CY­CLOCROSS VS GRAVEL

Bicycling (South Africa) - - STORIES - - Oli Munnik, Gear Ed­i­tor

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.

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