CYCLOCROSS VS GRAVEL
When South African cyclists chat about riding drop bars off-road, they generally use the word ‘cyclocross’. And as a generic term, that would have been fine – up until the recent emergence of ‘gravel’ or ‘adventure’ riding.
In fact, cyclocross is quite narrowly defined: as a lap race (much like cross- county MTBing) that takes place on mixed terrain. The premier CX World Cup season runs from October to March, and is governed by strict rules set out by the UCI – maximum tyre size, for instance, is 33C.
To ensure razor-sharp handling and lightning- quick acceleration, CX racers typically tend to favour aggressive frame geometries and short wheelbases. As races are held during the Northern Hemisphere’s often wet and muddy winter months, modern riders opt for disc brakes and 1x drivetrains for maximum performance.
Uniquely to cyclocross, on most tracks riders are forced to dismount and shoulder their bikes to overcome obstacles. This element was introduced in the early 1900s, to help circulate warm blood to racers’ feet and toes in Europe’s freezing winter months, as well as exercising other muscle groups.
While CX hinges on competitive racing, ‘gravel’ or ‘adventure’ riding is about exploration and, well, adventure; which is made possible by the versatility of being able to switch effortlessly between on- and off-road riding, ideally on the same ride.
There is a large and growing spectrum of fast-rolling gravel bikes available, ranging from racy CX-style set-ups such as Santa Cruz’s Stigmata, to more adventure-type styles, as seen in Specialized’s Sequoia. Even further towards the ‘non-racing’ end are touring bikes (such as SOMA’s Saga), which are tough, durable and able to carry big loads, allowing fully self-supported trips.
Focusing on flexibility and the overall experience, as opposed to simply going as fast as possible, the gravel bike generally offers big tyre clearance (ideally, 38C and above), stable geometry with a longer wheelbase, and a comfortable riding position. This allows riders to tackle tame singletracks as well as riding comfortably for many hours.
In the South African cycling context, unless you’re sticking strictly to wellgroomed district roads we’d suggest opting for a versatile gravel bike, rather than an aggressive, race-specific CX machine.