are their purpose. While a gravel bike can be modified to handle any type of race or terrain, cyclocross bikes are specifically built to handle the rigors of cyclocross only.
The Differences Between Gravel and Cyclocross Bikes
Cyclocross bikes have a narrow purpose, and that means specific design features. While they are wonderful for cyclocross racing, they are limited in other types of riding due to their lack of mudguards and racks, their narrow gear ranges, and their inability to use large tires. Cyclocross bikes are not meant for use in a day’s exploration of lanes and trails but rather suited for the aggressive riding on a cyclocross course.
Gravel bikes are not as narrow in their scope of areas; they can be ridden as they can be equipped with gear that is necessary to enjoy both riding trails and cyclocross.
Cyclocross races take place on and off-road and involve challenges such as mud, snow, ice, and very steep hills. Cyclocross bikes are remarkably similar to gravel bikes in that they are both road bikes, but a few key differences allow them to contend with a much wider range of riding conditions.
However, the largest differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes are their ability to tackle unsurfaced trails, tracks, and dirt roads. There are some very definitive design feature differences between a gravel and cyclocross bike including:
Below are explanations of these differentiations.
Cyclocross gearing combines 46/36 chainset with a medium-wide cassette like an 11-28. No high gears are needed because the rider will not be speeding downhill at over 40 miles per hour, but they still need low gears for climbing the course’s steep slopes.
Note: The notation tells how many bike gear cassettes have sprockets on them. The notation 11/28 means that one of the cassette’s smallest sprockets has eleven teeth, and the largest sprocket has twenty-eight teeth.
Gravel bikes have a wider range of gearing. However, this may sacrifice some top end to get lower ratios at the bottom. A 50/34 chainset with an 11/32 cassette is common, with some bikes widening with the range of 48/32 or 42/28 chainset. These derailleurs are not supposed to be capable of shifting to bigger than a 34-tooth sprocket.
Most gravel bikes have a triple chainset that needs to be changed to a single chainset for performing well in the cyclocross.
Traditionally, gravel bikes have wide tires to accommodate for comfort. However, as has already been mentioned in this article, cyclocross has some extremely specific rules about what size of tires that are allowed. The UCI allows only 33 mm wide tires in an official cyclocross race.
However, while cyclocross bike tires normally conform to the rules set out by the UCI, gravel bikes can be fitted with the narrow tires laid out in the rules.
Tubeless-ready wheels are becoming increasingly common in both cyclocross and gravel bikes. This type of tires is not susceptible to pinch punctures that are caused by the tire bottoming out on the rim. Tubeless-ready wheels can be run at lower pressures meaning more grip and a more comfortable ride off and on the road.
A cyclocross bike frame is light because the bike is built to be carried, meaning it is made from pared-down aluminum and carbon fiber. Also, a cyclocross frame won’t have eyelets for mudguards or racks because they are not needed for cyclocross racing.
Gravel bikes, however, are usually a bit heavier because they need to be stiff enough to carry loads across rough terrain. Also, gravel bikes do have eyelets for racks to carry luggage and mudguards to keep riders dry.
The frame geometry, the angles, and lengths of the tubes determine how the bike handles, and there are significant differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes. A cyclocross frame will usually have a head tube of 72-73 degrees for quick turns, but a gravel bike will be set at a shallower degree for steadier handling.
The riding position of each bike is also different with longer head angles and shorter top tubes on gravel bikes in the upright position.
Had the Union Cycliste Internationale not given the okay in 2010 for cyclocross bikes to use disc brakes, the gravel category of bikes could never have happened.
Every gravel bike uses disc brakes which offer the advantage of stopping power and consistency in wet conditions and lousy surfaces as they are not affected by rim damage. This is a huge advantage over cantilever brakes.
Some cyclocross bikes are still available with cantilever brakes, but cyclocross bikes are normally found with disk brakes today.
The Pros and Cons of Using a Gravel Bike in Cyclocross
One con of gravel bikes, as we have seen, is larger and heavier than cyclocross bikes, and these factors are important to consider because not only will a lighter bike handle differently, there are times during the race when the bike must be carried.
However, the above is the only con of a gravel bike that has been altered as the geometry of a gravel bike makes it ideal for riding over the rough terrain associated with a cyclocross course.
After alterations, the pros include weight and size that have been turned from a disadvantage into an advantage.
With the addition of thinner tires comes increased control of the bike over sand, mud, and nearly every impossible terrain.
Modern gravel bikes place the rider in an aggressive stance for an aerodynamically efficient transfer of power from the rider to the drivetrain. Also, adding pedals that will allow for a better grip will minimize the chances of slipping from the pedals and stopping the bike or causing injury.
To achieve a lighter weight, a modern gravel bike uses high-strength materials like aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium to form its frame.
Choosing the Correct Pedals and Shoes for the Cyclocross
When racing cyclocross on a gravel bike, the type of shoes used on the pedals can either break or enhance their experiences. Cyclocross shoes have metal spikes that grip to slippery surfaces. Replacing rubber spikes for metal ones will give the best performance when mounting and dismounting.
Choosing the correct shoes for the long, arduous ride through the cyclocross course offers more stability when pumping the bicycle’s petals.
Pedals for cyclocross need to do all of the following functions:
- Provide a reliable connection with the bike for power and control. (No platform pedals)
- Be able to shed mud well
- Are able to deal with regular mounts and dismounts (ruling out clipless, single-sided gravel riding pedals).
Because of these needs, most riders choose to use a pedal system that is much like what is found on a mountain bike.
Clearly, there are a lot of reasons to choose to use a gravel bike in a cyclocross event, and these include differences from bikes specifically made for the grueling courses of cyclocross are made smaller by some simple changes.
By changing out the thicker tires, bigger gears that accompany a gravel bike, plus removing anything that will add weight a gravel bike can compete well against cyclocross bicycles.
While it is highly recommended that a cyclocross bike is used to compete on the mud-soaked hills and snowy roads of the cyclocross race, gravel bikes will do fine.