The Roots of Gravel

The roots of gravel riding are said to be planted in the mud of cyclocross racing. We highlight the differences between gravel versus cross riding.

Pearson Cyclocross Ian Jewell

Gravel bikes have been borne out of an amalgamation of a variety of riding disciplines, all forged together to form a machine able to handle hugely varied terrain. A lot of the influence comes from the humble ‘cross bike’, alongside a good dollop of what mountain bikes have been bringing to the market since the early 80s.

Cyclocross in this country would be considered a minority or niche sport by the general public. A one hour, off-road tear up around a course that resembles a steeplechase, on a flimsy looking racer with nobbles on the tyres is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

Pearson Wout Van Aert Mathieu Van Der Poel

Van der Poel and Van Aert also battle in video games when off-bike. 

But in learned circles (and all of Belgium and Holland), it makes for the most compelling and fascinating sport - a travelling circus of drama and intrigue that attracts huge fields of competitors and largely inebriated fans.

Even in this winter’s reduced racing season, we have been witness to masterful displays between famous rivals (in cross circles), Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel and Belgian Wout van Aert, as well as gracious head-to-head sparring between Lucinda Brand and Ceylin Alvarado, seen below. 

Pearson Lucinda Brand Ceylin Carmen Alvarado Cyclocross

All this said, the bike that these gladiatorial heroes ride has never been particularly good for the average rider who needed an alternative to a lightweight road racer. Its 33mm tyres might be grippier than their road-going counterparts but are still too thin to offer real traction or even comfort while off-road.

The big difference is in the frame itself. Despite being light enough to shoulder one while running up a muddy bank or jumping over a hurdle, they are short in their wheelbase and low at the front. The pedal clearance is high off the ground and frame angles (the head and seat tubes) are steep. 

Pearson Cyclocross Wilf Sinclair London League

 Pearson manager Wilf Sinclair gracing a hurdle in the London League.

This all adds up to a relatively twitchy and less comfortable ride for longer distances. The bikes rarely offer fittings such as mudguard or rack fittings and some won’t have bosses to take a bottle holder. If you have time to drink in a race you are not trying hard enough!

Pearson Off Grid Carbon Gravel Bike

Then came the gravel bike. As well as from ’cross bikes they take influences from all sorts of others, such as mountain bikes and fast hybrid bikes; gearing and brake technology is a meeting of road and mountain bike tech.

Single chainsets combined with a broad range of rear gearing (typically 40t x 11/42t), and rear derailleurs with clutches to reduce chain slap, means they are low maintenance, easy to clean and reliable.

Pearson off grid gravel bike GRX gearing rear mech cassette

The usual culprits have designed specialist gravel groupsets, SRAM AXS 12-speed, Shimano GRX 11 speed, and now Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed to enhance user experience and tackle all conditions and routes.

Tyres are usually tubeless, filled with a sealant capable of plugging most minor punctures. These can run at pressures ranging from 60psi for road, down to 20psi for extra traction when on unmade surfaces. 

Gravel bikes are comfortable and nimble to ride off road both at pace or at leisure. When on road they feel safely planted and surprisingly fast, perfect when connecting gravel sections. Most riders profess to be less than 10% off their usual road speeds.

The result? Gravel bikes can handle virtually everything and do it well to boot. Long rides over mixed terrain, short blasts into town, and multi-day tours with a ‘no track too tough’ attitude.

View the Pearson range of gravel bikes here >

Use our Strava gravel routes here >


1 comment

Good read and nice to see Ian back in the day. The other obvious difference is cross bikes being limited to 33mm tyres due to U.C.I. regulations. Obviously gravel bikes aren’t subject to this.
Alan Honeyman February 08, 2021

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