Confusing terminology for off-road bikes

19. February 2020

Foto: Trek Bikes

What is the difference between a cross bike, cyclo-cross bike, endurance racer and gravel bike? An attempt to provide guidance.

We Swiss have long been familiar with cross bikes, the World Series is now called the Cyclo-cross World Cup, and the term gravel bike is also more and more frequently found in the catalogues of manufacturers. They all basically mean the same thing - an off-road racing bike or bike with wide tyres.

What is special about this type of subset is that it uses the curved handlebars of the street racing scene and not a straight one, as is common in mountain biking. And that the tires are wider than those on common racing bikes. That, however, is where the distinction ends. But first things first.

Designed for racing

Cross bikes originally consisted of a thoroughbred road bike frame with racing handlebars. The only difference between them and the classic road bikes was the wider tyres with a coarser profile to prevent skidding on bends in mud. Special frames were soon built, which gave the chunky tyres enough space and ensured the dirt didn’t stick.

With the boom in mountain bikes at the end of the 80s, the mass sport was also lured into off-road terrain. Off-road enthusiasts began to prefer rougher and rougher terrain. At first, this required very wide tyres, smaller wheels, straight handlebars and more gears with three front chainrings, then came front suspension, rear suspension, and more suspension all over. Mountain bikes were triumphantly paving the way. Aluminium superseded steel, then carbon aluminium.

Cross bikes remained traditional

The diversification of mountain bikes continued to advance to the point that there is now a suitable subset for each specific use. To say nothing of the e-bike boom. The puristic build of the cross bike, on the other hand, remained the same and was predominantly designed for racing. The most important key features: 28-inch wheels, a quite steep steering angle for manoeuvrability, a relatively sporty sitting position with the weight on the front wheel and a higher bottom bracket to be able to pedal through the bends. And rather narrow studded tyres, which is stipulated by the regulations in a competition. At official cross bike or cyclo-cross races, the tyres must not be wider than 33 mm.

New potential in mass sports

The development in the mass sports segment is completely different. Here, the manufacturers recognised that in the off-road segment there was a gap to fill between the puristic cross bikes and cyclo-cross bikes built for racing and the chunky mountain bikes with endless spring deflection and fat 2.8-inch tyres. Because in non-high alpine terrain and away from specially designed trails, i.e. where an estimated 70 percent of all mountain bikers predominantly cycle, you can also make good and, above all, significantly faster progress with sporty but slimmed-down off-road subsets.

The new specifications for «cross bikes» were more comfort in the cycling behaviour and sitting position, more security when braking, and special frame constructions for the installation of wider tyres. The industry was extremely creative when applying the specifications, and the range of «wide tyre racing bikes» became increasingly diverse.

The wheelbase became longer again and the bottom bracket somewhat deeper. As in the case of mountain bikes, the materials became finer and lighter, and the visual appearance now ranges from discreet to shrill. Disc brakes became commonplace, which triggered other adjustments, similar to a domino effect. Because in order to withstand pressure in the axle and become more torsion-resistant, the thru axle also became standard along with the disc brakes. However, this means that there is no quick release, which can be used on tours to attach luggage racks. And this, in turn, opened the doors for a new trend that has captured the scene: bikepacking. Bikepacking is when you go touring for two or three days on a sleek off-road bike without a backpack or classic tour bags but mount the bags directly on the bike under the saddle, between the frame or on the front of the handlebars.

Between deep mud and gravel

The range today stretches from thoroughbred and ultra-light cross racers to comfortable gravel touring bikes with hub dynamos, mudguards and suspension systems on the forks or stem. Depending on the design, they are aimed at mountain bikers who would like to afford an alternative model for moderate off-road terrain or amateur road racing cyclists who would also like to dash along field paths now and again. Or the new buyer, who is looking for an all-purpose bike and doesn’t want to use it exclusively on the road.

In addition to the common cross bike and cyclo-cross terms, the creativity of marketing departments quickly gave rise to adventurous neologisms such as gravel bike, all-road, new-road or even endurance. There is no defined distinction between the terms. Only the racing handlebars are (still) common to all. The individual terms do not stand for a strictly regulated bike category, but rather for the needs, experiences and areas of use that the industry wants to meet with the individual categories.