The line between cyclocross and gravel is quite convoluted. And with good reason.
There have been cases where a good cyclocross setup made for a great gravel riding experience.
And now we have people asking whether the opposite can also be true.
To answer it simply: yes you can.
But there exists certain subtle differences between these environments which call for small changes in your cycling components to bring about a more efficient riding experience.
The cycling component that we will be discussing in this article is perhaps the most important one: The Tires.
While mostly the same for both cyclocross and gravel, the two areas where slight differences can be seen in tire traits are in the:
- Tire Dimensions
- Tread Design
But before we dive deeper, it is good to know, or remember:
What are they for?
It is essentially a race that goes on from anywhere between 30 to 90 minutes. It is high impact and aggressive and over a predetermined track (mud, creek, steep slopes, hard pack, etc.), through some of which you may have to carry your bike altogether.
And since it is a race, it is all about going fast.
Meaning you will know what you and your bike will be getting into and thus make preparations accordingly. Namely your frame, tires, wheels and even gears if you are serious enough. But most importantly, you will be looking to make them lightweight (but durable enough) and according to race specifications.
Thus cyclocross tires are more similar to that of your typical road tires.
Gravel riding is more of an adventure. It entails riding for long hours, maybe even all-day riding, of the beaten path.
The terrain that you will experience on your gravel excursion will be mixed and unpredictable. Meaning you have to gear up your bike with something heavy hand durable before you set off.
Gravel tracks are more one with nature being rocky, muddy or just full of roots, making their designated tires to be more of the MTB variety.
With that out of the way, we can focus on the many features of tires of the two disciplines that sets them apart from each other.
Cyclocross Tires VS Gravel Tires
1. Tire Sizes
Like many road bikes, the 700c is, and has always been, the preferred tire diameter for cyclocross.
While some companies are experimenting with the smaller 650b sizes, their use in bigger competitions are few and too far in between, often being used only by cyclists with smaller statures or just for experimentation.
Our main focus point, however, is on the tire width. The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) has restricted tire widths to be always at the 33mm mark, or under it.
So if you are looking to get a bit more tire-to-ground surface area, or just more air volume for a more comfortable ride, you are a bit out of luck there.
Still though, the 33mm width is substantial when compared to the average road tire.
On a positive note, most cyclocross bike manufacturers have frames designed to optimize this rim width.
The adventure that is gravel riding offers more versatility when it comes to frame and tire compatibility, design and dimensions.
Similar to cyclocross, gravel tires commonly come in 700c diameters, or 29ers as the MTB crew would say. 29ers usually offer up wider rims for a greater range of tire widths, which will come in handy since there are no restrictions in gravel riding.
You can also rock 650b tires if you are looking for even more comfort.
Whichever tire you choose, your main focus should be around the clearance space between your tires and the front fork and back triangle of your bike frame.
While mud may not really be a problem, having some mud clearance always goes a long way, and gravel bike manufacturers take that into account.
More clearance also means that you can sport fat tires on your wheels that can go above 40mm of width, preferably on a 650b.
The crux of our debate lies in the gripping prowess of the tires.
A very hard topic to tackle nonetheless as tread type and design depends on the track you are riding on, and both cyclocross and gravel have a variety of those. And riders of both disciplines love to experiment with these.
But as a general rule of thumb, cyclocross tire treads generally tend to be aggressive in design and for riding fast. The knobs will be small and rounded to gain speed on solid terrain and also to provide enough traction in corners and turns.
You can, of course, look at taller knobs if you know the track will be muddy (an advantage of preparation).
These tires will also be made of a softer rubber compound to provide that little bit of traction required.
Gravel tires are generally made to be tougher for the longer riding periods and unpredictable terrain. These tires, more often than not, have to tackle rocks and roots and thus are made of a tougher rubber compound.
As for tread design, a harsher terrain is always in the mind of the designer. Since the tires tend to be wider than the cyclocross counterpart, the grip surface area is not an issue, most of the time.
Thus the treads tend to be small and densely packed in the center section to provide enough traction and also reduce rolling resistance. That, in addition to, decent side knobs will see you turn corners with ease.
Let’s Not Forget Tire Types
For both disciplines, cyclists usually go for low pressures for more comfort and traction. While this low pressure can be achieved in any type of tire, tubeless and tubulars just do it better.
On top of that, due to rough terrains, there is a higher chance for tube flats to occur on a tubed/clincher tire. Thus they are rarely seen in these disciplines.
But the tubeless is a regular in both cyclocross and gravel. Their puncture resistance and ability to run pressures as low as 20psi, makes them a perfect fit for either discipline.
On higher levels of competition, however, tubulars are a common entry for the lightweight and sturdy competitive edge that they provide.
But this occurs only in cyclocross, as gravel is seen to be a more casual discipline and does not warrant such a high investment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) Are cyclocross bikes good for road riding?
Ans.: Definitely yes. CX bikes are a hybrid that very closely resembles the typical road bike.
But you will feel some, mostly subtle, changes in your riding experience compared to a regular road bike, especially if you already use them.
- It may seem heavier with certain durable components that are added. The frame and tires in general.
- CX bikes tend to have higher bottom brackets and longer wheelbases. This design comes with mud clearance in mind.
Q2) Can I put road tires on my cyclocross bike?
Ans.: Yes. Like most road bikes, cyclocross bikes commonly run 700c wheels. So any road tire can easily fit on to the CX bike.
But be careful when riding road tires on a cyclocross track, as CX tires are generally wider and more rugged and designed for a more challenging terrain, which cannot be easily overcome by a regular road tire.
To summarize, the purpose that cyclocross tires can fulfill can seem very narrow when compared to the gravel tires’ all-round versatility.
Cyclocross tires have only speed in mind and thus used mostly for races and competitions. On the other hand, the gravel tires focus on durability and comfort for its long rides.
Either way, the differences are practically subtle and you can easily mistake one for the other.
But with advances in technology, we may see a wider rift between them in terms of performance and overall riding experience for their respective disciplines in the near future.