Adventure riding is exploding in popularity. Modern bikes based around this idea are opening up the sport we love to a broader market, removing the traffic barriers that had previously discouraged many riders from the sport. Regardless of whether you're into bike packing, riding a day-long adventure, ripping around a sandpit in a skin suit or exploring a flowing single track section on drop bars, there's seemingly a bike to suit every need.
While some may argue that a gravel bike is suitable for everything from road riding to cross racing, in reality, a bike such as this is best described as a jack of all trades and a master of none. So what makes these bikes different from their more refined stablemates? In this video, we'll take you through the differences between a gravel bike, endurance road bike and a cyclocross bikes, detailing how they differ from each other and the area's they excel in.
Gravel Riding Explained
Gravel bikes are incredibly versatile, borrowing elements from road, mountain and cyclocross bikes to create an all-encompassing option for people that just want one bike in the shed.
The term gravel riding is rather broad; however, subcategories within the discipline are starting to develop. These being gravel racing bikes, more suited to fast, gravel roads and races such as Dirty Kanza, and Adventure gravel bikes, which lean more towards a mountain bike. The latter is better suited to more technical singletrack with dropper seatposts, wider tyres, a choice of wheelset sizes offered. We'll dive into the differences in more detail later on in this article.
Endurance Road Bikes
Endurance Road bikes are versatile but have a narrower focus than gravel bikes. These bikes are closest to gravel bikes with a relaxed geometry, disc brakes and low-end gear ratios, but are not as well equipped to tackle off-road surfaces.
To try and remove the fatigue caused to the riders by road vibration, 'endurance' bikes were created with built-in compliance and greater clearance to allow for larger, more shock-absorbing tyres.
As well as these specific technologies, almost all endurance bikes will have greater clearance in the fork and rear triangle to allow for wider tyres. Using wider tyres has many advantages, which is why there has been an industry-wide shift towards them in recent years. Most endurance bikes will come standard with 28mm tyres, in some cases more.
Road Bike Features and Geometry
Endurance bikes aim to put the rider in a more upright position. The headtube and wheelbase are longer, the frame reach is reduced, and the frame stack is increased.
This combination creates less aggressive positioning, making it easier for riders to travel long distances without stressing their back, shoulders, neck and hamstrings. The positioning requires less flexibility which is a good thing given the majority of us would have trouble touching our toes.
Endurance road bikes will typically have a compact drivetrain set-up, greater clearance allowing for bigger tyres, and additional vibration damping mechanisms to smooth out the road further.
To learn more about road bikes, read our ultimate guide to buying a road bike article.
Cyclocross is a short, intense form of bike racing that was created to allow riders to continue racing over cold European winters. Commonly referred to as 'CX', 'cross is run in all weather conditions no matter how bad. It's common to see races conducted over snow, dirt and sand, as well as a myriad of obstacles including jumps, stairs, rocks and incredibly steep hills.
Cyclocross bikes have the most in common with gravel bikes, but there are some subtle differences. Simply put, they're a more aggressive form of a gravel bike. Both bikes are versatile, adaptable and durable, but gravel bikes promote greater comfort and adventure.
Frame and Geometry
The frame materials used for cyclocross bikes are the same as road and mountain bikes, commonly made from either carbon fibre, aluminium, titanium, steel or a combination of these materials.
Two main design aspects of the geometry that differ from road or gravel bikes are the headtube angle and bottom bracket height.
The slacker head tube angle provides riders with greater control descending and at lower speeds than a steep angle would. Due to cyclocross circuits being full of obstacles and technical, speed will rarely be comparable to road racing, so control at low speed is crucial.
A second design change is a raised bottom bracket area to manage obstacles better. As well as clearing obstacles easier, the higher bottom bracket area allows riders to pedal through corners. This does, however, raise a rider's centre of gravity, potentially making handling the bike more difficult. For this reason, many riders will lower their seat height by 1cm or so to counter the change.
Both gravel and cyclocross bikes have large tyres. However, due to the UCI regulations (the sports governing body), cyclocross bikes are limited to a 33mm tyre width. In contrast, gravel bike tyres can be much larger.
For more on CX bikes, check out our ultimate guide to buying a cyclocross bike.
Gravel bikes, sometimes also referred to as adventure bikes, are essentially bicycles designed to tackle a variety of surfaces, carry additional gear and are suitable for all-day riding on roads less travelled. They are made to be more durable and robust than a standard road bike, along with having an increased gear range and space for far wider tyres.
They are robust, comfortable and often can carry luggage making them ideal for light touring adventures or for those longer and faster commutes. However, the true purpose of gravel bikes sit with a new cycling discipline called gravel grinding, this effectively sees road-type riding taken away from traffic and off the sealed road. Visually, they bare a striking resemblance to cyclocross bikes. Still, there are some subtle differences to note in the geometry, and componentry fitted.
Gravel Bike Frames & Geometry
To start with the geometry of a gravel bike is targeted at creating stability and comfort. A long wheelbase helps provide stability on loose surfaces and over long distances. The headtube is considered 'tall', and in association with a shorter top tube, puts the rider in a more upright position for improved comfort on touring adventures and better vision when commuting. The headtube angle is 'slack', which performs better at slow speeds and doesn't give a 'twitchy' feeling like some performance road bikes.
The frame is more substantial than a road bike to enhance durability. It also accepts any extra load from frame bags if you plan on doing any light touring. There are also eyelets for mudguards, additional bidon cages and bike bags to be mounted.
Gravel bikes use large tyres over 35mm, and often up to 50mm to improve comfort, grip, and stability. They are also commonly able to accept both 700c and 650b sized wheelsets.
The frame needs to have considerable clearance to accommodate these wheel and tyre combinations, which is assisted by the use of disc brakes. Not only do disc brakes remove the need for rim-brake callipers from the frame, creating increased tyre clearance, they also provide better control and performance in wet weather conditions.
Gear selection is targeted at slower speeds with greater range, sacrificing some top-end ratios to provide more options for conquering steep and loose climbs.
So Which Bike is Best for Me?
If you're in the market for any new bike, as always the question you need to ask yourself is "what type of terrain am I likely to ride".
If your local surrounds primarily feature tarmac roads, in varying conditions from hot mix through to rough chip-seal roads and mild gravel, an endurance road bike is for you. However, if you're only interested in racing, with the odd excursion along a fire road, a cyclocross bike is going to suit you well. On the other hand, if you want one bike that's adept at the above tasks, versatile enough to handle more technical trail, and rugged enough for bike packing duties, then a gravel bike is our pick.
If you're still unsure, don't be afraid to contact your local bike shop about upcoming demo days, and get a feel for which style you enjoy the most.