There is a very good reason why gravel became so popular in a short amount of time. The gravelbike is probably the most versatile bike one could ever own. No longer restricted to the paved roads like on a roadbike, and significantly faster than a mountainbike. The riding position of a gravelbike is also more comparable (roughly speaking) to a roadbike than a mountainbike, creating a seamless transition between riding the skinny-tired speed machines in the summer and the gravel-grinders in the winter.
Before the term “gravelbike” became popular, riders who prefer riding off-road on a roadbike geometry chose a crossbike to cover their winter rides. The geometry of a crossbike is also similar to a roadbike, but there are a few small differences that make a huge impact in how the bike will handle and feel.
First of all, tire clearance: Cross bikes are designed to accommodate a 33mm tire, following UCI cyclocross regulation. Larger tires are possible to be mounted on most crossbikes, but the clearance for 40mm+ usually isn’t there. As we know, extra tire under you means a more comfortable ride, and when on the rough gravel for hours on end, size does matter.
Up front, the headtube angle and trail of the front wheel are different between the two bikes. A cyclocross bike has a steep headtube and a shorter trail (distance from where your hub intersects with the ground compared to where your headtube intersects with the ground), and therefore feels more “nervous” in the corners. Although it allows fast, tight cornering, a cyclocross course and a gravel route have two different designs. Gravelbikes will be more stable and comfortable in their element along long, gravel sections. The steering feels more relaxed and the ride is smoother.
Another big difference is the bottom bracket height. The higher the bottom bracket, the more clearance your pedals will have when cornering (or bunny-hopping the barriers). When we raise the bottom bracket of a crossbike, we also raise the rider’s center of gravity, creating a bit of instability. Gravelbikes normally have lower bottom brackets, closer to that of a road bike, which make them feel more stable at speed.
Crossbikes have a specific purpose and if you like fast cornering at high speeds, enjoy an occasional bunnyhop and working your way through mud and loose sand, a crossbike geometry will put a smile on your face as you “tame the beast” in the winter. If you haven’t decided yet, make sure to stop in at your local bike shop and ask about their advice based on your riding preferences. Gravelbikes these days have something for everyone, from more relaxed riding gravelbikes with 650b wheelsets to a race-ready gravelbike, designed to fly over hard gravel and corner as quick as a pro. Anyway, outside is free and any of those bikes can get you off of the road and into the field!