XC bike vs. Gravel bike: what’s the difference between them

XC bike vs. Gravel bike what’s the difference between them.

At first glance, it’s hard to tell the difference between XC bike vs. Gravel bike. Both have wider handlebars, knobby tires, rigid frames, and wider tire clearance than a road bike. You can also check all-road bike vs gravel bike for your reference.

While the bikes look very similar, the needs of an XC bike and a Gravel bike are very different.

So what’s the difference?

In this article, we analyze the key differences between XC bike vs. Gravel bike, learn what they are specifically designed for, and consider which is best suited for off-road riding pursuits.

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    XC bike vs. Gravel bike: introduction

    The difference between XC bike vs. Gravel bike in terms of riding usage is that the XC bike is specifically designed for racing and about an hour of full speed and high intensity riding, while the Gravel bike is designed for days rather than an hour or so of riding and is suitable for tackling rougher trails.

    The trend in XC bikes is to be more specialized, but at the expense of luggage racks and fender mounts.

    Before the Gravel bike, with the advent of disc brakes, some bike brands offered XC bikes, which added some extra versatility, including fenders and rack mounts.

    However, with the advent of the Gravel bike and its inherent versatility, many of the latest XC bikes have refocused on CX racing.

    Now let’s take a closer look at the main differences between XC bike vs. Gravel bike, including geometry, tires and tire clearance, gearing, mounts, finishing kits, and more.

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike

    What is a XC bike(cross-country mountain bike)?

    The best way to tell the difference between XC bike vs. Gravel bike is to understand what they are used for.

    The best XC bikes are race bikes, designed for about an hour of full-on, high-intensity riding. Maneuverability on tight, twisting cross courses is key, so road cross riders need sharp steering and, in many cases, an aggressive riding position.

    Specific rules from the UCI, which governs professional racing, also dictate how XC bikes are built. Gravel bikes are not subject to such UCI rules, at least for now.

    For example, riders competing in UCI-sanctioned drag races must use tyres no wider than 33 mm, so cross-country mountain bikes rarely offer clearance beyond that.

    What is a XC bike(cross-country mountain bike)

    What is a Gravel bike?

    Gravel bikes are a popular choice for cycling. Unlike XC bikes, Gravel bikes are often designed for a variety of uses, from multi-day bike journey adventures to multi-terrain explorations closer to home, or even the emerging Gravel bike racing scene.

    As a result, gravel bikes are far reaching and used for a wide variety of rides, while the best Gravel bikes share some key features, they tend to be less uniform in design than XC bikes.

    What is a Gravel bike

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike: what are the differences?

    Differences in geometry

    Cyclocross races usually take place on tight, twisty courses and require a bike that handles fast.

    Most Gravel bikes have a more relaxed geometry than XC bikes, are designed for days of riding rather than an hour or so, and are suitable for dealing with rougher roads.

    This emphasis on comfort often leads to shorter reach and a more upright body position.

    Since gravel road riding usually reduces speed, aerodynamics are less important here. But that depends on the Gravel bike category we are talking about: Gravel race bikes, such as BMC Kaius, are a notable exception.

    The bottom bracket position relative to the ground also differs between XC bike vs. Gravel bike. Gravel bike geometry generally improves comfort and stability on a wide variety of terrains.

    A lower bottom bracket (BB) provides a Gravel bike with better stability on rough terrain and a lower standover height, which means it is easier to tap or get off the bike on technical terrain.

    A Gravel bike’s longer wheelbase also improves stability here as well as on steep descents, while the XC bike’s higher bottom bracket improves race ground clearance over obstacles.

    It also transfers the rider’s weight to the front of the bike, which provides a more direct steering response.

    The XC bike’s steeper head tube angle helps the rider get over the front wheel during aggressive riding.

    Finally, the looser head tube angle often found on Gravel bikes is more similar to a mountain bike than an XC bike, which is more similar to a road bike.

    A looser headtube angle improves off-road capability, so Gravel bike geometry on the more aggressive end of the spectrum will have a looser angle, while the more racey models will have a steeper headtube angle.

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike - Differences in geometry

    Differences in tire clearance

    Tubular tires designed for off-road racing are not well suited for Gravel bikes. Apart from geometry, tyres and tyre clearance are the biggest difference between XC bike vs. Gravel bike.

    At the pro level, XC bike tires can’t be wider than 33 mm, so XC bikes typically have relatively narrow tire clearances to accommodate these tires, and some mud chambers.

    XC bike tires range from ultra aggressive treads for mud to filleted treads for dry or summer off-road use, and tend to use softer compounds than Gravel bike tires, as they are designed for use on dry or summer off-road trails.

    Softer compounds because they are designed for grass and mud rather than harder surfaces such as tarmac.

    XC bike tires do not typically have the same level of puncture protection as Gravel bike tires and are designed to be lighter and softer for racing.

    The latest Gravel bike frames offer huge clearance for large tires, often up to 50 mm. Gravel bikes have wider tire clearance than XC bikes, and often come with gravel tires that are 40 mm or larger, and newer frames often have room for tires up to a couple of inches (about 50 mm) wider.

    These wider tires are not only critical for providing greater comfort on long rides, but they also allow the rider to tackle more technical terrain, such as roots and rocks, with lower tire pressures, reducing the risk of blowouts, especially when fitted with tubeless bike tyres.

    It’s worth noting that tubular tires have long been popular with off-road riders due to the reliability and flat protection they offer.

    However, tubeless bike tyres are also gaining popularity in the CX bike segment.

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike - Differences in tire clearance

    Differences in gearing

    Prior to the introduction of the single-tooth disc setup on the Gravel bike, single-tooth disc setups were common in cross-country bike gear.

    When it comes to Gravel bike setups and cross-country drivetrains, gear differences go right back to their different uses.

    In road cross-country racing, gear is needed to sprint and accelerate short climbs, as well as deal with muddy and draggy grass.

    That said, ultimately off-road racing requires a fairly narrow gear range.

    While 2x drivetrains have been the norm for years, most modern XC bikes come with a 1X drivetrain because it not only saves weight, but also reduces the number of moving parts that can be affected by mud build-up.

    However, some off-road racers still prefer a 2x setup. Since Gravel bikes are designed to be ridden on a wider range of terrain, from fast tarmac to mountain routes with loaded bike packs, a wider range of gears is required.

    The rise of the gravel bike has been accompanied by the emergence of gravel-specific kits, including the Shimano GRX.

    Depending on the rider’s preferences and the ratio of on-road to off-road riding they encounter, Gravel bikes are equipped with either 1x or 2x drivetrains.

    For less technical riders with more paved roads, a 2x drivetrain will usually offer larger gears so they don’t slip at high speeds.

    2x drivetrains can also offer simpler bottom gear, but this depends on the particular crankset and freewheel combination.

    However, the simplicity of a 1x setup is still very appealing to many gravel riders, and the advent of gravel-specific kits, including Shimano GRX , SRAM XPLR, and Campagnolo Ekar, means that there are now 1x drive options specifically tailored to the needs.

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike - Differences in gearing

    Differences in fenders and luggage racks

    Many Gravel bike frames come with racks and fenders.

    In contrast, most XC bikes designed purely for racing will not come with mounts for fenders, racks, or other luggage, and sometimes only tabs for individual water bottle holders (assuming only one bottle is needed in an hour).

    Fork mounts are common on Gravel bikes, but not on XC bikes. With the exception of some gravel racing bikes, Gravel bikes tend to be versatile.

    Look for multiple water bottle cage mounts, often with an extra unit under the downtube for a tool bucket or a third water bottle, as well as fork blade mounts for the cargo cage.

    Some frames also have “bento boxes” on the top tube for quick access to snacks. Some Gravel bikes can be fitted with full length fenders.

    Full fender mounts are also common on Gravel bikes, and many models offer frame mounts for front or rear racks with the right geometry.

    These are important features to keep in mind when planning a winter ride or equipping your bike with an adventure groupsets.

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike - Differences in fenders and luggage racks

    Differences in other kits

    Some riders prefer drop bars for gravel roads, and there are often some differences in kit between XC bike vs. Gravel bike. You can also check the e-bike conversion kits for your reference.

    UCI rules state that handlebars on cross-country bikes must not be larger than 50cm.

    Most bikes come with handlebars that are much narrower than this, in proportion to the rider’s size.

    Following the established trend for wider mountain bike handlebars, there is a growing trend for extra wide Gravel bike handlebars, sometimes exceeding the 50 cm limit for riders who prefer a wider, more stable position for more technical off-road riding.

    Drop bars allow better control of technical descents. For example, the PNS Components Coast cockpit is available in a 52cm option, providing extra-wide measurement at 60cm.

    XC bike vs. Gravel bike - Differences in other kits

    While XC bike handlebars tend to have a traditional drop, drop bars are common on gravel bikes.

    These bars vary from a very subtle flare to a very steep angle, which means the position in the drop is wider than on the hood, providing a more stable position for the drop.

    RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR is a Gravel bike suspension fork.

    Some Gravel bikes also feature bendable seatposts for improved comfort on long, bumpy rides, and a wide range of Gravel bike suspension options as well as lifting seatposts.

    Gravel bike suspension options range from minimalist travel built into rigid frames and forks, such as the Futureshock system on Speciaized DivergeGravel bikes, to a more stable position on the hood.

    Futureshock system on the Specialized DivergeGravel bike, full-featured Gravel bike-specific suspension forks such as the RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR with 30mm or 40mm travel.

    FAQs about XC bike vs. Gravel bike

    Yes. While tyre clearance can be a limiting factor in squeezing some of the thicker rubber into a track frame, many riders do choose to convert an XC bike for general track riding. In some cases, the geometric differences between XC bike vs. Gravel bike are minimal: for example, the 2022 Cannondale SuperSix EVO frame is available in two versions for gravel racing (SE) and off-road cycling (CX).


    Aftermarket components, such as flared handlebars, can be added to XC bikes to improve stability on rough roads. The drivetrain can always be adjusted if you find you need a wider range.

    In addition to UCI races, Gravel bikes will be available for off-road races. In most cases, it is absolutely fine to use a Gravel bike for off-road racing unless racing at UCI level, i.e. using tyres longer than 33 cm or bars wider than 50 cm. Local off-road leagues are often considered the easiest form of off-road racing to participate in, and everyone is encouraged to try almost any bike capable of off-roading.


    Don’t think you need to own a specific bike category to try it out. Many riders start with a mountain bike or similar bike.

    The most important thing to consider if you plan to use a Gravel bike for off-road racing is the tires.

    If racing in muddy and wet conditions, it may be necessary to change tires to more aggressive treads for good grip on the slopes. The most important thing is to have fun riding!

    Hi, I'm an experienced writer about mechanic and an expert on bike and e-bike tech who appreciates practical, beautifully-engineered things. And of course, I love cycling.
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    SAMEBIKE electric bike blog, where you will find all articles about cycling tips, as well as some reviews and newsletters about e-bikes.



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